Sewage Backups: Common Causes, Prevention and Cleanup
Arguably one of the most unsavoury things a homeowner may have the misfortune to endure is a sewage backup.
A sewage backup can occur if there is a blockage or damage in the sewer line that obstructs the wastewater flowing from your home to the municipal sewer line on your property boundary.
The obstructed or restricted flow can cause wastewater flowing from the home to build up in the pipes and eventually back up, resulting in overflows at your drains, or in worst-case scenario water overflowing from the toilet bowl inside your home.
Many aged sewer lines can also be damaged allowing large volumes of storm or rainwater to flow into the sewage line leading to the city sewer connection. This large surge of water can certainly cause sewage backups into the home or basement of the home.
As one can imagine, this can be very messy, rather smelly, and is generally not very pleasant and best avoided.
The tips below will arm you with the knowledge to help you prevent a sewage backup in the first place, and also provide vital information on how to mop up should the proverbial… $%& hit the fan.
What causes a sewage backup and how can you prevent it
Clogged drain pipes or sewage line
Clogged pipes are the most common cause of sewage backups.
When wastewater is flushed from your toilet, it passes through drain pipes that typically have one or more bends before it reaches the lateral sewer line running between your home and the municipal sewer line.
Solid waste that you flush down the toilet can snag at these bends and accumulate over time.
As the problem progresses, your toilet will not flush as readily and eventually, sewage may back up to the home resulting in a sewage overflow.
Solids can also accumulate in the sewage pipe (lateral sewage line) that connects your home to the municipal sewer service line, disrupting the wastewater flow from your home and preventing it from reaching the municipal sewer line.
As this surplus wastewater has to go somewhere, it backs up into your home instead of flowing away as it should.
Sewage lines can get blocked up when large amounts of fats and oils, coffee grounds, food waste or clumps of hair get washed down the drain or when thick wads of toilet paper, paper towels, personal hygiene products or other materials get flushed down the toilet and get stuck in the pipeline.
If you are experiencing other drainage problems, such as sink water not draining or gurgling noises coming from the drain, then it’s very likely that your problem lies in a blocked pipe in your lateral sewage line.
To prevent your drain from becoming clogged, you would be well advised to keep sinks, drains and toilets clean and to avoid flushing products that could potentially cause a blockage in your system.
Only flush toilet paper down the toilet, ensuring that items such as paper towels, tissues, wet wipes, diapers, personal hygiene products and even so-called ‘flushable’ products are discarded appropriately.
Fit a mesh hair trap into bath and shower drains to prevent hair from being inadvertently flushed down the drain when you wash or rinse your hair.
Take similar precautions in your kitchen, ensuring fats and oils and coffee grounds are discarded in the garbage rather than down the sink.
Roots and shoots in the sewer line
Another major cause of clogged sewer lines is root systems from vegetation such as trees and grass.
Trees roots can be particularly problematic if they penetrate your sewer line.
Trees have extensive root systems that can spread out far from the tree, so even if your property is treeless, you are not necessarily out of the woods.
Should a pipe get damaged, the surrounding vegetation may take advantage of the available water and nutrients, and even grassroots can quickly form a thick mat within the pipe, resulting in a blockage that causes sewage to backup to your home.
If your sewer pipe has been taken over by roots, the only remedy is to cut off and remove the offending roots before repairing or replacing the affected section of pipe.
Damaged sewer pipes
Depending on when your home was built, your sewage pipes could be made from PVC, clay or cast iron, which while durable, are not indestructible.
The older pipes get, the more likely they are to deteriorate, and may eventually become so damaged that they collapse completely.
In the event that your sewage pipe should crack or collapse, you will need to get it repaired or replaced to prevent unwanted problems (as mentioned above, plant roots will be attracted to the water and nutrients leaking from any cracks and may quickly spread out and fill up the interior of the pipe, causing a blockage).
The sewer line from the home leading to the city sewer connection is often of a smaller diameter than the city sewer line. Often if the home’s lateral line has cracks the line is susceptible to rainwater or water from the home’s drainage to intrude into the cracks causing the pipe to fill and eventually back up into the home.
Overloading your sewer line
Connecting gutter downpipes and sump pumps to your home’s sanitary sewer pipe are not recommended.
Rather channel excess water from these outlets to stormwater drains, or better still, harvest it in rain barrels so that it can be used to irrigate your garden, wash your motor vehicles or to keep your swimming pool topped up with a bit of disinfection.
Sanitary sewers are not designed to cope with excessive volumes of rainwater or stormwater that can be significant during periods of heavy rainfall or when the snow melts.
The increased load can overload your system and result in sewage backing up to your home.
Blocked municipal sewer line
As a homeowner, you may have a certain amount of control when it comes to preventing sewage backups on your property, but sometimes the problem lies elsewhere and is beyond your control.
Municipal sewer lines are not immune; they are also vulnerable to blockages and are likely to deteriorate as they age.
Trying to determine whether the issue stems from your sewer line or your municipality’s sewer line is not always easy.
…But usually, when a municipal sewer line is clogged, the blockage will affect several homes along your road.
However, this is not always the case.
You may need to hire the services of a professional plumber to help locate where the problem is coming from and provide advice on how to best resolve the issue.
Malfunctioning septic system
If your home has a septic system, a sewage backup could indicate that you have a problem with your septic system.
A sewage backup could be a sign that your septic system overloaded, if your home has an onsite system, this can happen with multiple appliances and showers being used or heavy rainfall, snowmelt and spring runoff.
is full and needs to be pumped out, or the problem could be more severe, resulting from a clogged drain field or overloaded system, for example.
If the problem persists after you have had the tank pumped, get a septic system professional to inspect your system to ensure it is working properly.
Sewage backup in the basement, DIY clean up guide
“We certainly recommend getting sewage backup cleanups done by professionals because there are many hazardous gasses, bacteria and pathogens in sewage. Not only this but anything in contact with the sewage is going to be contaminated and would require proper disposal.”
Here are some tips if you do need to move swiftly on the sewer backup that is relatively minor and or can’t schedule a professional right away:
If an overflow is not cleaned up swiftly, it can result in water damage to floorboards and to the ceiling on the room below. So, in the event of an overflow, swift action is needed.
However, while the sight of toilet water all over your bathroom floor may have you wanting to jump in and mop up right away, before you roll up your sleeves and grab a mop, you will first need to stem the flow of water.
Only once the flow of water has ceased, should you begin working on mopping up any pools of water or cleaning up any waste that may have been spewed out of the loo onto your floor.
It would also be a good idea to avoid using any household plumbing fixtures such as toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs and washing machines until you have identified what is causing the sewage backup.
Shut off the water
To stem the flow you will first need to turn off the water supply to the toilet by closing the shut-off valve that is usually located on the water inlet pipe underneath the toilet cistern.
If you can’t find a shut-off valve on the water supply line you can lift off the cistern lid and pull up the float to halt the water flow.
If this stops the water from overflowing, wait for the water to drain from the toilet bowl, then release the float. If water starts running again once you have released the float, you can shut off the water supply to your house at the main supply line.
If that doesn’t solve the problem and water continues to bubble up out of your toilet, then the backup is more likely to be caused by a blocked drain or sewage pipe.
Remove the obstruction from the sewage line or fixture
If you have a clogged toilet, drain or sewer pipe you will need to remove the obstruction that is causing wastewater to backup to your home.
Start by plunging the toilet bowl to remove any clogs that may be blocking the S-bend between the toilet bowl and the drain pipe.
The plunging action creates pressure that can effectively dislodge the obstruction, forcing it out into the drain pipe.
But this action is best applied before water starts overflowing from the toilet or once the water flow has subsided. Attempting to plunge an overflowing toilet will only lead to an even bigger mess.
If the problem lies further along your drain pipes or sewer line, a plunger will not be much use.
You are more likely to have success by tackling the problem with a toilet auger or drain snake.
However, if there is a large pool of water lying on your floor, to prevent potential water damage, you should first mop up the water before trying to dislodge a blockage further along the sewage line (see tips for cleaning up below).
A toilet auger is designed to be able to work its way through the S-bend leading from the toilet to the drainpipe, where it will allow you to either hook up any material obstructing the flow of water through the pipes, which you will then be able to pull back out, or it can break the clog up and dislodge it, allowing water to flow freely through the pipes once again.
Cleaning up operation
If an overflow is not cleaned up swiftly, it can result in water damage to floorboards and to the ceiling on the room below.
It can also soak into walls and bathroom cabinets where it will encourage bacterial growth. So, in the event of an overflow, swift action is needed.
Any water that overflows from the toilet is likely to contain waste together with pathogenic bacteria that could pose a risk to your health.
To protect yourself, you need to don on a pair of rubber gloves and rubber boots over a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. A face shield and ventilator is also recommended when mopping up spilled sewage.
Mop up water and waste
Using a wet & dry vacuum cleaner, suck up as much of the pooled water and waste material as you possibly can.
If you don’t own a wet & dry vacuum cleaner, try to borrow one from a friend or neighbour, alternatively, you can hire one from an equipment rental company.
If for some reason you can’t get hold of a wet & dry vacuum cleaner, you can use towels or even blankets to mop up the water, but ensure you wash them thoroughly once you are done mopping up.
Air-water damaged walls and bathroom cabinets
Once you have soaked up most of the water you will need to dry the walls, cabinets and any other areas of your bathroom or home that may have suffered water damage.
You can use high powered fans to circulate air, or better still hire an air mover or two to speed up the process and reduce the chance of bacterial and mould growth.
Clean and disinfect your bathroom
Start by cleaning the floor, walls and other surfaces (even those that did not have toilet water spilled on them) with a good sanitizing agent to prevent bacteria and mould taking hold in the future.
While bleach is a good disinfectant, it doesn’t prevent mould growth, so look for a good multipurpose cleaning agent that does.
Any wet carpets or curtains will need to be steam cleaned, removed or replaced. Depending on the extent of the damage and the work involved, you may need to hire the services of a professional cleaning company, the cost of which will most likely be covered by your household insurance.
Is Sewage Backup Covered By Homeowner’s Insurance?
Often in a home insurance policy, there is going to be a water coverage, this should include sewage backups. Each policy may be different from province to province in Canada and from state to state in the US.
The cost can range from $50-$100 additionally to your coverage depending on where you’re from.
The insurance policy is going to cover the homeowner for cleaning costs and disposal of contaminated fixtures, drywall, flooring, carpet/rugs etc. this can clean-up can be costly often in the range anywhere from only $1-2,000 up to $15,000or more.
The policy coverage should also include the necessary assessment and remediation of the plumbing problems.
Having homeowners occupy the home while the clean-up is being conducted is not always feasible, for one the vapours can be harmful and second, the work being conducted can be very intrusive. A homeowner’s policy should cover the cost of hotel and accommodations.
Prevention is better than cure
As you can imagine, a sewage backup into your home can be a rather unpleasant and extremely stressful event that is best avoided.
Having a better understanding of what can cause a sewage backup and taking the precautionary prevention measures outlined above, the likelihood of you having to suffer such an unsavoury event will be substantially reduced.
If your plumbing isn’t fitted with backflow prevention, it may be a good idea to put one in place in case of future sewage backups or being proactive by being one step ahead of potential problems.
Some of our services include repair to existing sewage systems and septic systems, if we can help you with assessing some possible problems please call us or fill out the form for quick service: 250-768-0056 Bus, 778-363-0828 Cell