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Tree Roots in the Sewer Line: What to Do

If your drains back up often, even when you use over-the-counter drain cleaners, you may have tree roots in the sewer line. Wooded lots are especially prone to tree root blockage, but even if all the trees are cleared from your property, a neighboring tree may be the culprit.

Tree Roots in Sewer Line

Tree roots travel a long way in search of nutrients—and sewers contain a rich brew of everything a tree needs to grow. Don’t run for your chainsaw just yet, though. Here’s what you can do if you suspect that tree roots have gotten into your sewer line.

Determine What Material Your Sewer Line Is Made From

First of all, learn what kind of sewer lines you have. If you have an older home, chances are you have clay tile, cast iron pipes, or a composite asphalt material.

All these types of materials have joints that loosen over time. Since they’re made from relatively brittle materials, they’re prone to breakage.

These factors explain how tree roots can penetrate these old-school sewer lines in the first place. Here’s how the process happens.

Consider How Tree Roots Invade Your Sewer System

Trees send out roots in various directions in search of nutrients. They start out small, so these tiny roots can enter through cracks or loose joints.

The small cracks and loose joints common in these vintage sewer systems allow a small amount of your household waste to seep out into the soil. These small openings—and the hint of rich nutrients inside—sends a signal to tree roots.

The tree roots shoot out tendrils that creep through the loose joints or cracks. Once inside, they grow, thanks to your household waste.

These roots grow so quickly that they can take up all the space in your sewer line in just a few months. As they grow, they create even looser joints where more roots can enter. Even if you have a pro come in to clean out the roots, new roots can enter in a matter of months since the joints are compromised from the previous root infestation.

Get a Professional Video Camera Examination for an Accurate Diagnosis

If you think you probably do have an older sewer line, call a pipe professional to send a camera through your sewer line to make sure it is indeed roots that are causing your clog.

A camera inspection can also determine if the line has cracks, loose joints, an improper slope, or if the pressure of the earth around it has completely collapsed it.

If You Have Tree Roots in Your Sewer, Consider Your Options

If tree roots have invaded your sewer line, you have several options.

Option 1: Hire a Sewer-Cleaning Pro to Auger Your Line

Sewer cleaning companies have a special tool, called an auger, that can bore its way through the roots. The tool has a spiral head that rotates as it plunges into the sewer line. The head itself has teeth that resemble those on a saw blade.

It cuts parts of the roots, but the roots themselves remain. Because they do, this is only a temporary solution. The roots will grow back.

It’s a lot like treating the symptom without treating the root cause. Remove part of the cancer, but keep on smoking. Not a genius move.

In fact, the severed roots, as a survival mechanism, will immediately send out more of the tiny tendrils that will re-invade your system.

Once tree roots invade a system, it’s difficult to keep them out over the long run. As they grow, they expand, putting pressure on the pipes or tile. This makes the cracks larger and the joints looser, making it even more likely that more roots will enter and do more damage.

Option 2: Cut Down the Trees

You can cut down the trees—if they’re on your property—but you can’t keep your neighbor’s tree roots from invading your system. Most trees’ roots travel great distances in search of nutrition and water.

Secondly, even if you cut down the tree, the roots may continue to grow. Cutting down the tree will probably prove to be a waste of time and money.

Option 3: Treat the Line with Tree-Root Poison

Many sewer pros will treat your sewer line with a specialized poison that kills only the roots in or near your line. It’s a targeted solution that won’t kill the tree—which will even work if it’s your neighbor’s tree that’s causing the problem.

There are two basic kinds of chemicals that kill roots: copper sulfate crystals and foaming root killers. Copper sulfate crystals enter the soil around the pipe, killing the roots before they wend their way into the pipe or tile.

Foaming root-killing chemicals fill the entire width and length of the pipe or tile from top to bottom. Because they have comprehensive coverage throughout the tile or pipe, they kill the roots as they enter the pipe.

Though the chemicals are relatively eco-friendly, it still does leach out into the environment. Secondly, it only retards the growth for a few years. After the chemical loses its potency, roots will come back. You’ll have the same problem, and your system will be even older—with more cracks and loose joints than ever before, thanks to the subtle shifting of the soil around it.

Option 4: Dig Up the Old Sewer Line and Replace It with Plastic

PVC (plastic) pipes are impervious to tree roots. They’re sturdy and last for years. But then there’s the expense of digging up your old line, the expense of installing a new line, and then finally, you have to pay through the nose to re-landscape your yard or garden.

It’s a permanent solution but it’s an expensive, messy one.

Option 5: Use a Hydro Jetter to Kill Invasive Roots

Although expensive, you can kill roots with a special machine that uses water that spins thin, tough wires at a high rate of speed—from 20,000 to 50,000 RPM. After you remove the roots, you can apply root-killing poison inside the sewer line for extra protection.

This solution, like the auger and the root-killer poisons, is only temporary. After a while, the poison will lose its potency, and then the tree whose roots you chopped will send out more roots to clog up your line.

Option 6: Seal the Sewer Line with a New, Root-Impervious Lining

With a new sewer lining, you’ll have all of the benefits of a plastic sewer pipe, but none of the drawbacks. With modern technology, a pipe relining professional can go inside your current pipe system and insert a plastic and cement lining without tearing up your lawn or garden.

It’s a permanent solution that doesn’t cost as much as digging up your line and replacing your turf or garden plants. It doesn’t involve pumping chemicals into the soil, only to have the roots grow back in a few years. It doesn’t cost nearly as much as reaming out your system every few months.

Relining is a one-time expense that will give you a lasting solution. So long-lasting, in fact, that pipe relining companies often provide a lifetime warranty on their service.

How Can I Avoid Tree Roots in the First Place?

If you’re a long way from your neighbor’s home and you haven’t any tree roots in your line, you can limit your tree plantings to better manage their roots.

Plant slow-growing trees or none at all: Only plant trees that grow slowly, and whose mature size will be small, anywhere near your sewer line. If you already have fast-growing trees near the line, plan to replace them often—at a frequency of at least every ten years. Slow-growing trees, though, only slow the process. Eventually, they’ll also work their way into older sewer lines. The best option is to plant no trees near your sewer line. Especially avoid these trees:

  • Ash
  • Basswood
  • Cottonwood
  • Locust
  • Most large maples
  • Oak
  • Poplar
  • Sweetgum
  • Sycamore
  • Tulip tree
  • Willow

If you want plantings near your sewer line, choose smaller trees or greenery, preferably shrubs. Small ornamental trees like Japanese maples, dogwoods, or crabapples are usually the safest trees to plant.

Reline older sewer lines proactively: If your home is older and if the previous owners have not already updated the system, consider having your sewer lines relined before you have tree trouble. That way, you won’t need to worry about your sewer lines even if there are trees nearby.

If you plan to buy an older home with an aging sewer system, you might want to adjust your offer to account for the cost of having the home’s sewer line relined. The last thing you want in your great vintage home find is a backed-up sewer due to tree roots.

If you suspect that your home’s sewer line has fallen victim to tree roots, don’t wait. The problem will only get worse. Contact the pipelining professionals at San Diego Pipe Lining for a cost-effective solution to those pesky tree roots.

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