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How to Dodge, Detect and Deal with a Clogged Sewer Drain

by BROOKE GOLD HASSON | Dec 22, 2014

WashingMachineFlood2-300x250Have you ever come home from a long day to find your bathroom or kitchen flooded with dirty wastewater?

One of the most frustrating things a homeowner can experience is water overflow caused by a clogged sewer, whether it takes place in the bathroom, the kitchen or even the laundry room. But what causes sewer backups and what can we do to minimize overflow damage?

Prevent Sewer Backups

Paying attention to what we flush down toilets and sinks can prevent most backups. While watching unwanted items disappear down a toilet, sink or even bathtub drain may seem like an easy disposal solution, it can cause substantial long-term damage to your home’s plumbing.

We know the common, and rather obvious, items that should not be flushed down the drain, such as paper towels, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, and plastic bags. However, there are a several ‘unflushables’ that many homeowners may not be aware of, including:

  • Large quantities of rice, corn, oatmeal, or cereal – These substances swell with water and expand in your pipes.
  • Fat, oil and grease – These materials cause a wax-like buildup that may reduce a pipe’s diameter and slow water flow down the drain.
  • Pieces of partially dissolved scouring pads and sponges – These items expand slightly when combined with water and have the potential to block lines.
  • Bathroom wipes (also known as “moist towelettes” or “adult baby wipes”). Unlike regular toilet paper, bathroom wipes do not decompose once they are flushed into the sewer system, and have the potential to build up in your plumbing.
  • Cat litter – While often marketed as “flushable,” cat litter typically contains lime and sodium bentonite, two agents that cause it to clump. Clumps quickly turn into clogs and kitty is not happy with wet feet from flooding.
  • Band-Aids, cotton balls and swabs – When combined with water, these items disintegrate, turning into small fibers that tangle and snag sewer lines.
  • Dental floss – Floss tends to tangle and create masses that block the flow of water in sewer lines.

Get Rid of Water

The first thing you should do after discovering a clogged drain is get rid of any water in plumbing lines to reduce potential overflow damage. For example, you don’t want to continue to flush a clogged toilet, as it may overflow and flood the bathroom, potentially resulting in some serious repair expenses.

For minor clogs caused by small items such as toilet paper, hair or pieces of food, a plunger will usually do the trick. However, if the blockage does not ease up after a few plunges, the problem may exist deeper in the drain line, which will most likely require a plumber to fix.

Washing machines can become your worst enemy when you have a backed up drain. Why is this? Washing machines typically use 15 to 20 gallons of water per load cycle, which, if combined with a sewage backup, can overflow into your bathroom plumbing, causing significant flooding.

If you think your home is suffering from a clogged plumbing system, be careful when operating your washing machine, and immediately turn off water at the main line as soon as you notice your washing machine beginning to overflow.

Emptying Clogged Sewer Cleanouts

The average home includes two sewer cleanouts. One is located near the foundation of the house and the other is located near the property line.

When inspecting for blockages in your sewer line, first check the cleanout next to your house to see if it has water in it. To open the cleanout valve, loosen the cap with a large pipe wrench and turn slowly to control water flow.

If the cleanout is empty, the blockage exists somewhere in the house plumbing. If there is standing water, this may indicate that the backup is in the sewer line connecting the house to the main line.

If you find water standing in a cleanout near your property line, we recommend suspending the use of water utilities and contacting your local Wastewater Division immediately.