Shining a light on the deep, dark world of sewer clogs

You've snaked every above-ground drain and still your wastewater is going nowhere. Here's how you can dive in to the unclogging job...or not.

When your home's main sewer line ceases to function, all life comes to a halt. How heroic would it be if you could simply unclog that thing yourself? And if you lack the courage for that, what should you know about exactly why you're bringing in a sewer cleaning service?
How clogs form
One only needs to think about the vast range of substances that go down a household drain to understand how clogs form. Any or all of them can coagulate at some vulnerable bend in the sewer and literally trap more additional gunk than a colander. A common cause is household grease accumulating on the interior of a sewer pipe, followed soon by its evil friends, hair and food particles. Clogs tend to occur in specific places:

  • Where connecting sections of old sewer pipe are dislocated
  • Where pipes are corroded or partially collapsed
  • Most commonly, where a mesh-like tangle of tree root has found its way into the sewer itself

Unclogging strategy
First, ensure that you've identified that the drain problem is in the main sewer itself. Then, if the problem has not recurred frequently, the quickest, least expensive fix is to try to unclog it yourself. Somewhere in your basement you should find what's called a clean-out. Usually that's an angle-shaped pipe near the sewer with a circular steel plate held on by two bolts. Undo them, as that's your route into the sewer pipe.
Root root root
At many local home improvement stores you can rent a mechanical auger for less than $100 a day. This heavy, wheeled contraption features an electric motor and a lengthy reel of cable. Basically, this is a heavy-duty plumber's snake, and it's like the one that commercial "rooter" businesses use for unclogging sewers. Bring the machine to the site, put on some stout gloves, and, using the pedal controller, start feeding the cable into the sewer. When you hit clogs, work the cable back and forth until you feel them release. The cable comes with various tips — it's best to start small and work up, the largest usually being a bladed, cylindrical tool that cuts through tree roots. Be firm in your movements but not reckless. Getting the cable stuck or damaging pipe is a real possibility.
Serious issues
If you can't break through the clog, or simply don't wish to bring a spinning monster into your basement, there are many professional services that will tackle the job. Some of them use the auger, while others rely on high-pressure hot water. Both have their limits. Serious cases will likely require a drain inspection service to send a camera down there to see what you're dealing with.

Shining a light on the deep, dark world of sewer clogs
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