Why Dig? Trenchless Sewer Line Replacement Bypasses the Backhoe
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Heidi Riddlesperger loves that her house sits on a street lined with majestic oak trees and historic homes. But she also knows that beneath her front yard lies an inevitable and potentially pricey repair.
"I have an old house, and the lateral sewer line has always been a worry for me," the St. Louis member says.
Riddlesperger has reasons to be concerned about the condition of the pipe connecting her 1940 home's plumbing to the city main that runs down her street.
"Several friends of ours who have had older homes here have had to replace their sewer lines," Riddlesperger says. "It's an expensive repair."
Not only can sewer pipe replacement take a chunk out of your wallet — from a few thousand to $20,000 or more — traditional methods can be disruptive, displacing landscaping and hardscaping, and even forcing unlucky homeowners to dig up garages and driveways when their lines run beneath them.
But for those looking to bypass the backhoe, there are new methods of "no dig" sewer replacement that can save homeowners holes and heartburn.
When sewer line repairs are necessary
Experts say how long a sewer will last depends on various factors that affect its integrity, but if your sewer is 40 years old, it may need replacing.
Even if your home is new, its plumbing might be connected to an older pipe. Nearly a quarter of Angie's List members who responded to an online poll have replaced their sewer and 3 percent say it's a project in their imminent future.
"This is my biggest fear — HELP!" wrote one respondent.
Trenchless methods came on the market for residential homes about 10 to 15 years ago, but many consumers are still unaware that they're an option. And because sewer pipe replacement decisions are often made when an emergency situation arises, it limits time to do important research.
"People panic — I've seen jobs where these contractors really rip the eyeballs out of their customers," says Andrew Wyderka, vice president of Heiden Plumbing Company in Milwaukee.
Tree roots caused a clay pipe to crack. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Hans L. of Mount Prospect, Illinois)
Trenchless sewer line techniques
Heiden Plumbing offers two types of trenchless sewer line replacement that are becoming more popular among homeowners — "pipe lining" and "pipe bursting." To install a pipe liner, which is also known as "cured in place pipe," a flexible tube coated with resin is blown or pulled into the damaged pipe and inflated.
After several hours the resin hardens, creating a "pipe within a pipe."
Lining will reduce your lateral's diameter by about a quarter inch, which experts say won't affect your capacity to remove waste from your home. Lining typically involves digging one access hole.
The pipe bursting method involves pulling a new pipe through a damaged one, simultaneously fracturing it outward. This method typically requires access holes to be dug on either side of the lateral.
Pipe lining may not be possible when the lateral has joints or has collapsed, but bursting can still be done on a collapsed lateral if there's room to drag a cable through the old pipe.
Experts say pipe bursting and lining are equally durable, and many come with warranties ranging from 10 to 50 years.
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About 78 percent of Angie's List poll respondents hadn't heard of "no dig" sewer technology, but 73 percent say they'd pay more for sewer pipe replacement if it would preserve their existing landscaping, patio, deck or other outdoor features. Of those who'd had their lines replaced by any method, 17 percent paid more than $5,000.
"I wanted to avoid all of the disruption — having to dig up the yard and going through all that hoo-ha," says Fort Collins, Colorado, member Iain Stewart, who paid $6,000 for pipe lining after tree roots invaded the lateral about three years ago.
Stewart avoided costs associated with digging up his driveway and a stone walkway. "It represented a more cost-effective and less risky solution," he says.
Root of your sewer problem
While acts of nature, accidents or gradual wear can damage sewer lines, the most common culprit in homes built before the 1970s is the intrusion of tree roots into the joints of the pipes, which can be made of clay, cast iron or Orangeburg, a substance made of wood fibers and pitch.
"The roots worm their way into the sewer to find water," says Matt Hart of Hart 2 Hart Plumbing in Monrovia, California, who has been offering trenchless solutions for about six years. "They continue to grow and expand and then they call their neighbors and cousins to come drink."
Hiring a professional to rout your line using an auger or water jet can stem root problems temporarily, but you should also consider the roots a canary in the coal mine.
"Routing is like getting a haircut — you get it cut and it keeps growing," says Jack Simonson, president of The Scottish Plumber, a contractor based in Villa Park, Illinois. Begin researching your options before you have another backup.
Reducing sewer line costs
In many cases, going trenchless can save you money, including the majority of situations where homeowners are responsible for the condition of the sewer line to its connection with the sewer main.
Simonson says in his service area around Chicago, it used to be more common that homeowners were only responsible for the sewer pipe beneath their properties, but municipalities looking to tighten budgets are now more likely to require them to foot the bill to the city's main connection.
Inquire with your city for details.
If Nathan Appleton had gone the traditional trenching route, he'd have had to spend $4,000 to dig up the street in front of his Seattle home, pay for traffic to be rerouted and repair the thoroughfare to city specifications.
"The first estimate came back at just under $20,000," says Appleton, whose sticker shock inspired him to shop around and read about trenchless technologies.
Appleton hired Budget Sewer to replace the clay pipe, which required a combination of pipe bursting and pipe lining due to its unusual configuration and the section beneath the street.
He chose Budget out of about a dozen other Seattle-area contractors he spoke to because they were equipped to do bursting or lining, and offered a bid of $12,000 to do the job without disturbing the street.
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"These guys could do either method, they could give you an answer for what was best," Appleton says.
Experts stress that costs for trenchless will vary, depending on factors like material prices, soil type and how deep sewers are buried. Hart estimates that trenchless can cost about 30 percent more in California due to high material costs, while Wyderka of Milwaukee estimates costs at around $100 per foot for any method, with trenchless slightly outpacing traditional.
Hart says pipe bursting is about 20 percent less expensive than lining in his area and Wyderka says pipe bursting is 15 percent more expensive than lining in his due to sewer depth, which averages 9 feet.
Trenching still an option
For some homeowners, trenching may still be the best option. When Marietta, Georgia, member Karen Kaderlik's sewer line backed up, she and her husband were already planning myriad home improvement projects, including replacing the windows, siding and gutters, and their landscaping had been compromised by an ongoing drought.
Digging a trench didn't seem like a big deal, and Coolray Heating, Cooling & Plumbing was careful to preserve Kaderlik's prized azaleas and other landscaping.
"What I was impressed with was how they finished the job — it was compacted, raked," she says.
Coolray advised Kaderlik wait at least six months for the ground to settle before replanting the yard.
Your options may be limited by the condition of your pipes, their configuration, or where you live. In Chicago, for example, pipe lining is allowed, but pipe bursting is prohibited due to their close proximity to other utility lines, says Gary Litherland, a city spokesman.
Some contractors may only offer one or the other option, so shop around.
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Member Bayle Emlein of Oakland, California, knew she'd eventually have to replace the sewer connected to her 1916 bungalow after having to rout tree roots from her line multiple times.
"Rather than waiting for the next backup, I became proactive," says Emlein, who hired Toto's Plumbing in nearby Berkeley to replace her sewer using pipe bursting.
The $4,200 job, which involved digging up and replacing a small section of sidewalk, only took a day and a half and allowed her to preserve the flowers in her front yard.
"I've been here awhile and I'm attached to them," Emlein says.
Sewer line replacement take planning
Experts say it's a good idea to inspect a sewer line with a camera before you purchase a home.
"The last thing you want is to have a $3,000 to $5,000 sewer problem right when you move in," says Wyderka in Milwaukee.
A few cities around the nation, like Tacoma, Washington, have begun requiring an inspection before selling a home, but National Association of Realtors spokesman Walter Molony says the practice isn't widespread.
Even if you've lived in your home for years, it's worth hiring a professional to examine your line. That way, you can budget for future repairs or replacement, and don't have to make snap decisions when an emergency happens.
Inspection prices usually run between $250 to $350. Some companies advertise free or reduced rate inspections, but make sure the contractor is reputable and there are no hidden fees.
"It's not a very fun or very glamorous repair," says Minneapolis member Tess Surprenant, echoing a sentiment shared by many members who've had to replace their sewer lines. But, she says, it's better not to put off repairs.
"Once you start getting roots growing in your line, [you need to] just bite the bullet."