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4 Steps to Dealing with Invasive Tree Roots

Tree root infestation can be a big problem. Here’s a look at several approaches to clearing sewer lines.

Invasive tree roots can create major headaches in sewer lines. Any crack or fissure in a sewer line will send out signals to tree roots that they will follow. Tendrils resembling spider webs creep down into the cracks and send out roots, which have the potential to grow as large as the sewer line itself.

To address this issue, consider these four potential remedies to unclog or clean sewer lines:

1. Mechanically Cutting Tree Roots

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.”

2. Chemical Tree Root Removal 

To kill off the root structure so it doesn't grow back, you need to use some sort of chemical. Carter recommends 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.”

David L. Whyte, of Whyte Plumbing Inc., in Tarzana, Calif., 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.”

3. How To Kill Tree Roots With A Hydro Jetter 

An effective, but potentially expensive, way of clearing sewer lines is with a hydro jetter. 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 hydro jetter does its job, the sewer line can be flushed with a chemical to kill any roots still present.

4. Digging Up Invasive Tree Roots

Sometimes, a sewer line can't be cleaned or cleared if it has been damaged too badly and must be replaced. To assess the extent of the damage, you may want to consider investing in a camera that can videotape inside the line.

Yates notes that a good camera/video system can be expensive, but it quickly pays for itself. “One of the things we discovered immediately was that anything we expected was usually 10 times worse,” he says. “You can show it to a homeowner and say, ‘We suspect you have this problem, and here it is.’”


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