Getting to the root of clogged water line A drain pipe becomes a steady source of water for a tree


October 26, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie & Randy Johnson

IT WASN'T the dog fur, or the dryer lint, or the scraps from laundering the rag rugs that clogged up the main drain leading from Karol's house to the sewer connection at the street.

"Aaarrggh! What is that?" she asked, as, after an hour or so of work, the plumber held up a black, hairy, tangled object about 6 feet long.

"It's a tree root," he said, with an air of quiet triumph.

"That's terrifying," she said.

"This is nothing," he said, shaking the offending object. "I've spent as much as nine hours cutting tree roots out of a drain."

It was Karol's first encounter with root-blocked drains, possibly because she doesn't have a big family and doesn't use a lot of water, but it's a common problem, said Terry King, supervisor at Roto-Rooter of Baltimore. What's more, King said, "Once you have tree roots in your sewer line, you always have tree roots in your sewer line. When Roto-Rooter comes out to saw out those roots, it's like mowing the lawn."

Water lines, King said, are a major source of water for trees. Particularly when the weather is dry -- as it was here most of the summer -- roots invade the lines and soak up the moisture.

That's why, King said, older people and single people may not notice for a long time that there's a problem with the sewer line; they don't use enough water to overwhelm an impaired system.

"You put a family of four in that same house and they'd have trouble in a week," he said.

In the past 15 years, King said, most sewer lines have been made of PVC plastic. Lines laid before that are, for the most part, terra cotta.

The terra cotta pipe comes in 3-foot sections that are basically jammed together. The joints are prime entry points for roots. PVC pipe comes in 15-foot-long sections and the joints are glued together.

Not only is it more impervious to roots, there are fewer joints to attack. Terra cotta is also vulnerable to ground shifts that can cause it to crack.

There's no permanent solution to tree roots in the terra cotta, except digging up the old line and replacing it with PVC.

Depending on the depth of the line, the distance to the street connection and the number of impediments, such as trees, fences or sidewalks, in the way, replacing the pipe can cost a few thousand dollars.

Sometimes it isn't necessary to replace the entire line, King said. Plumbers these days use cable-mounted TV cameras that can be threaded through a line to give an accurate picture of just what is happening in there. Another cable-mounted device can be threaded through the line until it hits an impediment, and a line detector on the surface can pinpoint that spot.

Karol's plumber advised using a copper sulfate "root destroyer" in the sewer line.

Its heavy crystals, poured in every six months, lie in the crevices and cracks of the terra cotta and kill roots up to several inches from the pipe. He promised it wouldn't hurt the trees. But it's not a cure for the root problem, King said; it only slows it down.

King said some symptoms of sewer line blockage show up first nearest the lowest point where the line enters the house.

If you have a basement toilet, it will start bubbling, or it may overflow when water is used upstairs. A basement shower will begin holding water instead of draining properly. If you don't have a basement bath, trouble may show up first in a laundry tub that backs up.

If you notice any of these problems, it's time to take action. And, King said, if you find the basement laundry tub or toilet pouring water when you're not using water in the upstairs, "call the city or county ASAP" because the main line in the street is blocked.

Of course, not all slow drains are caused by tree root blockages -- sometimes the pipe is simply clogged.

You can help prevent clogs by using a sink strainer to trap food particles and hair.

To help keep grease from building up, pour a tea kettle of boiling water down the drain once a week to melt it away. Putting vinegar or baking soda in the drain can also help break down fat and keep the drains smelling fresh.

If you do get a clog, the first tool to go for is the plunger. You may have to cover the drain overflow to get enough pressure in the drain with the plunger.

If the plunger doesn't break up the clog, you might want to try a commercial drain cleaner.

Follow the directions carefully, and keep the product out of your eyes, off your skin and away from children and pets. If you have young children, keep the stuff locked up, or buy only what you will use immediately.

As a last resort before calling a plumber, you may buy or rent a device known as a snake -- a metal cable that threads through pipes and pushes out clogs.

Be sure to use a snake that is the right size for your pipes. Flushing the line with a garden hose may help clear the clog.

Take out the snake, seal the area where the hose goes into the pipe (duct tape works well or you can wrap it in an old rug). However, if you have old cast-iron pipes, you may not want to touch them, because the snake could damage them.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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