A white clean out access point in a grassy lawn

You Could Save $37,700 on a Sewer Replacement

A homeowner in Baltimore City’s Wyman Park neighborhood recently called us for a second opinion to verify a diagnosis from another company. The other plumber had told our customer that she needed a complete replacement of every component underground – including all piping under the basement floor. According to this other plumber, drain cleaning and sewer jetting attempts could not open the sewer line, and the sewer was “completely” full of water during this other plumber’s camera inspection. The other plumber gave the homeowner a story of multiple spots of collapsed pipes, etc., leading to the proposed plan of replacing everything. The total cost of this proposed work was $38,000!

Of course, this homeowner was shell-shocked at the price that the other plumber had quoted her, and decided to enlist us to work up a second opinion. After a brief but thorough phone consultation, we discovered that she did have some usage of her sewer system. We suggested that she go easy on her plumbing usage for a few days to allow the system to drain down somewhat, which would allow our camera equipment to see more within the pipe.

The Sewer Inspection

A few days later, we arrived at her home and began our inspection. We could see a lot of the cast iron piping under her basement floor on our initial camera pass, and it all looked workable – not needing a complete replacement. It is important to note that if another plumber tells you that your cast iron pipe is rotten and has holes but is holding water, there is a good chance that they are mistaken about the pipe’s condition. Cast iron pipes with holes have a hard time holding water.

After looking over the cast iron portion of the sewer line, we pushed onward and could clearly see the exterior cast iron to PVC transition. Seeing white PVC pipe at this juncture was another red flag to the previous plumber’s diagnosis. This PVC pipe indicated that someone had replaced the exterior portion of the sewer line within the last 20 or so years, and this meant that her exterior sewer line also likely didn’t need complete replacement.

A cast iron sewer pipe visibly transitions to a PVC sewer pipe
The top image shows the transition from the cast iron sewer pipe to PVC, while the second image shows the run of PVC sewer pipe

We continued pushing our camera head through the pipe, and we were able to reach her front sidewalk. Being able to go this far unimpeded indicated that her sewer line’s main blockage or stoppage was off her property. Wherever a camera head hits and cannot pass is often the tail end of the “traffic jam” and not the “accident” itself, to use a driving analogy. The problem causing her backup was most likely further downstream and thus off her property and not her responsibility, but the city’s.

A thorough investigation showed a shift in responsibility

Seeing a visible exterior cleanout in her front garden bed, we asked her if she had called Baltimore City yet to perform a free drain-cleaning maintenance of her building sewer to main sewer connection through that cleanout. She had not; the previous plumber had not even told her this was a possibility, so we left her with their phone number, and she got the city’s team on site later that evening.

Baltimore City successfully cleaned the drain through the exterior cleanout and got our customer’s sewer open and draining again. The main problem was off of her property and under a large tree next to the street curb. If our customer had decided to go with the other plumber, she would have been out $38,000 and painfully discovered that the problem was not on her property and was not her responsibility.

We charged her $300 to perform our camera inspection, pipe locate, and analysis. This price included a report, a full video recording of the inside of her sewer line, help to contact the correct department in Baltimore City to get the exact help she needed, and saved her $37,700. If you have sewer problems at your home, how much money could a $300 camera inspection save you?                

Key Take-A-Ways

Why are sewer replacements so expensive?

A complete sewer replacement is one of the more expensive repairs you will ever have to do to your home.  

Replacing a sewer involves:

  • Excavating a portion of your yard using large, heavy equipment
  • Bringing in trench shoring to protect the plumber down in the trench who is replacing the pipe
  • Breaking up and repairing any basement concrete if interior work is also needed
  • Thousands of dollars of equipment and materials (We bring between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of equipment to every sewer replacement)
  • Carefully avoiding any buried utilities such as gas lines, electric lines, and water lines

There are many moving parts to a sewer replacement project, and each element adds complexity and expense. However, a quality sewer replacement should be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase during your homeownership. Still, even though sewer replacement will be expensive, it should be attainable and relatively affordable. Getting a second opinion is always a wise choice if you’ve received a price for sewer replacement that seems too high.      

Is it normal to replace my sewer’s outside and inside parts together?

We are noticing a trend in our industry of other plumbing companies recommending replacing the interior and exterior portions of your sewer at the same time simply because they can sell it that way. By telling homeowners that the interior part of their sewer is about to go, they can roll both projects into one easy finance payment and get it all done at once. This practice is often predatory and expensive. Sometimes replacing the entire sewer line from inside the home to the outside is needed, but in most cases, it is not. A careful camera inspection and pipe locate of your sewer line will tell you whether your home needs such a high level of repair for its unique sewer issues.       

Does cast iron pipe really rot out after 60 years?

All cast iron pipe eventually “rots out” and disintegrates. This deterioration sometimes takes as little as 30 years but can also take well over 130 years. Cast iron pipe typically rots because it was originally installed without enough grade to drain correctly, allowing water to sit in the pipe and start rusting away the bottom of the pipe. However, we frequently find in-use cast iron sewer pipes in the oldest parts of Baltimore city that are well over 120 years old and in perfectly serviceable condition. Your cast iron pipe may only have a 60-year lifespan but also may have decades of service life left. It doesn’t make sense to replace part of your home that’s working fine because it might break in the next 20, 30, or more years.    

How do you know if your cast iron sewer line needs replacement?

A thorough camera inspection, descaling, and jetting of your sewer line can determine the overall condition of your cast iron pipes and pinpoint areas needing replacement or repair. A sewer jetter scours and cleans the inside of a pipe at around 3-4,000 PSI. If a sewer line can withstand these cleaning forces, it has many useful years left of draining sewage out of your home. We frequently recommend sewer jetting as an interim step before complete replacement because if the sewer jetting is successful, it adds many years to the useful service life of your sewer line.     

How do I know if someone has replaced my sewer line?

The clearest indicator of a sewer replacement is a visible exterior cleanout. If this cleanout is made out of white PVC plastic and has a brass or plastic screw plug installed, there is a good chance that your sewer line has been replaced or repaired sometime in the past. You can also look for signs of a shallow depression running between your home and the edge of your property. This depression could indicate that a trench was dug through your property at some point to replace the sewer line.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a second opinion on your home’s sewer:

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