What Is A Sewer Clean Out Plug?
You get out of the shower and find yourself standing in a puddle on the bathroom floor. You know the shower door/curtain was closed. Oh no! The water is coming from the toilet. This is a classic example of what happens when a home's sewer line backs up. Many times it is silent and you don't know it is coming and then one day...there is extra water on the floor. Then you remember that during your home inspection, the Inspector pointed out your "sewer clean out", a white pipe in the basement wall or sticking out of the ground near the house. Now could be the time to get more acquainted with your homes waste water/sewer system.
Sewer backups happen for a variety of reasons but the main causes are items in the drain that should not be there (think diapers or wet wipes), build-ups in the drain line (not enough water to keep the line clear) or roots growing into the line outside of the home.
Don't panic... you have at least two options. If you are handy and have a strong stomach, you can get to work and fix the situation. If not, call a plumber and a cleaning service to handle the mess.
Let's look at option 1. First things first. You need to have a basic understanding of how your home's waste system works. Think of the home's sewer line as a tree. The "limbs" of the tree are your individual waste drains for sinks, showers, tubs and yes, toilets. The limbs all come down to join the "trunk" of the tree forming a larger and larger "trunk" that eventually exits the home through either a basement wall, a crawlspace wall or under the slab. The entire system is based on gravity. The "limbs" are all slightly tilted to send "waste" toward the exit pipe and the water your home generates keeps the line clear as it flows through the limbs. Now that you have a basic understanding of the system, let's get to the task of "clearing" the line and cleaning up the mess.
Find the clean-out in your home. If you have a basement where the ceilings are not finished, finding the pipes is easy. Even if the basement is finished, there is generally a room that is reserved for the heating and air system and most often the exit line is there as well. If your home is built on a slab, go outside and walk around the house to find the "clean-out".
Once you have located the clean-out, you will need to open it. Take safety precautions before removing the cap as there may be pressure built up in the line that can cause waste water to spray out. Goggles and gloves are a good idea and even a respirator if you have one. Once you get the line open, you will be able to isolate the problem. Is there standing water at that point? Then you have a blockage between you and the street. If there is no water, the blockage is between you and the house.
For blockages that appear to be within the home, you may be able to fix the issue by either renting, borrowing or buying a "sewer snake" to run into the line in an attempt to locate and remove the blockage. Homeowner style sewer snakes are generally hand held plastic units with a coiled up metal band inside that you can use to push into the pipes and find the blockage. There will be a small screw like head on the sewer snake which you can control from the outside by turning the handheld drum. The metal band turns as you turn the drum and you can "latch" onto items in the drain and pull them out. These handheld units are good for reaching about 10-15 feet into the drain and cost about $20 at Home Depot or Lowes.
Another alternative for clearing a backed up sewer line is to use a "water pressure style" clean out device. These units consist of a rubber bladder with a small hole in one end. The unit can be attached to the end of a hose and placed in the drain to help remove blockages using water pressure. Instructions for the use of these devices can be found online or from the manufacturer.
If the blockage appears to be between you and the street, you may be able to use a hand held unit or you may have to rent a larger power unit from a local rental store. Using a power unit is harder and can be dangerous; you will need to rely on the advice of the rental store for instruction on the proper usage and safety precautions for the equipment.
Option 2 is obviously the "cleaner" approach. A professional plumber generally has the equipment on their truck to handle the issue and if they don't, they can assess the situation and rent what they need to get the job done. Using a professional may give you greater confidence that the issue will not occur again. They will also be able to see if there is a larger issue such as a dip in the pipe (which can occur over time with settling) which could require the system to be completely changed out. This is that grey area where you want to be sure the plumber you use is a trusted resource. If you don't have experience with a plumber, a referral from a friend is a good idea. Changing out sewer systems can be very costly so you want to be sure it is necessary and the best option.
Finally, you will need to clean up the mess that was created in the first place; the decision on how to tackle that job is personal preference. You can pull on your gloves and goggles and follow expert advice you can find online or you can call a remediation service. This choice simply depends on your comfort level in appropriately dealing with removing the waste water from your home. The remediation service may be pretty expensive but in some instances, piece of mind is worth the price.
That first bit of panic you felt should be gone now. It is never good to see water outside of the shower, tub, sink or toilet but it does happen. It can happen without notice or there may have been subtle warning signs. Drain systems should operate normally with no odd sounds, smells or unexplained blockages. If something seems out of the ordinary, you should look a little further. Understanding the systems and keeping an eye out for trouble can help you avoid this costly mess.