How to Stop Your Customer’s Recurring Sewer Backups

How to Stop Your Customer’s Recurring Sewer Backups

The call always starts out the same. “I've had Joe Blow Sewer Cleaning out here three times and they keep telling me it's taken care of, but then we get another backup.” 

Customers who have recurring backups are extremely frustrated, and this is unfortunately a common call. There are several ways to alleviate this recurring problem. 

Let's first look at why Joe Blow Sewer Cleaning thought they were successful in taking care of the issue, when they obviously had not.

Joe Blow used a sewer machine, and it “got through.” For some reason when a sewer machine “gets through” the sewer line, there are sewer cleaners out there who pack up and say, “It's all fixed.” That might seem like oversimplification and you’re maybe thinking, no that couldn't be the case. Unfortunately it’s true, and if I hadn't seen it a lot, I wouldn't be writing about it.

Did Joe Blow bother to follow up with a sewer camera to actually observe what the conditions were in the pipe? Of course they didn’t — if they did, the sewer backup would not be recurring.

The excuse I have heard time and time again was either Joe Blow did not have a sewer camera or that Joe Blow wanted to charge extra to use a sewer camera. Sewer cleaning without a sewer camera is like a surgeon or dentist not using MRIs or X-rays and just kind of winging it. 

If a sewer cleaner is not using an inspection camera as part of their typical method, there is a lot they are going to miss.

There are five main causes of recurring sewer backups that are missed when not using a sewer camera.

1. The No. 1 reason for recurring backups is the choice of sewer machine bit or tool used on the end. Just because a little spiral fitting (see picture) gets through and back does not mean the sewer is open. And that is the fallacy that so many sewer cleaners use. My fitting got through and back so it must be open. This too will be an unfortunately recurring theme.

2. Root masses are recurring. You can cut them out and obviously if you do they will grow right back. Just because a little spiral fitting gets through some roots does not mean those same roots won't cause toilet paper and other solids to accumulate, causing the next backup.

3. Grease blockages seem to be one of the most misunderstood of all. I’ve seen many times where a sewer cleaner (including me), got the sewer machine to easily go through the line and back with seemingly no resistance, so it must be open, right? 

Grease blockages are quite soft. They are typically a combination of grease, oils, toilet paper and other very soft items that a sewer machine operator will never ‘feel’ — that type of blockage typically won’t even slow the sewer machine down. But it does stop water flow. As the sewer machine is pulled back, the grease blockage closes up like something out of science fiction, ready to cause the next backup. 

This is one of the most misdiagnosed issues in sewer cleaning. The sewer cleaner never feels an obstruction (because it is so soft), and as the sewer machine goes through the grease blockage the water follows through also, making it seem as if the problem was resolved.  

When using a sewer camera (like one should), as the camera pushes through the sewer blockage you almost never feel resistance. As the camera is pulled back out, you can actually see the grease blockage close up, sealing the pipe back off. If you don’t see this for yourself you will never believe it. 

Our friend the little spiral fitting will go back and forth through a grease blockage without removing any of it, no matter how many times you send it through. I find grease blockages need a good dose of cutting fitting and high pressure jetting. In some cases a good grease eating bacteria could be considered after the fact. Without a sewer camera, one would never know there is a grease blockage.

4. If pipe is offset, a settled pipe at a joint will continue to cause blockages. It seems that after a blockage is removed and water is getting through everyone gets complacent. That offset joint will continue to cause blockages until it is physically repaired.

5. Solids build up in the pipe. The most common seems to be cast iron pipe. I could share dozens of pictures of what we find when we dig up 4-inch-diameter cast iron pipes with barely a small slit in the middle. Solids buildup and accumulation in cast iron pipe is notorious. Some are mineral deposits that are harder than the pipe itself and aren’t coming off. But what I keep finding is a softer, thick ‘mud-like’ buildup that basically seals off the entire diameter of the pipe (see picture) and because somebody’s tiny spiral fitting can get through, they think they were successful in cleaning the blockage. Obviously not so, and we are called in when the sewer cleaning method has been tried multiple times, and the customer was told, “it’s fine now.”  

It isn’t fine now and if the sewer cleaner used an inspection camera to check their work they would know that.  

Always use a sewer camera as part of any sewer cleaning work. This will make all the difference.


About the author
Todd Stair is vice president of Herr Construction, Inc., with 34 years’ experience designing, installing, repairing, replacing and evaluating septic and mound systems in southeast Wisconsin. He is the author of The Book on Septics and Mounds and a former president of the Wisconsin Onsite Water Recycling Association. 



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