5 Steps to Dealing with Invasive Tree Roots
David L. Whyte, CFO and president of Whyte Plumbing Inc. in Tarzana, Calif., makes a clear distinction between unclogging a sewer line and cleaning a sewer line. Using a snake, "You go in to some degree and basically open a line that's backed up or clogged and remove anywhere from 50 percent to 60 percent of the roots," he says. "They confuse unclogging a line with cleaning a line. Guys come in, they poke a hole, they're done. Cleaning a line takes different types of cutting heads and different snakes, repetitiously in and out, many times. That's one way of cleaning."
The Mechanical Solution
One of the most common techniques is to use a mechanical auger. "The mechanical method of root removal is simple," says Tim Carter, author of the syndicated column AsktheBuilder.com. "A powered sewer auger is sent down a sewer line with a rotating spiral head. The head has teeth on it much like a reciprocating saw blade. The rotating action cuts the roots, but many remain within the sewer line."
This clears the roots from the sewer line, but doesn't solve the problem. The roots will grow back. "You've simply removed the symptom," says David Yates, president of FW Behler Inc. in York, Pa. "And that root that's now cut off or snapped off or chewed off will immediately start to send out some fine tendrils, which will start the whole process again."
The Chemical Solution
In order to kill off the root structure so it doesn't grow back, you need to use some sort of chemical. Carter is a big proponent of copper sulfate crystals. "They are 100 percent effective because the copper in the copper sulfate crystals creates a poison zone within the soil outside the pipe," he says. "Roots can't get into the pipe, as they die trying."
Whyte prefers a foaming agent like RootX. "Copper sulfate crystals sit on the bottom of the pipe," he says. "They do not foam. They do not coat the root masses that come down from the top of the pipe like fingers from a web. That's basically how the roots grow in. The foaming root destroyers like RootX foam inside the pipe, and coat the top."
The Hydrojetter Solution
A high-end way of clearing sewer lines is with a Hydrojetter. This machine uses a pump and water and produces up to 4,000 psi, up to 17 to 18 gallons per minute. "The trailer jetter is the size of a small truck, and basically has a 500-foot reach," Whyte says. "It has specialty tips that go on the end that use water. They have ones that have wires that look like cat's whiskers and spin anywhere from 20,000 rpm to 50,000 rpm." After the Hydrojetter does its job, the sewer line can be flushed with a chemical to kill any roots still present.
A Hydrojetter is an expensive approach to sewer lines, although Yates says all sewer cleaning equipment is expensive. "We've probably got $30,000 or $40,000 tied up in our sewer cleaning equipment," he adds. "You don't normally see a one or two-man shop having the kinds of equipment we do. That being said, there are exceptions. I guess it just depends on where you want to be in the market and how deep into this level of service you want to get."
The Valuable Tool
You may want to consider investing in a camera that can make a videotape of the extent of the damage. "You make a tape, it costs $2," Whyte says. "It's 100 percent clear and it will tell you what's going on with the sewer."
Yates notes that a good camera/video system can run $16,000. "The camera very quickly pays for itself," he adds. "One of the things we discovered immediately was that anything we expected was usually 10 times worse. You can show it to a homeowner and say, ‘We suspect you have this problem, and here it is.'"
If you decide to go the video route, consider color rather than black-and-white and with a constant-level image so you don't have to crane your neck to see which way is up.
Dig it Up
Sometimes, a sewer line can't be cleaned or cleared if it has been damaged too badly. Sometimes it has to be replaced. In most cases, a Hydrojetter could clear the line, if the technology is available. "I find that nine out of 10 customers not only don't need a new sewer, they just need their lines cleaned properly," Whyte says.