By ALLEN MCQUISTON
Serving Los Alamos Since 1963
The drains and toilets in your house start to back up. Nothing seems to be draining so you call the plumber. When the plumber arrives, he inserts a snake with a camera on the end, into your main sewer line from the basement to the city street to see what is going on.
The plumber has bad news. The camera shows that your main sewer pipe has collapsed in several places, has tree root invasions, and the entire line needs to be replaced. The main sewer pipe is buried very deep in the front yard. At first, you hope that the sewer utility company will just come out and replace it for free. Unfortunately, your plumber tells you that you are responsible for all repairs and costs for replacing this section of sewer pipe, not just on your property, but up to the street utility connection too.
It will cost thousands of dollars to replace the pipe, and there’s no way you can live in a house without a properly functioning sewer system. A check with your home insurance agent reveals that sewer lines are not included in your homeowner’s policy coverage. What caused the collapse and how did the tree roots get into your sewer line, especially since you have no trees on your property?
The pipe on your property was made from wood pulp blended with coal tar, which was used extensively during and after World War II due to metal shortages. Although it can last a long time, when it does fail, it usually fails by collapsing, becoming oval or “heart-shaped”, and then delaminating and separating at the pipe-joint couplings.
When this happens, the leaking water and sewage are sought out by the surrounding tree roots for survival. The roots can enter the pipe openings as small, thin roots but over many years, the roots grow large in diameter. Growing roots on the outside of the weak pipe can cause it to deform and be displaced. When the roots grow inside the actual pipe, the roots themselves can cause the pipe blockage. Your plumber explains that even though there are no trees on your property, there is a huge, old, tree in a nearby yard that can be causing the root invasions.
Your plumber explains the three common methods for dealing with failed sewer pipes. They include pipe-relining, pipe-bursting, and conventional open-trench excavation. The first two are considered “trenchless” and are sometimes preferred where an open excavation could destroy the property.
In the conventional open-trench excavation process, the contractor uses electronic detection equipment to locate the path of the pipe and where to dig directly over it. The excavator digs an open trench over the path of the old sewer line.
Open Trench Excavation
The damaged sections of sewer pipe show the collapse, indentations, and holes created by old age and tree roots. The indentations were face-down in the trench as the roots grew under the pipe, seeking out the water leaking by gravity.
Next, new PVC sewer pipe is installed in the trench which will have fewer pipe joints and future points-of-failure for tree root intrusion. Notice how many tree roots are visible coming from the direction of the fence and property line to the left.
Finally, the contractors will fill in the trench, re-establish the grade, and this sewer replacement project is complete. The lawn will need to be seeded in the spring to restore everything back to normal. Luckily, this repair did not require the city street to be cut open. If it had, in most cases, the homeowner would be responsible for that additional work and cost.
There is not much a homeowner can do to prevent the natural aging of underground sewer lines and their eventual demise, especially if your system has an old pipe and is vulnerable to tree root intrusion. Thankfully, there are service line insurance products that can protect against unexpected repair expenditure such as this one and can help make the incident less disruptive financially. Check with your insurance professional for more information.
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