You know what you don’t see on HGTV or Pinterest? Sewer line repairs. Prior to purchasing a home, I thought I was really prepared. I had read a few books, watched a lot of HGTV, and followed home improvement blogs closely. Guess what, most of that stuff is decorating, not home ownership. I also knew that I didn’t know everything, but in my mind I had backup. I had a home warranty for one. And, I had faith that my home inspection and the VA home inspection would have noted any major issues with the house before I bought it.
In my whole adult life I never once gave a thought to sewer lines. My international travel to places like Liberia and the Philippines had clued me in what life without looked like without internet, electricity and running water. But never once did I think about sewer lines.
One day last summer, I was home having a nice adulting day: laundry, cleaning, cooking. Running the dishwasher, the washing machine, filling lots of buckets. My washing machine is hooked up to drain in the utility sink next to it. So, when it filled with greywater and refused to drain I wasn’t too bothered.
I tried using a mini plunger to clear the drain. No dice. Then I bought some extra strength Draino and let it sit for an hour. Still stopped up. So, I just figured, it needed longer to drain. An hour later I was taking a shower and realized the drain wasn’t draining. As an experiment I flushed a toilet (not the brightest idea)- water everywhere.
After some Googling and mopping; I realized this was not a problem for me to fix. It was a bright sunny day, so I assumed the chances of the rainwater backing up the sewer what pretty small. So I used my phone a friend option and called in the professionals. I subscribe to Plumberologist’s preferred customer service. They came out the same day.
When the plumber arrived, I explained the problem. That’s the first time I learned about snaking drains and augers, two things I have never heard of. The nice man inquired about the location of my sewer clean out. Cut to Julianne’s confused face, and shrugged shoulders. I had no idea what that was or where it would be. Rut-roh.
So after some hunting, me and the Plumber #1 realized there was no discernable sewer clean out. Fun fact, when there’s no sewer clean out available, you can pop the toilet off of its throne and use that instead. Some #1 got to work dismantling my master bathroom toilet. He got a huge rooter from his truck and proceeded to snake my drain. I realize how innuendo-y that sounds. Trust me, not sexy.
After an hour of trying, the plumber informed me that he couldn’t get the auger to where he needed it. Either the pipe was too small or there was an obstruction. So not only would more plumbers have to come out the next day, I still didn’t know what the problem was. And as a fun feature, I couldn’t use any water or plumbing until they figured it out. Le sigh.
So the next day another guy came out with a bigger machine. He tried the master bathroom toilet, but had the same results. After walking around on another sewer clean out safari, I realized that there was one in the garage.
Plumber #2 snaked that drain with a camera. Thankfully that cleanout connected to the main clean out. Whereas the house plumbing connected to the house’s original plumbing and was twisty and turny.
The camera auger thing #2 had also had an indicator to where it was in the line. He sent it out, and then we walked around the front of the house with a metal detector looking thing. Together we saw that the auger got stuck around five feet to the sidewalk in my front yard.
Plumber #2 laid out the options and likely scenarios. All of which caused me to sweat profusely, literally and figuratively.
#2 said what most likely happened is that the sewer line was damaged. It had either become unhooked, disconnected, or partially collapsed. Thus, they would need to excavate my front yard and repair the connection.
The good news was that it was only the connection that needed repair and not the entire line. The bad news was that if the connection for the sewer line was under the sidewalk, or worse we would need to dig up the street. Digging up the sidewalk requires no permits, but digging up the street? The repair would possibly be anywhere from $3,500 to over $20,000. Over $20,000. In the worst case scenario, I would need to pay for a road crew, permits, asphalt repair AND my sewer line. For something so expensive you think someone would have mentioned it before I bought a house. Alas, the joys of being an adult. I should have known.
“Damnit HGTV, you really fucked me.” –Julianne, 31, new homeowner.
Since I couldn’t have a house without a sewer line, I signed off on the excavation.
Day 3 with no water or sewer in the house (let me tell you having to pee makes everything 100x more stressful), I got two new guys at my house doing the work. A tiny excavator dug a casket sized hole in my front lawn.
“Just shoot me in the head and throw me in there if we have to dig up the street,” Julianne said.
After hours of digging, the plumbers called me outside [dramatic music]. It was the medium-est case scenario.
Apparently, the previous owners had replaced the sewer line all the way to the sidewalk. This new sewer line was PVC. However, the old sewer line was Orangeburge pipe.
“WTF is Orangeburg pipe?” Julianne said. “And also, why did the previous homeowners leave something they knew was about to fail? And also, why is this necessary piece of the house not covered in the DAMN HOME INSPECTION?!”
Orangeburg pipe is a pipe manufactured from wood pulp and asphalt pitch pressed together. Yes, my sewer line was basically held together with industrial papier-mâché. Only, this piñata when smashed leaked raw sewage underground and cost around $7k to fix. So why was my sewer line built out of a heavy duty craft project? Because the Nazis. And the Japanese. #ThanksWWII.
History lesson: When my home was built in 1945, America was recovering from a little World War. Thus there was a major cast iron shortage. Coincidentally, cast iron is what they used to install plumbing during that time.
The post-war housing boom created a demand for cheap housing materials. Meanwhile available drainage materials were scarce. Orangeburg Manufacturing, who had previously created its pipe for telephone wires (yep, skinny, DRY telephone wires) produced a thicker-walled, sturdier, round version of fiber conduit, selling it as “Orangeburg pipe” for sewer and drain uses. Orangeburg pipe while cheap and effective had a limited structural lifespan. It is susceptible to moisture, tree roots, and crushing. So obviously an awesome choice for a sewage line buried deep underground. Because fuck you future homeowners.
Apparently, the Orangeburg pipe issue is widespread in my neighborhood.
Back to my house. The good news was that the section of pipe was about three feet (again, thanks previous homeowners, for not taking it all the way when you dug up the yard the first time). One sidewalk square had to be dug up to reach the county’s sewer connection. The county’s cast iron connection thankfully extended to my curb. So no digging up the street.
I called the insurance company. No coverage. I called the home warranty. No coverage. I messaged my real estate agent who said, “yikes, that’s an expensive repair.” Not terribly comforting. I did find out that power companies provide insurance for sewer and gas line, but not after the fact. Again not something that was covered on HGTV.
I had to pay for the repairs to the pipe, and I voluntarily added a sewer clean out. It wasn’t cheap, but after being presented with $20,000 previously, I was happy to pay for the fix. In addition to paying the plumbers, I also had to get a concrete company to replace the sidewalk. Fun fact, one sidewalk square cost $400.
As I was not fiscally prepared for this large expense, I took out a no interest line of credit with Wells Fargo.
So, five days after my laundry drain backed up the sewer line repair was fixed, and the sidewalk replaced. I was down about $7k. But at least I could pee in the comfort of my own home again.
The whole experience reminded me that there was quite a bit I did not know about home ownership. It also reminded me of the blessing that is running water and indoor plumbing. I am thankful it wasn’t more expensive or damaging, and once diagnosed, it was an easy fix. All in all, I chalk this up to a valuable learning experience.
Advice for future homeowners:
- The sewer is NOT covered during a home inspection. A $250 camera inspection of the sewer line during closing could have saved me $7k and a ton of grief
- Sewers are not covered under home insurance. Make sure your sewer and gas lines are covered by insurance. There’s lots of options, but they are always voluntarily purchased as riders to homeowners insurance or through the power company.
- Know where your sewer line cleanouts are. That piece of knowledge would have saved a day in this process.