The Homeowner’s Anti-Backup Plan: DIY Solutions for a Stinky Situation

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You’re kicking back, enjoying a relaxing evening at home when something strange wafts into the room. Something is smelling extra funky. You decide to go check out the basement and what you find horrifies you – the floor drain is spraying out a completely nasty mess. Your heart drops in your chest. You’re not only totally disgusted, but you know a fix is bound to be super pricey. Don’t start panicking and immediately dial a plumber – take a moment and breath. This guide will help you fix common sewer backups on your own, which will ultimately save you time, money, and a ton of stress.

What the Heck Is a Sewer Backup Anyway? (And Why Should You Care?)

A sewer backup can be a serious headache, not to mention something that’s pretty hard on your nostrils. All of your wastewater stops flowing away from your house and makes its rude re-entrance through your drains, toilets, or – even worse – your basement floor.

The Ick Factor (and Why You Should Really Care)

Beyond the obvious “ick” factor, a sewer backup can be a very serious issue with large-scale consequences:

  • Health Hazards: Raw sewage is a harmful mixture of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can make you and your family very ill. Imagine E. coli, salmonella, and hepatitis A springing up in your family’s next big meal. That’ll get your head spinning.
  • Home Damage: Sewage is extremely corrosive and can eat away at your floors, walls, furniture, and personal belongings. It can even do some pricey damage to your home’s foundation over time.
  • Financial Drain: Sewage clean-up is not a joke. Even if you’re able to succeed at finishing the initial clean-up, you’re going to have to bring in a professional to do the disinfecting and repairs that can quickly rack up to a small fortune. And don’t forget those hefty plumbing bills if the backup keeps happening.

What Causes a Sewer Backup? (The Usual Suspects)

Knowing the usual suspects can help you prevent these nasty surprises. Here are some common culprits behind sewer backups:

  • Tree Roots: It’s possible that the beautiful trees in your yard are accidentally sending their roots to sabotage your plumbing system. They’re kind of like nature’s plumbing pirates and will wreak havoc in their search for nutrients and water.
  • Clogged Pipes: Hair, grease, “flushable” wipes (newsflash: they’re not!), and other bathroom debris can build up over time, creating blockages that lead to backups.
  • Aging Infrastructure: Older pipes are more prone to cracks, collapses, and sags, making them more susceptible to blockages and backups.
  • Heavy Rainfall and Flooding: If you live in an area with frequent downpours, excess water can overwhelm your sewer system and cause it to back up.

But Why Me? Common Culprits Behind Sewer Backups

Nobody likes to be blindsided by a sewer backup. So, let’s shine a light on the usual suspects and figure out what causes these unpleasant surprises:

Tree Roots: Nature’s Little Plumbing Nightmares

Those majestic trees in your yard might be secretly plotting against your plumbing. Their roots are constantly on the hunt for water and nutrients, and your sewer lines can seem like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Over time, those roots can grow into the pipes, causing cracks and blockages that lead to – you guessed it – sewage backups.

Clogged Pipes: The “Flushable” Wipe Myth

Ever heard of the myth of “flushable” wipes? It’s time to throw that myth into the garbage can. While they disappear into your toilet with an easy swirl, they pretty much never disintegrate like toilet paper. They get tangled up with all kinds of bathroom debris like hair and grease, forming stubborn clogs that grow into serious blockages over time

Old or Damaged Pipes: Age Ain’t Just a Number

No pipes are immune to the ravages of time. As your plumbing system ages, things start to crack, corrode, and eventually collapse. These impossible-to-avoid deteriorations become the perfect spots for blockages to take their root. If your home has older pipes (cast iron, clay, or Orangeburg), you might want to think about getting an inspection to understand their condition.

Heavy Rain or Flooding: When Mother Nature Overreacts

Living in a rain-prone area can be a double-edged sword. While we appreciate the greenery, heavy rainfall can overwhelm your sewer system. When the ground becomes saturated, water can seep into cracks in your pipes or flood the municipal sewer system, causing backups in your home.

Other Sneaky Saboteurs

While the above culprits are the most common, other factors can contribute to sewer backups:

  • Foreign Objects: Kids’ toys, feminine hygiene products, and even excess toilet paper can wreak havoc on your plumbing.
  • Shifting Soil: Earthquakes, construction, or even the natural settling of your house can cause the ground to shift, damaging sewer lines.
  • Municipal Sewer Problems: Issues with the city’s sewer system can sometimes back up into your home.

Signs Your Sewer is Plotting a Stinky Surprise: The Warning Signs

Before your sewer decides to unleash its fury, it often drops a few hints. Being aware of these warning signs can help you catch a potential backup before it becomes a full-blown disaster:

Gurgling Sounds: The Toilet’s Cry for Help

If you’re hearing gurgling sounds coming from your drains or toilet, it’s not just your imagination. Those gurgles are air bubbles doing their best to escape past pip blockages. These weird noises are kind of like your plumbing sending you an S.O.S. in secret code.

Slow Drains: The Water’s Snail-Paced Retreat

Notice your sinks or bathtubs draining slower than usual? Don’t ignore this sluggish behavior. It’s often the first sign of a brewing backup, indicating that something is obstructing the flow of water.

Multiple Fixtures Backing Up: The Domino Effect

If water starts backing up into one fixture (say, your shower) when you flush the toilet or run the washing machine, you’re dealing with a problem that goes beyond a single clogged drain. This usually signals a blockage in the main sewer line, the central pipeline that carries wastewater away from your house.

Foul Odors: The Nose Knows

That unmistakable sewer smell isn’t just unpleasant; it’s a major red flag. If you detect that odor indoors, it’s a surefire sign that sewage is backing up into your home. Don’t ignore this olfactory warning!

Pooling Water: The Ground’s Warning

Keep an eye on the area around your sewer cleanout. If you see water pooling there, especially after heavy rain or when no water is running in your home, it could be a sign that your sewer line is blocked or overflowing.

Time to Roll Up Your Sleeves: DIY Fixes for Common Backups

Ready to tackle the problem head-on? Here are some DIY fixes you can try before calling in the professionals:

  • Plunger Power: Good ol’ reliable plunger can often dislodge simple clogs. Give it a good few plunges in the affected drain or toilet.
  • Snake It Out: If the plunger doesn’t do the trick, a drain snake (also called an auger) can reach deeper into the pipes to break up stubborn blockages.
  • Chemical Cleaners: Use these with caution, as they can be harsh on your pipes. But if you’re dealing with a grease clog, a drain cleaner might help.
  • Clean the Sewer Trap: If you have a cleanout plug (usually a capped pipe in your yard or basement), you can open it to clear out debris that’s built up there.

When to Wave the White Flag (and Call a Plumber)

You’ve geared up with safety gloves, plunged carefully and consistently, perfectly snaked yoru lines, and maybe even tried a couple of chemical concoctions…and yet, your sewer system will not budge. Don’t beat yourself up! Some situations are simply beyond the scope of DIY fixes.

Here’s when it’s time to call in the pros:

  • The Backup is Severe: If you’re dealing with multiple fixtures backing up, raw sewage overflowing, or flooding in your basement, it’s time to bring in the big guns.
  • The Problem Keeps Recurring: If you’ve tried fixing the backup multiple times, and it keeps coming back, there’s likely a deeper underlying issue that requires professional expertise.
  • You’re Unsure of the Cause: Sometimes, diagnosing the problem can be tricky. A plumber has the tools and experience to pinpoint the source of the backup and provide a lasting solution.
  • Your DIY Efforts Failed: If your attempts at unclogging the drain or clearing the sewer line haven’t worked, it’s time to admit defeat and call in reinforcements.
  • You Have a Septic System: Septic systems are more complex than municipal sewer lines and require specialized knowledge for repairs and maintenance.

Remember, there’s no shame in calling a plumber. They have the tools, training, and experience to safely and effectively resolve complex sewer issues. Plus, they can often offer preventative maintenance advice to help you avoid future backups.

An Ounce of Prevention: Tips to Keep Your Sewer Happy

The best way to prevent a sewage system back-up is to take the necessary steps to avoid it ever happening in the first place. Here are a few tips:

  • Be Mindful of What You Flush: Avoid flushing anything that doesn’t belong, like wipes, feminine hygiene products, paper towels, or grease.
  • Schedule Regular Maintenance: Have your sewer lines inspected and cleaned every few years.
  • Consider a Backwater Prevention Valve: This nifty device can prevent sewage from flowing back into your home during heavy rain or flooding.
  • Plant Trees Strategically: If you’re planting new trees, keep them a safe distance away from your sewer lines.


Nobody on Earth thinks dealing with a sewer backup is a good time, but it doesn’t have to be a complete disaster. With a little know-how and some elbow grease, you can often fix minor backups yourself and save a bundle. Just remember, safety first – wear gloves and eye protection when dealing with sewage.

Meet Marco, a lifelong tinkerer and DIY enthusiast, developed a passion for plumbing after fixing a leaky faucet in his own home. Years later, he turned that passion into a thriving business, Amarco Plumbing, where he shares his knowledge and expertise with the community.