How to Unclog a Sewer Line

Anyone that has lived through a clogged sewer line knows how messy, confusing, and expensive it can get.  When the heavy machinery pulls up into your back yard, you can tell that you have a big problem.  The clog can stem from any appliance and cause back-ups that affect your whole home.  Below is your go-to guide on how to unclog a sewer line.

Confirm That You Have a Clog in the Main Sewer Line

A sewer line clog typically starts from either your bathroom, kitchen, or laundry.  Before you run to the hardware store for equipment rentals, confirm what is happening.  You can diagnose the location of the clog through a series of simple steps.  Each starting point will help you determine where the problem is stemming from, how bad it is, and how to attack it.

If you noticed the clog in the toilet first, then test by flushing while running the sink and shower.  If flushing pushes liquid up through the shower and bathroom sink drains, then your issue may be stemming from a back-up in the bathroom.  Confirm by testing against the other water appliances in your house.

Run your sinks and washing machine at the same time.  If the rinse cycle pushes water up through the sinks, but your toilet still flushes properly, then the issue might be laundry drainage.  The used water ultimately links up with your sewer line.  If you have a disposal, test it against these other components.  If that causes water to rise from the nearest drains, then your issue is in the kitchen.

Now determine the severity.  Locate the sewer clean-out.  You may or may not have one.  The sewer clean-out will likely be located either in your basement, utility room, garage, or on the exterior of your home.  Check all possible interior locations and all sides of the exterior to determine if you have one.  Open the sewer clean-out cap and check for waste.  If this area is clean, then your problem is closer to its origin.

What Causes a Clog in the Sewer Line?

There are a few different ways in which a clog can occur. These are typically the most common culprits:

  • Non-biodegradable paper products, including tissues, paper towels, baby wipes, and diapers
  • Grease and certain food types
  • Tree Roots
  • Debris

Homes with older plumbing tend to see more issues with paper products.  As food oils drain, they harden onto the inside of the pipes, setting you up for a clog later.  Tree roots can grow over, under and through your exterior sewer line, causing it to narrow, break or completely collapse.  Finally, debris such as mud, grass, and leaves can creep into your line from the outside and cause problems.

The De-Clogging Process

The best way to find and assess a clog is with a drain camera.  You can rent drain cameras from some hardware stores for approximately $55 per hour.  These can help you determine how to resolve an issue fairly quickly.

If you are going it alone, there are countless videos out there on how to unclog a sewer line.  An auger or drain cleaner is usually the right tool to get the job done.  You will need to know the diameter of the pipe and how far the clog is from your starting point to choose the right machine.  You can rent augers and drain cleaners from your local hardware store.  They vary in size and range in price from $10 to $50 per four-hour segment.

Calling in Professional Help

With a minor clog, you can resolve it with a trip to the hardware store, about $200, and elbow grease.  If it is severe, a professional will know best how to unclog a sewer line.  While the national average is $300 per incident, licensed plumbers charge anywhere from $55 to $1300, depending on severity.

Towards the higher end of that price range, you start seeing the back yard being dug up.  (We have some great tips on avoiding that below!)  The more severe the clog is, the more likely you’re going to need to call in the big guns rather than go at it alone. .

Preventing Future Clogs

Now that you know how to unclog a sewer line, you’d probably prefer to keep it that way.  Quick and cheap, monthly and annual maintenance steps will keep your plumbing running smoothly and save you money over time.  Here are some preventative maintenance steps that you can take to prevent a recurrence.

  • Purchase enzyme cleaners for your toilet at grocers, home stores, or hardware stores for approximately $10. If you use them once a month, you should have no issues.
  • Find your exterior sewer lines. If you are planning any extensive landscaping or installations, avoid planting or digging near these pipes.  It can throw a monkey wrench into your whole situation.
  • Set up annual drain-cleaning maintenance. A preventative drain-cleaning, once a year, is an easy thing for a licensed plumber, and it is much closer to that $55 price tag that I mentioned above.
  • Watch what you flush down the toilet, dump down the sink, and put in the disposal. Remember that a clog can develop in your sewer line over a period and then present itself as a much larger issue.
  • Clean the pop-up stoppers in your sinks and showers once a month. Build-up develops over time and can be the beginning of a clog.  Keep them clean, and your drains will operate smoothly.
  • Clean your disposal once a month. This one is easy.  There are lots of DIY recipes for disposal cleaners as well how to videos.

Wrapping Up

The older your plumbing is, the more likely that you are to experience a clog in your sewer line at some point.  Clay pipes have proven to be the biggest headache due to corrosion and how fragile they are.  If you have clay piping, discuss your options for replacement with a professional.  But, by performing these preventative maintenance techniques regularly, you can avoid the most common types of clogs in your sewer line.