Understanding sewer repair and replacement
A Master Plumber's guide to Baltimore's residential sewer lines
When your home needs a sewer line repair or replacement, you need to answer a lot of questions. How long until my sewer backs up again? How much should a sewer repair cost? Do I even need sewer repair? Is my sewer problem even my problem? We understand how stressful this time is for you and your home, and we’re here to help.
Baltimore sewer problems come with many unique challenges, and an experienced, caring, and cost-effective plumber can help you navigate what is right for you AND your home. Here at C.A. Taciak & Sons, we believe in helping our customers understand their plumbing problems. Sewer problems are stressful, fixing them shouldn’t be. Schedule a no obligation consultation with a master plumber:
With this goal in mind, our company's Master Plumber, Sam Taciak, has compiled over 80+ years of company experience into this comprehensive guide to walk you through the sewer repair process. In it you will find common sewer problems and solutions specific to Baltimore area homes. But first, we would like to give you a brief overview of our approach to sewer repair.
We've been there
We understand a sewer emergency is disruptive, disgusting, and always happens at the worst possible time. When it happens, your mind is anywhere but on your plumbing and its problems. How can you get your sewer line working as quickly and painlessly as possible so you can return to your life? You definitely don't want to spend any more than you have to. Are there any options that work better for your budget? Maybe you are working with the first plumber you could get a hold of, and now they're telling you they need to dig up your front yard and your basement floor. With all the money you've spent so far, isn't there a way to keep the cost down?
We've helped thousands of homeowners throughout Baltimore City and Baltimore County navigate sewer problems just like yours, so we know what's important. We work hard to get your home back in service as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Because we've been there, we try to minimize as much stress as possible by doing things differently from other plumbing companies.
First and foremost, we make sure you can reach us. Our phone numbers are for our personal phones with no phone trees to navigate or messages saying our voicemail is full. We get back to our customers quickly and promptly when they have questions.
Secondly, we specialize in Baltimore’s unique underground residential plumbing. It is all we do. We have every tool needed to get your sewer line working again, from trenchless repair technologies that minimize property damage to the latest drain cleaning and camera inspection equipment. Our crew is ready to tackle whatever your project throws at us.
Finally, we offer fair and open pricing. Although we are not the cheapest contractor out there, we are usually not the most expensive. Our pricing is always competitive with industry rates, and we never hide fees that double or triple the project cost. When we suspect something might happen, we tell you the likely cost upfront on our estimate.
Save $1,000's on any sewer repair with one simple diagnostic service
Sewer repair and replacement shouldn't be complicated or entirely out of your budget. You can easily pick the best option for you and your home with the right information, but you need to start from a place of knowledge and strength. With this in mind, we prefer to start every project with a "diagnostic camera inspection and locate" of your sewer line. Inspecting your sewer line with a camera allows us to pinpoint what's wrong with your pipe so it gets the exact help it needs and eliminates a lot of potential repairs that other companies automatically charge you for. You can potentially save $1,000's by not having your job automatically priced up as a worst case scenario.
When we come out to perform a sewer camera inspection, we will give you as many options and solutions as possible for whatever problems we find. We also provide a video recording of everything we can see inside your pipe, a physical location of any problem spots, and a brief report by a master plumber outlining our findings and suggested repair and replacement options.
Our camera inspection work is "no obligation," and you are free to use our report with any plumber. However, if you choose to go with us for your sewer repair, we always include any investigative costs towards the deposit of significant repair work. Diagnostic sewer camera inspections start at $300.
Call us when you're ready to get to the root of your sewer problem!
Please take a few minutes to review the rest of our comprehensive guide to Baltimore sewer repair and replacement below. Our guide starts with an overview of what a sewer line is and then works its way through common problems and of course finally their solutions. We've tried our best to answer many of our frequently-heard questions. If you have the time, we recommend reading it in its entirety. However, if you're busy and need to jump to a particular topic, please use the links below:
What is a sewer line and what does it do?
A sewer is the system that removes wastewater from your home's toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, and drains. Each fixture drains into the pipes inside of your home, which are part of your building drain. The building drain then runs into your sewer line.
Specifically, a sewer line is the exterior portion of your home's drain pipes. This section of pipe - also called a sewer lateral - starts at your foundation wall and stretches laterally to your property's edge where it connects to the municipal sewer main. A sewer main connects to every house in your community, but your sewer lateral only connects to your home.
Not all homes connect to a sewer line. If you live in some parts of northern Baltimore City or Baltimore County and/or you have distant neighbors, chances are you are on septic, which is a different system. But, if you have close neighbors or live in most parts of the city or suburbs, your home is likely connected to a sewer system.
What are the parts of a sewer line?
The building drain
A building drain consists of the parts of your drainage system inside your home and a few feet of pipe past your building's foundation. This includes all of the drains connected to plumbing fixtures like tubs, toilets, showers, sinks, and so forth. Normally these pipes are anywhere from 4 inches to 1.25 inches in diameter. The Baltimore area commonly has building drain pipes made from cast iron, galvanized steel, copper, and PVC plastic pipes.
The sewer lateral
A sewer lateral is the pipe that connects your building drain to the sewer main at the edge of your property. this is the code-correct name for what most people refer to as a "sewer line" or "main line." A sewer lateral is always underground and must be at least two feet deep. Although Baltimore sewer laterals typically run in a straight line from the building to the street or alleyway, occasionally they will also run diagonally to a corner of the property.
A clean-out is a removable cap or plug that allows access to your sewer line for maintenance and inspection. Clean-outs are commonly located in basement utility areas or laundry rooms. Try looking in your basement directly under your kitchen or bathroom. There is a good chance you will spot a clean-out!
Drains require a balanced atmospheric pressure to function correctly and safely. A vent allows air into your drainage piping so that all drains work smoothly and keep sewer odors out of your home. If a vent is clogged or undersized, you may smell sewer odors from time to time as vapor seals drain away.
A sewer main is the larger diameter pipe connecting to the sewer lateral of every home in your neighborhood. This pipe transports the entire neighborhood's sewage to a wastewater treatment plant. Typically sewer mains are under a street or alleyway, but occasionally they do run through a private yard.
How long does a sewer line last?
The oldest parts of Baltimore city, such as Federal Hill and Mt. Vernon, have "modern sewers" that were installed around the late 1800's. This time frame means that some sewers in Baltimore are 140 years old. Unfortunately, most sewer lines do not last that long. The average optimal lifespan of an outside sewer line is 60 to 70 years, which means any house built before 1962 might need a sewer replacement soon. While not as long as some homeowners would like, this longevity still makes a sewer line one of the longest-lasting components of your home!
A sewer line's route through your property
How deep is the sewer line in my yard?
The average Baltimore sewer is between 5 and 10 feet deep. Your drains work with gravity, so any pipe acting as a drain will have to be lower than its connected plumbing fixture. That means that if you have a toilet, sink, or tub in your basement, your sewer line will have to be below or "deeper" than that fixture. If you think about how deep your basement is below the surface of your yard, your sewer line is typically one or two feet even deeper.
Where does my sewer line go?
Your sewer line runs from point A where it leaves your home to point B where it leaves your property. Once your sewer lateral leaves your property, it connects to the sewer main. The main collects the sewage from your entire neighborhood. The sewer main transports this sewage to the wastewater treatment plant, where it is processed, cleaned, and returned to the water cycle. While this idea isn't the most appetizing, it is an incredible process. Without this system, indoor plumbing would not be possible. Baltimore area homeowners are typically responsible for problems in the portion of the sewer line on their property.
What material is my sewer line?
Your sewer is likely made from clay, cast iron, or Orangeburg piping if it is original to your home, and your home is older. In most cases, your sewer line consists of two different materials; one for inside your home and one for under your yard. Typically cast iron piping is what is found inside your home as well as under your basement floor. This pipe often extends at least a few feet past your foundation and into your yard. Outside of your home, it is normal for your sewer line to transition to Terra-cotta or to Orangeburg piping in some rare cases.
What is cast iron pipe?
Cast iron pipe is a steel pipe used for over 150 years in drainage systems worldwide. It is a very durable material that is still manufactured and used today. Cast iron pipe is prone to problems if it is installed improperly and in a way that allows water to sit in the pipe. However, it has a service life of over 100 years when installed correctly.
What is Terra-cotta pipe?
Terra-cotta pipe is a type of clay pipe. It is a long-lasting material that usually only develops problems at joints between sections of pipe. Over time, the concrete and/or tar used to seal these connections starts to degrade, and roots begin to infiltrate the piping causing a clog.
What is Orangeburg pipe?
Orangeburg pipe is a fiber pipe made from mixed wood pulp and hot pitch used from the mid-1940's to the late 1960's. Over time, this pipe "unravels" and disintegrates. Sometimes it can be repaired but usually requires complete replacement.
Do older homes sometimes have plastic sewers that break?
Sometimes older homes from the 1970's and 1980's will have early generation PVC or ABS plastic pipe installed. This PVC is generally still in good shape and has a long service life. The exception to this rule in Maryland is black ABS plastic piping. If your home has an ABS plastic pipe underground, you may need repair or replacement soon. ABS pipes around Baltimore often react negatively to the mineral content in Maryland soils and start to degrade. Once deterioration starts, so does root intrusion, cracking, and other issues that can cause a blockage and backup.
How do you know if your sewer line is broken?
Interior signs of a broken main sewer line
In most cases, sewer backups show up in the lowest drains of your home. When water can no longer drain through a pipe, it backs up through the closest and lowest open drain. These floods typically occur through a toilet, floor drain, or laundry sink because these are the lowest and nearest open drains. You may even see these problems on your first floor if you do not have a basement with plumbing fixtures. A sewage backup always happens at the lowest closest open drains in every situation. No one wants sewage from their entryway toilet backing up in their living room or coming out of a kitchen sink.
It is important to note, though, that a drain issue can be local to a particular bathroom and not a problem with your sewer. An example is if an upstairs toilet, sink, or shower stop working. If no other bathrooms are affected, you most likely do not have a sewer problem.
Not every sewer problem is so apparent. Less severe issues may also signal an imminent sewer backup. Do you notice a bad smell in your basement or yard? Sewers should be both airtight and watertight, so smelling sewer gas is a sign of a problem. Even a sump pump pit that starts to smell odd could signify sewer issues. Symptoms like these mean your sewer line may suffer from a backup, clog, crack, or root problem.
Sinkholes are a dreaded sewer-related problem that appear in your yard. These pits result from a hole in the sewer pipe that sucks dirt into it and then flushes it down the line. These holes do not plug themselves and need repair to stop growing. C.A. Taciak & Sons can resolve your sinkhole problem.
Green sections of lawn
Does one patch of your grass look like a transplant from a golf course? It could be your excellent fertilizer application, OR a sewage leak. Although each creates the same result, one is a dreaded problem to have. Waste leaking from a shallow sewer line provides excellent plant nourishment. The grass may be greener on your neighbor's side of the fence - but it may be because they have sewer problems.
Rapid tree or bush growth
Unusual foliage growth is similar to the greener grass problem mentioned above. Sewage is like anabolic steroids to plant life. Tree and bush roots seeking nourishment often infiltrate sewer lines, especially in Maryland's Spring and Fall seasons. Once inside, they experience rapid growth. These roots prevent your sewer line from draining as they grow, and will cause backups into your home if left unaddressed.
Sewage seeping out of hillsides
Sewer water sometimes seeps out of a hillside instead of backing up into your home. Broken pipes let wastewater run out and down the hill, flooding anyone or anything below. This runoff is unpleasant for you and your downhill neighbors, and should be addressed.
Methods of maintaining your home's sewer line
Sewer line maintenance comes from either sewer jetting or drain cable cleaning, which will be explained more thoroughly a little further down this page. A sewer service or drain cleaning consists of using specialized tools that run a cleaning "head" through the pipe which bores through any blockages. All drain cleaning methods require a sewer clean-out or some other access into the piping.
Maintenance is a good option if root growth is not severe or blockages and backups are unusual for your home. At some point, however, continuing to perform maintenance to limp along your sewer line is both literally and figuratively money down the drain.
When is maintenance and drain cleaning of a sewer line no longer cost effective?
We usually recommend repair or replacement when the yearly maintenance cost of your sewer roughly exceeds 50% of the repair cost. At this point, it doesn't make sense to keep dealing with the disruption of a sewer backup unless there is a compelling reason. Get in touch with us to learn about our many strategic and affordable sewer repair options.
Maintenance access through your sewer clean-out
A sewer clean-out is a portion of a pipe with a screw-in plug. Typically sewer clean-outs are in the shape of a "lantern" or the letter "Y." You can typically find clean-outs in basement utility and laundry areas. They are often on the vertical pipes directly under your kitchen or a bathroom.
What is drain cleaning?
Drain cleaning involves sending a special tool consisting of a long steel cable with a sharp cutting head at one end through your pipe. It bores through any blockages. This tool is sometimes called a "drain snake" or drain machine. Professional drain cleaning machines require proper training to operate and are best left to professional plumbers.
Although drain cleaning is an excellent band-aid for whatever problems your sewer line may face, it is only a temporary solution. This service may get your plumbing draining, but it won't always stop the clog-causing issue from returning.
What is sewer jetting?
Sewer jetting is a type of drain cleaning that uses a specially designed pressure washer that scours and cleans the inside of drains and sewers. A sewer jetter is a powerful machine that requires a delicate touch. Most jetters can send 20 to 30 gallons of water per minute through your sewer line at 3,000 to 4,000 PSI. Without proper training and protective equipment, sewer jetting can be very destructive. However, it is the most effective method of cleaning and rehabilitating a sewer line without getting into repairs. Sewer jetting also exposes any hidden issues so a repair can be more targeted and precise.
What is a diagnostic sewer camera inspection?
A sewer camera is a specially designed device that allows a trained operator to inspect inside drains and sewers. It is a long fiber-optic pushrod with a heavy-duty camera attached to its farthest end. A sewer camera's video feed allows a plumber to see what is inside the pipe. When a plumber combines this video with radio-sonde locating, they can see exactly where any problems are along the pipe's path. This information helps homeowners and plumbers develop an intelligent repair solution that is cost-effective and minimizes property disruption.
The in's and out's of sewer repair and replacement
How are sewer lines repaired?
We consider sewer line repair as any drain or sewer repair under 10 feet in length. Sewer repair is the go-to solution when a sewer line only has one or two problem spots, and the remaining run of pipe is in acceptable and serviceable condition.
Even though a sewer repair is a more targeted solution, it still requires enough excavation to allow a person enough room to work on the problem pipe. Typically this means the size of trench shoring, which requires at minimum a 10-foot long by 3-foot wide hole dug in your yard.
After excavating and exposing the sewer line, the problem section of pipe gets cut out, and a new section of PVC pipe is spliced into the existing sewer line. Usually a clean-out is also installed at the same time. After assembly and testing, the excavated dirt is back-filled into the trench.
How are sewer lines replaced?
We advise sewer line replacement when there are more problem spots than can be addressed with a small repair, or if the length of the sewer line is short enough to make a complete replacement the most cost-effective solution. Both sewer repair and replacement work requires the same minimum level of excavation equipment to be brought out to your home, so the price difference may not always be as much as you think.
For most homes, a sewer replacement involves connecting to the cast iron "building drain" leaving the foundation, then replacing the sewer line from there to as close to the property edge as reasonable. Typically a clean-out is installed at the end of each of the sewer's run to allow for future maintenance.
When should a sewer line be replaced instead of just repaired?
Sewer repair work requires a minimum level of excavation to expose the pipe enough for a person to have room to safely work on it. Depending on the depth of the pipe, this usually means around a 3-foot wide by 10-foot long trench. Typically our contracts specify a minimum replaced length of 10 feet. If your sewer line is only 15 or 20 feet long, it makes sense in this situation to replace the entire thing while we are onsite. The cost for replacement in this case will often will not be much more than for repair.
Do I also need to replace the part of my sewer line under my basement floor?
In most cases, no. Most sewer lines under a basement floor are made from cast iron piping. When this piping material is installed correctly and with the proper pitch, it is incredibly durable and long-lasting. You should get a second opinion if you have a quote for an interior sewer repair under your basement floor along with your outside sewer lateral replacement. There is a good chance that the drain pipes under your slab have many years of service left, and you've been quoted more money than you have to spend. C.A. Taciak & Sons specializes in diagnostic pipe inspection and providing second opinions on plumbing in the Greater Baltimore Area. Reach out to us to set up a consultation.
What material is a modern sewer line repaired with?
We repair most sewer lines with new plastic PVC pipes. This pipe is generally Schedule 40 PVC pipe, although some situations demand other grades and types of piping for various reasons. PVC pipe is connected using a "chemical welding" process that bonds the pores of the plastic pipes together on a molecular level. It is a very durable and long-lasting piping material.
Is it possible to fix a sewer line without digging a huge trench?
The first thing to understand about "trenchless" sewer repair is that it is only "trench-LESS" not "trench-FREE." Small sections of yard will need to be dug up for equipment access, but the amount excavated will be significantly less than a traditional repair.
Secondly, "trenchless" sewer repair is a premium option. The technology required to perform repairs this way is costly and usually reserved for projects with limited options. That said, there are two main pathways to trenchless pipe repair; pipe lining and pipe bursting.
One interesting form of trenchless sewer repair is pipe lining. Pipe lining is like a heart stent for drainage piping. A trained operator pushes or pulls a long liner into the sewer line and then inflates it to create a new pipe within the old pipe. Lining is an excellent option when the old pipe is structurally sound with only minor issues like root infiltration or slight cracking.
The next form of trenchless repair is pipe bursting. Pipe Bursting involves pulling a new pipe into the place of the old pipe as the old pipe is "burst" out of the way. Bursting is a good option when the original piping is too structurally unsound to receive lining, or the length of required repair is very long. This is the preferred trenchless method for long pipe repair runs.
Choosing a contractor to fix your sewer problems
Who is responsible for my sewer line problem?
You are responsible for the individual sewer pipe connected to your home. Your municipality is responsible for your neighborhood's sewer main. However, their responsibility for your sewer line typically extends to at least your property edge. If you have a visible exterior clean-out near your property edge, your local municipality will maintain your connection to their sewer via that clean-out. The municipality's connection maintenance is a taxpayer service, like trash pickup.
Their numbers are:
Baltimore City - 311
Baltimore County - 410-887-7415
Who repairs sewer lines around Baltimore, Maryland?
In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, underground sewer line work requires a plumbing permit. These permits can only be applied for with a master plumber's license valid in the area where work will be performed. This is why plumbing companies usually handle all sewer line repairs and replacements.
However, most plumbing companies do not specialize in underground plumbing and are not adequately equipped or experienced enough to handle it. At C.A. Taciak & Sons, we have our own excavation equipment, shoring, and all other necessary tools that most other plumbing companies have to rent. Unlike many of the large-scale plumbing companies in the Baltimore Metro Area, none of our final install work is performed by "techs" or apprentices. Our master plumber is on-site and directly oversees all pipe installation.
How long does it take to repair a sewer?
Most sewer repairs take one to two days to complete. In most cases, we can have all piping reconnected by the end of the first day of work, so you won't have to worry about getting a hotel room just to use plumbing. We usually manage to have everything connected so you can start flushing, showering, and doing laundry by 2 or three P.M. on the first day. If our projects extend into a second day, we use this day for cleanup and regrading of your yard.
Do I need my sewer dug up as soon as I start experiencing problems?
In most cases, no! A plumber should never tell you that you need a complete replacement without a compelling reason. Always get a second opinion on what your sewer needs. Often there is more than one way to address the issues at hand.
The costs of a sewer repair or replacement in Maryland
So how much does a sewer repair or replacement cost in Baltimore and the surrounding areas? Sewer repairs are as affordable as any other major home repair. Getting a new roof, HVAC system, windows, etc., usually costs $5,000... $10,000... or much more. Repairing or replacing your sewer line is no different.
Most sewer line repairs and replacements cost between $6,000 and $13,000. However, we have performed replacements that cost over $30,000 and repairs that cost as little as $3,000. A lot depends on the complexity of your project and what is needed. A diagnostic camera inspection of your sewer line gives us a very accurate idea of what is required and how much it will cost. If these prices sound expensive, remember that maintaining your sewer before you start experiencing problems gives you more, cheaper, and better options.
Is home warranty coverage for sewer problems worth it?
The answer to this question depends a lot on the warranty in question and your own financial situation. Sewer line warranties are often inexpensive and do offer some protection against backups. We have found that the warranties available to Baltimore area homeowners usually do not cover the full replacement of a sewer line. These warranties will send out drain cleaning crews and "water restoration specialists" every time you experience a sewer backup to clean up the mess, but will never do anything beyond this. This means that you will continue dealing with sewer line backups for the foreseeable future.
When does insurance cover sewer line repair?
Insurance will sometimes cover sewer line repair and replacement. You will need to check with your insurance provider to ensure that a sewer replacement rider covers you and your home. Not all policies include this automatically, and not all insurance companies offer it. If you need to add this coverage, it may come with a 90-day waiting period before any work can be completed. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you think you may need insurance help to cover the expense of a sewer replacement, the best time to look into this coverage is before you start having sewer issues.
Can I finance a sewer repair or replacement?
We offer outside financing at competitive industry rates and also accept all major credit cards for sewer repair and replacement projects. We are always willing to structure payment schedules as much as possible to help your budget. Sewer problems always come at the worst and most unexpected times! If you need your sewer replaced, we will do everything within reason to work with you to get it done!
What areas in Maryland does C.A. Taciak & Sons service?
We service all parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and directly adjacent portions of Harford, Carroll, and Howard Counties. This specifically includes the neighborhoods of:
- Bel Air - Edison
- Beverly Hills
- Charles Village
- Glen Arm
- Hereford Zone
- Hunt Valley
- Loch Raven Village
- Mt. Washington
- Perry Hall
- Roland Park
- The Hamptons
- White Hall
Get in touch
Congratulations on reaching the end of the article! You either have a serious sewer problem, or are a plumbing geek like us. Either way, we'd be happy to hear from you. Call us to discuss your sewer issues, and we will do our best to get you back in service!
Sam Taciak - MD master plumber