DIY treatment of tree roots in the sewer
November 26, 2007 11:23 AM   Subscribe

There are tree roots growing in my sewer line. It was snaked last year, and we've put copper sulfate down the line a couple times since, but we're having backups again. I plan on a DIY approach this time around because I really can't afford a plumber. Read on, and tell me: what are the flaws in my plan?

Last year, RotoRooter was out and pulled tree roots out of the sewer, temporarily solving our problem. Since then, we've twice treated the line with copper sulfate crystals. However, we just started having backups again this week. (The backups only happen when there's heavy water use, like in the mornings when the toilet is flushed repeatedly and everyone takes a shower.)

I just learned from my wife that the work was done via a 1.5" cleanout from the kitchen stack rather than from the main cleanout. I suspect that's the reason we're having problems already -- all the plumber did was punch a small hole through rather than clear it out. I've looked at the main cleanout myself and am terrified of trying to open it. It's below the basement slab, accessed through a 6" hole in the concrete, mostly covered with dirt that's near impossible to clear away, and probably hasn't been removed since before I was born. There's no way to get a wrench on it, so I'd have to chisel it out and then hope there were no problems getting a new plug in.

The only other way of accessing the main line would be to remove the toilet. I'd really rather not do that if I don't have to, but I think it would be better than messing around with that cleanout.

So. My plan is to treat the line with RootX for now to try to restore the flow. I'd plan on a second application in the spring.

Come spring, I'm also planning on drilling some holes in the yard to apply copper sulfate directly around the outside of the sewer line -- I know where it runs, and there's only one tree that could be the culprit, so I'm not worried about getting a camera down the line.

So, here are my questions:
Will RootX help clear the blockage on its own? The website suggests it will, but I'm taking that with a grain of salt. Should I go through the work and expense of properly snaking that line no matter what? I figure it's at least $100 and a full weekend of work -- probably more. What other problems exist that I'm not thinking of?
posted by Ickster to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak for your city, but our city does sewer clean-outs for much, much less than the local plumbers will do them. Might be worth a call.
posted by OilPull at 11:31 AM on November 26, 2007

We had that problem with our first home and ended up calling the city. They had a nifty snake thingy that had blades on the end that chopped the roots up pretty well. They only charged $75. Not cheap but much cheaper than the plumbers were quoteing. We moved soon after so I don't know how quickly the roots grew back. Good Luck!
posted by pearlybob at 11:44 AM on November 26, 2007

Also, I don't know what your hardware skills are but don't forget the power of bartering to get some plumbing work done. You never know what plumber might need some computer work done and is willing to do a trade. It doesn't hurt to ask and you'll be surprised how many people will take you up on the offer.
posted by pearlybob at 11:46 AM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: I've already talked to the city -- they don't provide any services between the mains and the house. Pearlybob - I can rent a machine like that for about $50, but getting access to use it is a major problem.
posted by Ickster at 11:49 AM on November 26, 2007

you don't say how old the sewer line is. if you're getting significant blockage from tree roots, then the actual pipe is probably in pretty bad shape. your plan might help in the short run, but won't prevent you from replacing the entire line in the near future.

i think the chemical has to be in the water for it to be effective. i think drilling holes and applying it that way may retard root growth at the risk of contaminating your soil.

(i am not a plumber but have rodded out a few systems)
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:53 AM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: I'm guessing that the sewer line is original, which would make it about 90 years old. From what I've gathered, those are usually clay pipes laid end-to-end without a seal, so the roots can gain access through the gaps in the pipes.

I've talked with other people on the block and at least one other person has a similar problem. She just coughs up $300 a year to get the line snaked. No one else is reporting problems, so I'm hoping that the line isn't at end-of-life . . .
posted by Ickster at 12:05 PM on November 26, 2007

I've seen info about applying copper sulfate directly; what about killing the tree if you know it's the culprit, cutting out the lines once, and being done with it?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:07 PM on November 26, 2007

The line is anywhere from 4 to 8 feet under ground, so drilling is not really going to do much. As far as opening the main line, don't be too afraid. They make lead plugs that you can use to replace whatever cap is there. Some people think oh, a few roots, when in fact what you have is the equivalent to a massive woody hairball. Rent a pro-sized rooter/cutter from the home center.

Also when using any root killer that goes into the drain do it just before you leave on vacation. Any other time and the product will be washed away before it can work.
posted by Gungho at 12:14 PM on November 26, 2007

craven_morhead wrote: what about killing the tree if you know it's the culprit, cutting out the lines once, and being done with it?

Last summer we had several trees removed in our front yard, and later had the pipe from our house to the sewer replaced. We've continued to have little baby trees trying to grow in the lawn, and when I casually mentioned it, one of the sewer-line guys said that roots of trees that are cut down can continue to put out shoots, trying to get going again, for as long as seven years, so it is possible to keep having root trouble in the pipes even after a tree is removed. According to him.

Root-X or similar products never seemed to do us any good if we waited to use them until we were already getting sluggish drainage and back-ups. Of course, I never thought to use it when the drain was flowing freely!
posted by not that girl at 12:14 PM on November 26, 2007

Oh I just thought of another thing. If the tree that is causing the problem is a city owned tree you should be able to raise a stink with the city that they are responsible for the damage. I did just that and had what would otherwise be a $2500.00 job done for free.
posted by Gungho at 12:16 PM on November 26, 2007

The thing about flushing copper sulfate down there is that most of the time your line only has a little water sitting in the bottom, and only the roots under water are getting treated. I had very good success with a product called foaming root killer. I applied it twice a year and it kept my drains open for about five years where I had been having it roto-rooted every six months.

Also, it is not that big a deal pulling a toilet and renting a roto-rooter to go through the drain that way. Put something down to protect the floors, the spinning line scratched up our vinyl pretty bad when it got away from me.

Finally though I broke down and had a plumber install a more accessible takeout just outside the house. Then an ice storm took down the tree by the sewer line and I haven't actually needed it!
posted by LarryC at 12:22 PM on November 26, 2007

You can root out the sewer by yourself, but get a contractor to run a CCTV camera to the main just to see what the condition is. If there are serious defects it's time to think about replacement or a cured in place liner. Drilling holes in the soil and applying to the outside may work, but it may also kill your tree.
posted by electroboy at 12:24 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: The city's website is pretty clear on the fact that it's my own damn problem. I'm responsible for the sewer line and for caring for the tree -- but I can't remove the tree without their OK, and even if I get the OK, the city does it and I pay them for the privilege. (Not that I'd want to remove it anyway; it's a 90 year old elm and one of only a handful left on the street.)

Gungho -- do you have experience doing this sort of thing? I'm not afraid of snaking it myself, but I find the thought of fighting with that plug (irrationally?) daunting.
posted by Ickster at 12:26 PM on November 26, 2007

I would try to use the cleanout before removing the toliet. This is going to be an ongoing problem so you need access to your cleanout. Worst case you tear up the cap and the end of the pipe, but you should be able to go to the hardware store and recap it.
posted by HonestAbe at 12:44 PM on November 26, 2007

You have NO IDEA what a plumber would do when he encounters
your cleanout plug. Clean the dirt out of that hole, carefully,
so that if you have a plastic plug you won't mess it up.
Then call a plumber.
He'll have a square socket, and an extender, and the fact
that the cleanout is down in a hole won't bother him.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:12 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: Believe me, I'd love to drop this whole issue in the lap of a professional. It's not an option though.
posted by Ickster at 1:39 PM on November 26, 2007

Also when using any root killer that goes into the drain do it just before you leave on vacation. Any other time and the product will be washed away before it can work.

I would counsel against that.

It was a foggy February morning, 5 a.m. I was catching a plane to Chicago in two hours and waiting for Super Shuttle. I was grumpy and groggy from the early hour -- and from the fact that I'd been limited to 3 minute showers for the preceding week. The roots had returned, you see, and they were choking the mainline.

"RootX," I said. "RootX will wipe out those roots."

I'd planned on employing RootX and letting him do his job while I hid out in Chicago for a week.

All was going according to plan. The bags were packed and waiting by the door. My getaway shuttle was on its way. I sent RootX to work and wished him luck....

And then the motherfucking toilet overflowed like you wouldn't believe.

You're supposed to flush it in two stages, which I did. You're also cautioned to keep the toilet lid closed and under no circumstances breathe the fumes, which I tried very hard to accomplish. But by the end of the process, there was three inches of copper-sulfate-infused water standing on the bathroom floor.

I'll spare you the rest. Let's just say it was a race between the shopvac and the Super Shuttle, all while trying to hold my breath and not breathe the supposedly deadly fumes.

I spent the week in Chicago wondering if the copper sulfate was going to eat through the linoleum. Or the concrete foundation.

(It didn't, but it did stain the linoleum blue. And I had to call a plumber as soon as I got home, because the granules that did make it down the pipes didn't do a damn bit of good.)

Moral of the story: RootX didn't work for me. Caused more problems than it solved.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:16 PM on November 26, 2007

Continued use of rotary expansion augers on old clay sewer pipes can be pretty hard on the pipes, particularly if you encouter roots that have penetrated cracks in the pipe, and displaced parts of the pipe wall. My personal experience with products such as Root-X are that if the drains in a house are as slow as you claim, it's too late for Root-X, which is generally only effective as a preventative measure.

To restore reasonable flow, I think you're going to have to use a power rotary auger machine, which will typically have an expanding cutter head, to thoroughly cut out the roots. But beyond that, you might want to look into lining the drain line, shortly thereafter, before roots regrow. It's perhaps 1/2 as costly as replacing the drain line, and will positively stop the water leakage that is attracting root growth, for decades.
posted by paulsc at 2:35 PM on November 26, 2007

mostly covered with dirt that's near impossible to clear away

I have trouble imagining why you wouldn't be able to clear the dirt out. If it's a small hole, you just need a smaller digging tool. If the dirt is very hard, wet it so it will soften.

Removing the toilet sounds like a viable option to me. It's really not that difficult if you have a helper when you are putting it back on the wax seals (be sure to buy new ones). As far as being disgusting to deal with, if you are going to rent a powered sewer snake, you have already gone far over that line.

I don't know that much about basements, but if you have a pump for the sewer in your basement, check that before you start in on anything else.
posted by yohko at 8:23 PM on November 26, 2007

I wouldn't give up on asking the city to fix their mess. I went straight to the sewer department. As far as that replacement plug it really is just a soft lead version of the one that is there. So if you can't thread it in you just tap it in. Remember it is a sewer, and thus a no pressure system. All you are really doing is plugging it to prevent back-flow and sewer gas.
posted by Gungho at 11:31 AM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: The eventual solution to the problem turned out to be a relative with friendly plumber who gave us a big discount. It took him about two hours to remove that cleanout cap, so I'm glad I didn't undertake it myself. He replaced the cap with PVC, so I'm set for the future if I need to auger those roots again.

paulsc: That link on drain line lining looks interesting. Absolutely no money for it now, but maybe in a couple of years.

Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone.
posted by Ickster at 12:14 PM on November 27, 2007

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