How I Clogged My Sewer Line with Grease and Learned a $1000 Lesson

One of a home owner’s worse nightmares is a backed up floor drain, especially one that fills a basement with sewage.

Our nightmare happened a few months ago after a recent basement bathroom remodel. The first time the new toilet was flushed, the bathroom filled up with two inches water. The next flushing, pumped sewage out of the storm drain and into two other rooms. It was time to call Roto-Rooter.

One of the first things that Roto-Rooter always tries is an industrial sized snake. These things are about 3/4 of an inch wide and several hundred feet long. The plumber reamed out the sewer line clear to the alley. He didn’t seem to run into any obstructions, nor were there pieces of root on the snake when he coiled it back up. He flushed the toilet and the basement filled right back up with sewage again.

“I think you might have a collapsed line,” the plumber said.

The diagnostics

The plumber recommended a video inspection of the sewer line. Line inspections cost around $180 but is the best way to pin point a leak or broken line. The plumber hooked up the camera and began feeding the snake into the pipes. At the 26 foot mark, we noticed a thick, white slurry coating the walls of the pipes. The slurry was so thick, that the drain water only had about a quarter inch opening to pass through. The obstruction continued on for another 10 feet, and then the line was clear again, all the way to the alley.

The white slurry turned out to be grease. Plain, old, ordinary kitchen grease.

According to the Roto-Rooter plumber, kitchen grease tends to collect somewhere in the pipes between 20-25 feet. This is the point where the hot tap water cools off , and liquid grease solidifies. All those years of draining grease down the garbage disposal caused this huge, sticky buildup which was now clogging our sewer line. Every time we flushed the toilet, the sudden gush of drain water hit the obstruction, and backed right into our basement.

The fix

There’s only one way to fix a sewer line that have been clogged with grease. It takes a high pressure spray washer called a “hydro-jetter” which is fed through the lines like a snake. The hydro-jetter is a large piece of equipment that must be operated at ground level. It is fed through the toilet drain of the ground floor bathroom, and reaches clear to the sewer main in the street or alley. It’s loud, it stinks, it splatters sewage over the walls, and costs about $550.

6 hours later and $1000 poorer, we finally had our sewer line clean again. What made the bill even remotely tolerable was the relief in knowing that we didn’t have a collapsed line after all.

How to prevent grease build up

Grease buildup is one of the primary causes of a blocked residential sewer line. While some of it comes from meat fats, such as bacon and hamburger grease, it also comes from foods such as cooking oil, mayonnaise, butter, sauces, and table scraps. Most people, including myself, thought that running hot water down the sink helped dissolved the grease. All it really does is push the grease just a little further down the pipes. Over time, that grease will build up in the sewer line and create those huge obstructions we saw on the video camera.

There’s always going to be a little bit of grease coming off of plates and cooking utensils, it can’t be avoided. However, you can reduce the amount of grease going into your lines by taking a few precautions.

1. Always scrape cooking grease and oils into a disposal container, rather than pouring it down the drain. Remove remaining grease with a paper towel, and dispose of it in a waste basket as well.

2. Place your food scraps in a trash can instead of running them through the garbage disposal. Disposals may chop the food into bits, but it doesn’t do anything to eliminate the grease. Also scrape plates into the garbage can before washing. Throw coffee grounds in the compost or in the garbage can.

3. Keep strainers in your sink to catch solids, and empty them into the trash can.

These simple tips is all it takes to keep grease from clogging your pipes, and preventing a costly sewer line backup in your home.

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