Old house toilet clogs: rooting out the problem

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips

A clogged toilet can be a major inconvenience any time, but especially during the holiday season. However, I discovered things could always be worse when my bathroom's shower and sink also became unusable. When all the fixtures in a bathroom drain very slowly or not at all, it's often an indication of an even bigger problem: the main sewer line is blocked.

I wrote about the trials and tribulations of dealing with ancient plumbing and clogged toilets, in particular, several weeks ago. Unfortunately, I found out that all my work on my toilet was for naught. The obstruction wasn't in the fixture or even in the house … it was somewhere in the depths of my front yard.

Tree roots and sewer lines: a bad mixture

Terra cotta piping was the material of choice for exterior sewer lines for many years and is still used in some areas. The clay piping is fairly inexpensive and its short lengths make it easy to install. However, depending on the distance of the run, all those short pieces can result in a lot of joints which can be a bad thing.

If there are trees or shrubs growing near the sewer line, the moisture in the piping often attracts their root systems. As the joints loosen with age, they can provide access for those roots to invade the piping. Over time, the main sewer line to your home may become completely blocked … just like mine.

cleaning out the sewer

Water at clean-out can indicate blockage between house and street

A power auger comes to the rescue

There are several large trees and a lot of shrubs in the vicinity of my old house's sewer line. I suspected their invasive roots were the cause of my clog. When I removed the waste line's exterior clean-out cap, water poured out … a pretty good indication that the blockage was somewhere between the house and the street. Being a dedicated DIYer, I decided to handle the matter myself ... I ordered a commercial grade sewer cleaning power auger.

Power augers come in numerous sizes, but the good models that can remove just about any type of blockage are large and heavy … they are also somewhat expensive. However, like anyone addicted to purchasing tools, I was able to rationalize the cost. I wasn't going to have to hire a plumbing contractor and my yard wouldn't have to be excavated.

power auger for sewer clogs

A sewer-cleaning power auger

Commercial grade power augers have 50-75 feet of heavy duty cable that is wrapped around a drum. When the machine is turned on, the cable rotates as you feed it slowly into the sewer line. A good model comes with several attachments that can be fitted to the front of the cable depending on the type of blockage that needs to be cleared. I used the root-cutter attachment and within 30 minutes of starting the job, my clogged toilet and sewer line ordeal had finally come to an end.

power auger attachments

Attachments for cable end of power auger

It may be 15 years before I have another problem with roots blocking my old house's sewer line, but when it happens, I'll be ready. One word of caution: power augers can be dangerous. If you use one, wear safety goggles and protective gloves, and be sure to read the instruction manual before starting the project.