Dear Angie: How do you know if your main sewer line needs cleaning? — Mary N., Indianapolis
Answer: There are a few signs that could indicate a clog in your sewer line. The most common red flags are water backing up from a drain or toilet, water pooling around a floor drain; water draining slowly; a gurgling sound coming from drains, especially after running the dishwasher or washing machine; or the smell of raw sewage coming from drains.
Clogs can occur in the main line or in one of the smaller secondary lines. If the clog is in the main line, it will affect all areas of plumbing inside the home: Any water you run will create a backup. If it's in a secondary line, it probably will be isolated to that area. For example, your bathroom sink won't drain and backs up into the bathtub, but the toilets flush just fine. If you have only one area with an issue, that will make it easier for your plumber to find the source of the problem.
Tree roots, especially near older homes, are a big reason sewer lines get clogged, as they find their way into the underground lines and continue to grow. Other common causes include flushing things down toilets that should be discarded instead, including personal care products, paper towels, wipes and even certain types of thicker toilet paper.
If you have a line clog, it's important to shut off the water at the source. If the clog is affecting all the lines, you'll want to shut off the main water line. There should be a sewer "clean-out" line — typically a short, round white pipe with a rubber cap — outside the house near the foundation. You can remove that cap during a backup, and that will relieve the pressure, and the backup will discharge from the clean-out line.
If there is a problem with your sewer line, you'll want to get it repaired quickly. A sewer line clog could create a backup of raw sewage, which could come out of your interior drains and lead to messy and costly damage to your home.
One way to help keep lines from clogging is to fill sinks with water and then drain them. The pressure from the water drain will help clear any waste sitting in the lines.
Most clogs can be cleared quickly and with minimal intrusion. Sewer line clearing specialists typically run a cable, also known as a drain auger or "snake," through the line to clear the clog. A simple clean out should cost less than $150.
If they can't clear it with the cable, they might recommend a camera inspection. But beware; a camera inspection probably will cost you more. Avoid companies that offer a camera inspection before they try to clear the blockage. Generally, clogs can be cleared without the extra expense.