Proper House Drain Problems And Proper Care

Opinion & Expertise
December 7, 2015

by David Balkan

Great Build Up Sewer Drain Pipe
house drain
Many branch line drains can connect to a house drain

Every building contains a house drain. Understanding common house drain problems, care, preventive measures, and repair choices is helpful to know. A house drain can be both a simple and a complicated feature in any type of building. It is typically buried under the basement, garage, or ground floor. But it can also be hung alongside the basement wall, and above ground.

A house drain pipe is installed in any building structure where there will be a need for rain or waste water to drain to a public sewer, septic system, dry well, or detention tank.

A basic definition of a house drain: The house drain is the main horizontal drain pipe inside the building. It is where all other branch house drains connect. It is considered to extend 5′ past the outside of the foundation wall in NYC.

A house drain functions to direct route waste and rain water to the house sewer, which technically begins 5′ past the foundation wall of any building in NYC. Things can get complicated when a house drain becomes slow running, clogged, damaged, or surcharged. A house drain is most important as it ensures the proper functioning of all other drains inside a building, and prevents water damage and potential health issues as well.

Many property owners tend to neglect their drain system. They forget to do regular maintenance until a problem arises, even when a serious problem seems on the horizon. There are many possible potential issues and solutions concerning a house drain. Every system can vary from a simple one family house, to a multi unit combined system, such as illustrated below. What follows is a primer on the most common house drain problems and solutions.

house drain system
Multi-family combined house drain with ejector pump system

Debris, soot, grease, foreign objects

Until there is a problem, most homeowners do not really give a second thought about anything they throw into the sink, toilet, or shower. Hair, food particles, dirt, grease, and even physical objects are routinely introduced in plumbing systems. And all of these items can cause clogging. Small amount of debris that goes into the sink may not cause immediate problem, but an accumulation of it day after day for weeks eventually gets in the way of wastewater.

house drain problems
Grease can build up slowly over time

What many people do not realize is that every single plumbing fixture in a building has a trap designed to catch unsuitable material from going down a drain, and prevent sewer gases from escaping. Therefore, just because an item goes down the drain does not mean it will pass the trap. This is the cause of many house drain issues. A house drain pipe is designed primarily to handle wastewater only. If you have to discard something else, make sure that it is water soluble first. When a house pipe is clogged, wastewater cannot flow freely into the sanitary sewer, and may appear in unexpected places – like your bath tub.

Removing a house drain clog

There are various rudimentary ways most clogs get cleared. The 1st three steps require little skill, or special tools.

sink trap
PVC kitchen sink trap
  1. First try a plunger. A plunger will only work in standing water, so make sure there is water inside the sink, shower, toilet, etc.
  2. Next try using a chemical cleaner. Chemicals typically provide the easiest solution, but there is a possibility of pipe corrosion which will cost more money to repair.
  3. Remove the trap from under the fixture and attempt to clean it out by hand. This requires some skill and tools.
  4. Call a professional drain cleaner. It is rarely a good idea for a homeowner to get overly involved in drain problems, or open the main house trap. If for instance the public sewer is backed up, all that waste water will then flow into your building.

Crystallization in a drain pipe

Unlike an accumulation of debris, sediment, or physical objects, crystallization of materials is more difficult to prevent. Materials such as soap, grease, and sugary drinks (including soda), leave residual traces behind. Eventually they will dry and settle as sediment, or slowly coat the inside of a house drain. This does not happen in an instant, but little by little, until the sediment almost completely blocks the way of wastewater. The problem is similar to that caused by physical debris, but it takes more effort to clean the hardened sediment. Because a house drain handles all wastewater runoff from every room, including the laundry room and bathrooms, the sediment can build up more quickly without proper maintenance.

A residential-grade auger or hydro-jet can probably flush out the sediment, assuming that the accumulation is not that thick. But severe clogging requires professional tools such as a high-powered auger with a cutting blade or a whip, and hydro-jet (water jet) with the appropriate nozzle. In some severe and extreme cases, replacing the house drain can be a more cost effective solution.

Cracked or leaky house drain

A house drain on occasion can get overburdened, and have some wastewater overflow. However a recurrence of this issue is a sign of other problems and potential sanitary issues at all. Occasion overflow, such as from a sink drain, can be expected at times. This actually allows a reduction in the stress on the house drain system. It is best to allow a little overflow than over-burden the drain system, which can cause other issues. There must be a bit of overflow in a perfectly working house drain which should not be cause for alarm.

On the contrary, if you pour an amount of water down a drain and it does not appear to reach the main house trap, there is a good chance you have a cracked or dislodged house drain. Sometimes a sewer dye test can help determine if this is the case or not. A leaking underground house drain can cause odors, pipe settle, and the ponding of foul waste water.

A leaky drain pipe needs replacement; this is a job best left to professionals. Replacing pipe can be invasive, unless the house drain is hung above finished grade. Either way, it is best left to a professional especially if specialty tools are required.

Sewer odor

A house drain is similar to a big tunnel, where all the smaller tunnels channel the water. The house drain will convey all wastewater to a septic tank (if you live in rural area) or city sewer system (if you live in a big city). If you can smell an odor coming out of the house drain, this means there is a blockage in the house drain that connects to the sewer. Another possible situation is that the sewage tank or septic tank is full, but the waste cannot go anywhere due to a blockage. In some other cases a trap may have dried out, removing the water barrier that prevents sewer gases from escaping.

A good way to solve the problem is to ask a professional to snake the pipe down to the sewage tank, or the public sewer connection. It typically  requires a long cable and a powered auger. If the septic tank is full, you need to have it drained. In other cases, when no blockage is found, a professional should be called to carefully investigate.

If a sewer odor simply exists due to a recent backup, bleach is a good remedy. Simply pour some bleach around the affected area. Frequently leaving the bleach in place will do the trick.

The use of corrugated pipe

If you have to repair or replace a house drain pipe, do not use corrugated plastic pipe. Some home owners think this is an easy repair that solves the problem, but this is actually not allowed by plumbing standards or code. Corrugated pipes are not smooth on the inside, so they retain sediment and grease. It also makes them extremely difficult to clean. If you have one of these in your house drain, replace them with the recommended type of pipe right away.

Corrugated pipes must be replaced with any other type that works with the existing house drain, and is code compliant. There are many different types including PVC or cast iron. A professional plumber will be able to determine the best type for your plumbing system.

Are house drain problems preventable?

Some problems can be prevented, while others cannot. Leaky pipes and corrosion are heavily related to the types of pipe, their age, and the integrity of the original installation. If your house drain is extremely old, chances are they can no longer work to their full potential due to years or wear and tear. Exposure to water, pressure, and unfriendly materials weaken the pipes over time and eventually cause them to fail. However, in an old and properly functioning drain system, it be sometimes better to leave it untouched until a problem does arise.

Small problems such as clogging or odor can be avoided by implementing some simple preventive methods as follows.

• Hot water: After having big meal or party where there are plenty of foods remaining on the table and in the sink, take the time to remove them before they are washed down your into the drain system. Running hot water to prevent debris and grease accumulation in house drain have questionable benefits after the fact. For regular cleaning some professionals recommend using a mixture of baking soda and vinegar in a 1:1 ratio. Then flushing the mixture into the sink with boiling water. The opening in the drain should be tightly sealed to allow the mixture to work as designed.

• Bathtub stopper or strainer: Check the bathtub stopper and strainer regularly for soap, hair, particles, and residue including body oils. If you clean them regularly, they will not go into the house drain causing a blockage. Some particles or residue may have gone deeper into the bathtub or sink pipe, and you have to flush them occasionally with enough pressure from a hand plunger. Some recommend filling the bathtub to 3/4 of its volume, and then pulling out the stopper to flush everything through the system.

• Periodic inspection: Even when there is no noticeable issue, periodic inspection is required to prevent future problems. Have the house drain checked for any issue by professionals. This is usually a small price to pay to prevent a future problem.

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David Balkan

David Balkan is the CEO of Balkan Sewer And Water Main, the largest and most trusted service in New York City. David is extremely active in various NYC plumber organizations being the Chairman of the Subsurface Committee in the Master Plumbers Council, and Vice President of the Subsurface Plumbers Association. In addition David’s expertise is respected by officials of New York City agencies such as the NYC DEP, NYC DOB, and the NYC DOT. He frequently provides valuable input on a variety of industry related matters.

Dave Balkan

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