Homeowners are responsible for the functionality of the sewer line from the house to the street.

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Hidden underground, the pipe that connects your toilets to the public sewer lines is very easy to ignore — until it clogs or breaks. Fortunately, it’s often possible to spot — and repair — sewer problems before they lead to costly excavation and pipe replacement.

“Paying attention to your sewer line can save you time and money and a lot of worry,” says E.J. Snyder, a licensed side sewer contractor with South West Plumbing. The company serves King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties with a full range of plumbing services that include work on sewer lines.

Inspect before you buy

Sewage is probably not the first thing on your mind when you’re getting ready to make an offer on a new home. But it should be high on the list of things to check, Snyder says. Once you own the property, you are responsible for the functionality of the sewer line all the way from the house to the street.

A few years ago, Tacoma and Seattle started requiring sellers to offer sewer line inspections to buyers. “They did this because people were buying a first home and a month later discovering they didn’t have $20,000 to replace a broken sewer line,” Snyder says.

The prospective buyer must foot the bill for the inspection (about $300 to $500, depending on the sewer line location and configuration). But Snyder says the information gained from the pre-purchase inspection is well worth the cost.

Check your line regularly

If you live in a home where the sewer line has not been recently inspected, consider being proactive. Snyder recommends having someone come out and “camera” the line every 18 months. A technician will feed a special waterproof video camera on flexible fiber-optic rod through the sewer line. You’ll get a recording that shows the condition of pipes, documenting evidence of damage or blockages.

Regular inspections are important if you live in an older home. Older sewer lines, made of clay-tile or concrete segments, are vulnerable to wear and tear from a variety of causes, including ground settling or damage from tree roots. Damage from roots is common, Snyder says.

“Once a root enters the pipe, toilet paper can catch and start a backup,” he explains. If an inspection finds invasive roots, simply trimming them back can prevent or minimize backups.

Beware of the slow toilet

Even modern four-inch sewer lines, made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), can break under pressure or clog if the wrong materials get flushed down your toilets. If you suspect something is wrong — slow draining of a toilet is most often the clue — don’t delay in calling the experts.

“You really want to handle a sewer problem before it gets drastic,” Snyder says. He recently did a repair for a family that had put off checking out a slow-draining system. They were in the midst of hosting a family gathering when their toilets not only stopped working, but backed up, flooding the downstairs. “They ended up with $30,000 in damage, and that didn’t include the cost of us fixing the actual sewer line,” Snyder says.

Be prepared for complexity

In older neighborhoods, nothing about sewers is simple. In fact, in Seattle it’s not uncommon to have two houses sharing one sewer line. The municipal code says that both owners are equally responsible for maintaining the shared line.

Seattle is also one of the few cities that still has what’s called a “combined system” for sewers. This means that water runoff from your gutters combines with waste carried by the side sewer before it all enters the city system at the street.

Bottom line: there are a lot of pipes underground on your property, and it’s a good idea to know where they are — especially the side sewer line. “If you are digging up your yard for an addition, or installing a patio or pathway, have a contractor come out to locate the sewer line first,” Snyder says. “You want to know where the line runs and how deep it is so it doesn’t get damaged.”

Work with the city

Keep in mind that most area municipalities require that side sewer installation or repair be done by a licensed side sewer contractor. You’ll need to get a permit for the project, and a city inspector will come out to sign off on the completed work.

Because of the dangers of working with deep trenches, human waste and sewer gases, the government takes side sewer projects very seriously — and so do the professionals who do outside plumbing.

“Sewer work requires a license and training, because the sewer is connecting to a city system,” Snyder says. “It is not something you should ever attempt yourself.”

South West Plumbing has been serving King, Pierce and Snohomish counties for more than 35 years. All South West Plumbing plumbers are highly trained and arrive prepared with fully stocked trucks. We work evenings and weekends at no extra charge.