Water is slopping from your kitchen sink, the toilet bowl is filling up and there's an evil smell pervading your home... A blocked drain or sewer is not something you will be able to ignore for long! It's also not an enviable DIY task, so read on for the low down on finding a professional to clean up, and solve the problem.
Who is responsible?
Many householders mistakenly believe that drains and sewers are not privately owned, and that upkeep and repairs are therefore the responsibility of the local authority or water company. It's important to understand the situation for your own particular home. Check the Title Deeds for your property to see where drains and sewers are located, and who is responsible for their upkeep.
Take the time to check where you stand - carrying out repairs can be costly, and you should be aware of your potential liability. If you are a tenant, your landlord should take responsibility for this.
Broadly speaking, sewers can be defined as either public or private. Your water company is responsible for sewerage pipes from the point at which they join the public sewerage system. In some cases, your premises will not be directly connected to a public sewer, but will be linked to a network of private sewers which later connects with the public system.
The water company is also responsible for any shared pipe serving properties built prior to October 1937 or a shared pipe which they have adopted.
About 50% of properties in the UK are connected to private sewers and responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance lies with the property owner(s). Private sewers include all shared pipes serving properties constructed after September 1937. Often private sewers have not been built to the same standards as public sewers, so unfortunately problems may occur more frequently.
If you own a new property, you are less likely to be affected by low-grade drain and sewer pipes. Since 2002, house-builders have been required to construct all new sewers to adoptable standards. The government is also considering the adoption of private sewers by the water companies, but as yet responsibility still lies with the householder.
Don't forget that if several properties drain into a private sewer, upkeep is the joint responsibility of those properties.
Can't I fix the problem myself?
Some drainage and sewerage work can be carried out by the householder. If the dishwater won't drain away, for example, it is certainly worth making sure it is not simply due to an accumulation of food in the u-bend under the sink!
When it comes to major blockages, however, you risk worsening the situation or injuring yourself by adopting a DIY approach. Time to call in the experts!
What services are available?
If you have a simple blockage, a specialist will be able to clear it relatively quickly using a set of drain rods, which screw together to make a long length which can be inserted into the drain or sewerage pipe. A second method is jet vacuumation, also known as High Pressure Water Jetting (HPWJ).
This technique has the advantage of being less intrusive, and is a very effective way of clearing pipes. Material is removed by adjusting the pressure and flow of water, sometimes with the addition of chemical solvents where a build of fat or insoluble material has caused the blockage.
As well as being appropriate for drain "emergencies", HPWJ can be used to regularly clean drains and help prevent the build up of material which could cause a future blockage. Many providers now offer a drain maintenance programme, and most suggest the cleaning is carried out twice a year to minimise the need for emergency unblocking and renovation in the future.
Advice can also be offered on how to prevent unnecessary blockages, for example by fitting drain grilles and not flushing "disposable" items down the toilet.
Closed Circuit Television survey is an increasingly popular method of drain inspection, and a useful tool for assessing the need for drain repair. Portable endoscopic cameras are used, or alternatively the camera is mounted on a remote controlled tractor unit, which is placed in the pipe or sewer.
Pipe joints, cracks, blockages and the overall condition of the pipe can be established.
Repairs are traditionally repaired by excavating the drain, and carrying out remedial work in situ. This often involves removing and replacing sections of pipe which are deformed, cracked or otherwise damaged.
A more recently developed technique involves drain relining, also known as Cured-in-place Pipe (CIPP). CIPP uses a resin impregnated sleeve which has no joints or seams, and forms a pipe within the existing drain when "inflated" with air or water. The structural strength of the original pipe is retained and thus CIPP is an effective way to rehabilitate pipes where excavating an access trench would be impractical or undesirable.
Septic tank management
If your property is not connected to a main sewer, you will need to employ a specialist to empty your septic tank or cesspit. Some drain and sewer clearance firms can offer this service.
If you are considering buying or selling a property, you should determine the potential for subsidence on the site of the property. Leaking and damaged drains are a major cause of subsidence. A drain survey can establish the state of the existing drain and sewerage system, and includes visual inspection, mapping and often a CCTV survey.
How much will I have to pay?
Don't forget that if the problem affects the public sewer, you will not need to pay for clearance or repair. Contact your water supplier so that they can take appropriate action.
- unblocking/clearance work, including water jetting and rodding work is generally charged by the hour. Expect a rate of £40 per hour or more.
- a CCTV survey and written report will cost around £120, more for a property with several manholes. Drain surveys are a similar cost.
- annual emptying of a septic tank costs around £80, while cesspits cost as much as £300 per month as they require a higher volume of waste to be pumped out.
Remember that if you are unable or unwilling to rectify problems relating to a private sewer, your local authority may be forced to address the issue on environmental health grounds. You will be left to pick up the tab!
How do I find a good service provider?
There is no specific industry body or accreditation scheme for drain and sewer clearance. However, a listing on the Utilities Vendor Database (UVDB) or the National Association of Drainage Contractors (NADC) website is a good indication of professionalism. Another good indicator is membership of the Water Jetting Association, an organisation which sets out guidelines for safe working in its code of practice. Visit the site for a list of affiliated members.
Some general tips when choosing a drain and sewerage clearance contractor:
- ask for a free assessment before committing
- check what is included in your quote - how comprehensive is the service? A fixed price may be a better option than a more open-ended pay-per-hour agreement.
- ask for details of training and the experience of staff. Does the company have a written H&S policy and safe working procedures?
- is the company contactable 24 hours a day? This can be reassuring if you have a drain emergency!
If you don't know which company supplies your sewerage services, check this map on the Water.org website.