Why Tree Roots Can Cause Damage to Your Plumbing System

Each spring in Ottawa, we welcome the warmer weather and breathe a sigh of relief as our lawns green up, the tulips emerge, and buds appear on the trees.

But these very things are also a sign that an invisible, underground troublemaker has returned. Tree roots can wreak havoc on our sewer and plumbing systems and leave us with an expensive mess to deal with.

We turned to Dave Smythe, founder of Out of This World Plumbing, to learn more about the problems roots so often cause and how to prevent damage from happening in the first place.

If you’re an Ottawa homeowner, you’ll appreciate his local insight and the many tips he has to share.

The short answer is: yes. People don’t realize what you see above is also happening below. 

In the springtime, roots start to regrow in order to support the growth we see up top. They immediately spread out underground, looking for sources of water. If there happens to be a break or a crack in a pipe, the roots head straight towards it to get access to what they crave: moisture and nutrients. And once they get there, they set up shop and continue to grow. 

The roots create gaps and infiltrate the system as they get bigger, happily catching whatever is draining away. This causes blockages that lead to major problems in main water supply lines, sewer lines and drainage pipes.

The best way I can describe it is your pipe is like a great big drinking straw, and it can take a lot of water. If you’ve got a blockage or restriction on one end, it eventually fills up—especially on a heavy water use day. When it does fill up, you’ll see water on your floor around the lowest opening. If left alone long enough, it’ll empty and slowly drain away. If you catch it at this point, you have another two weeks or so before you encounter a much bigger problem: a smelly mess that everyone dreads—plumbing failure, flooding and the need for major renovations.

The best way to identify the extent of the problem is to have a professional determine exactly what is going on.

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Signs of a Broken Sewer Line

Why does an underground pipe crack in the first place? Are trees always to blame?

Well, tree roots can certainly be strong enough to break pipes (just as they easily buckle cement sidewalks), but other factors are usually involved.

Take the age and the type of pipe, for example. In our older Ottawa neighbourhoods that are 70-plus years old, we find clay pipes. They were installed in three-to-five foot lengths, and their connections simply snap due to wear and tear. Cement-based pipes also tend to break at the joints. Occasionally, we run into a pipe material called Orangeburg, which is essentially a tar paper-based drain line. Instead of breaking, it collapses or gets crushed. Plastic-based PVC pipes are much stronger, but even these newer pipes can fail; we see it all the time. 

Regardless of the pipe material, the single biggest problem leading to breakage and root damage is poor installation. Even though there are codes and rules stating how it’s supposed to be done, it doesn’t always work out that way in practice. If the system isn’t installed properly or given enough support, the pipes will degrade. Then, when subsidence or heavy landscaping occurs, ground tension shifts and the pipes crack or break.

If all this is happening belowground, how do I know tree roots have entered my plumbing system?

Here in Ottawa, you’re not going to find many obvious clues in your yard. In our area, plumbing pipes are buried deep underground because the majority of homes here have basements. The water and sewer lines sit anywhere from six to 12 or 13 feet below the surface.

Instead, you’ll see clues inside your home. (But, to be honest, the signs are getting harder to recognize as people finish their basements and move laundry stations to upper floors.) Maybe you’ve noticed water collecting around the floor drain or a shower in the basement? Or, are you confused by the fact that boxes in the cellar are wet or damaged? Among others, those are some signs to look out for.

Frequently Asked Questions

If tree roots get into septic system pipes, that’s a different story. There is no floor drain serving as a release spot to show something is going on. Now, you can look to your yard for clues because of the proximity of the piping to the surface of the ground. Septic lines are buried much closer to the surface. The main drain line (coming from the ceiling in your basement leading to the septic tank) is within two feet of the grass.

Look for snow rapidly melting in one specific area. That’s a sign. Soggy spots or green patches of grass during a drought also point to a leaching field. Inside your home, you might notice strange smells or see leaks in the basement ceiling. Even something as subtle as a toilet gurgling can be a sign.

Again, contact a plumbing professional who can do more sleuthing and figure out if roots are the culprit.

Every situation is entirely unique, but there is no need to panic. We never immediately jump to solutions that involve tearing up a lawn. 

Initially, we’ll run a drain camera through a pipe to determine the extent of the damage. We look for cracks, bows, deviations and roots. And we shouldn’t really see any water in that pipe at all. If we do, that’s cause for concern; the flow is clearly restricted. Surprisingly, most of the roots we see aren’t tangled up balls; they’re long and skinny, about a millimetre wide. They grow along the length of the pipe, which is often broken and damaged in several spots.

In most cases, we solve the problem by introducing a drain cleaning product to control the spread of roots. (If needed, we use cutters to break up and clear root systems from the pipes as well.) Homeowners love the product because, depending on the width of the pipe, it effectively keeps roots at bay for a year or more. The product only kills the roots within the pipe that gets treated, so it’s great for the tree; it continues to thrive. Over time, though, roots always grow back. Always. Once a pipe is vulnerable to root invasion, you’ll need to repeat the treatment regularly.

If that’s not deemed an option, you still might be able to avoid a lot of digging in your yard. We might recommend pipe relining, which is “trenchless.” After cleaning your pipe, a resin liner is fed through the pipe to form a new smooth wall that will seal off cracks. Or, pipe bursting involves pulling a big plug through a damaged pipe to break it up. Then another new pipe is dragged in right behind it. These options have their limitations, though.

Sometimes, replacing your pipes is the way to go. It’ll solve big plumbing problems long term, but, yes, it means digging up the yard or removing landscaping.

This all starts as an invisible issue, so the only way to have peace of mind is to be proactive. If your house is old or you recently purchased your property, have a professional perform a drain system health check. We’ll use a camera to do an inspection and alert you to potential problems.

And don’t stop there. Stay one step ahead of tree roots with annual sewer line and plumbing maintenance. Yearly attention will keep your pipes intact and fully functional. If you’ve got a newer home (less than 15 years old), you can probably get away with spacing out your preventive maintenance every couple of years.

And, if you’ve got big landscaping plans, figure out where your pipes are before you begin so you can plan accordingly. 

First, you have to know that it’s virtually impossible to keep roots entirely away from pipes; you’d be looking at 30 to 50 feet away, which is the recommendation for a septic system. That’s just not realistic. But you never want to plant a tree directly above a pipe; it’s bound to send a taproot down, or some of the bigger roots will grow so close to the pipe that they’ll expand and burst the pipe over time.

As for finding pipes, our technicians at Out of This World Plumbing can certainly come out and locate your underground system. Or you can call the utility company or the city’s sewer and water department; they’ll have specific street records on file.

Advice for Ottawa Homeowners

Thanks for all this great information, Dave! Do you have any final advice for Ottawa homeowners?

My pleasure! I know no one wants to be in a situation where they’re stuck without plumbing for days on end or, worse, be forced into costly renovations.

My best advice is to do whatever you can to catch a tree root issue before it becomes a serious plumbing problem. If the damage is already done, call us. We’ll fix the problem and get things back to normal for you.

Also, a word to the wise: be careful where you get your information. There is a lot of information online, but not all of it applies to where you live. Things will vary when you consider things like regional plumbing codes and geographic terrain; dealing with tree roots here in Ottawa is a perfect example.

If you have questions, get your answers directly from a local source vs. doing a Google search and trusting the first thing you see!

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