Sewer Backup Problems: What to Do Before You Dig Up Your Yard?

Check the sink trap for blockages before using a snake.
Check the sink trap for blockages before using a snake. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Slow drains and a strong sewage odor are often two of the first signs that you have a problem with your sewer lines. If you don’t fix the problem, sewer water will eventually back up through your toilet, shower or other drains, and may cause serious damage to your house. Before you dig up your yard, hire a professional sewer cleaning contractor to identify where the problem is coming from by running a fiber optic camera into your drain, or follow these steps to identify the problem yourself.

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Inspect Drains

If the sewer backup is only coming up through one drain, but other fixtures are working properly, you may have a local clog. If the drains on the upper floors work properly while those on the lower floors are sluggish, or backup into the building, you may have a problem with the main building drain or with the septic system.

Clear Small Blockages

Blockages can be caused by grease, coffee grounds, plastics, cigarettes, cotton balls and cotton swabs, condoms and tampons that have been flushed or accidentally dropped down the drains. Blockages can also be caused by small animals, like mice that find their way into the pipes and die. Use a toilet plunger or a plumbing snake to remove blockages after checking the sink trap with a flashlight to make sure the blockage isn’t occurring there. Plumbing snakes can be rented or purchased from a hardware store.

Check vents

The drain waste vent system carries sewer gases outdoors, usually through the roof. They can become blocked by animals, by insect nests or by snow and ice. One sign that you might have a problem with the vents is if you hear a gurgling sound when water drains or when the toilet is flushed. Although blocked vents don’t usually cause backups, they can cause sluggish draining.

Inspect Tank

Look inside your septic tank to check the level of the wastewater. If it’s at the inlet level, your blockage is probably just before the tank or in the inlet fitting. If the wastewater is above the inlet fitting, the blockage is occurring in the outlet fitting or downstream. This could be downstream of the septic outlet or downstream in your leach field or distribution box that connects the septic tank outlet to your leach field lines.

Pump Tank

A full septic tank can cause toilets to backup or cause sewage to flood your basement. Septic tanks should be pumped out once every three years, to prevent sludge and grease from building up in the tank and damaging your leach field.

Inspect Leach Field

If your leach field is wet or spongy, emits a sewage smell, or if you can see gray or black sewage on the ground, your problem is more serious. Your leach field may be saturated and may need to be replaced, or you may have a broken or crushed pipe underground. Pipes can break when tree roots grow into the lines or if vehicles drive over the leach field, compacting the soil. If you have one of these more serious problems, you will need to contact a septic system contractor.


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