Can You Afford an Unexpected Sewer Line Replacement?

The drains and toilets in your house start to back up. Nothing seems to be draining so you call the plumber. When the plumber arrives, he inserts a snake with a camera on the end, into your main sewer line from the basement to the city street to see what is going on.

The plumber has bad news. The camera shows that your main sewer pipe has collapsed in several places, has tree root invasions, and the entire line needs to be replaced.  The main sewer pipe is buried very deep in the front yard. At first, you hope that the sewer utility company will just come out and replace it for free. Unfortunately, your plumber tells you that you are responsible for all repairs and costs for replacing this section of sewer pipe, not just on your property, but up to the street utility connection too.

It will cost thousands of dollars to replace the pipe, and there’s no way you can live in a house without a properly functioning sewer system. A check with your home insurance agent reveals that sewer lines are not included in your homeowner’s policy coverage. What caused the collapse and how did the tree roots get into your sewer line, especially since you have no trees on your property.

The pipe on your property was made from wood pulp blended with coal tar, which was used extensively during and after World War II due to metal shortages. Although it can last a long time, when it does fail, it usually fails by collapsing, becoming oval or “heart-shaped”, and then delaminating and separating at the pipe-joint couplings.

When this happens, the leaking water and sewage are sought out by the surrounding tree roots for survival. The roots can enter the pipe openings as small, thin roots but over many years, the roots grow large in diameter. Growing roots on the outside of the weak pipe can cause it to deform and be displaced.  When the roots grow inside the actual pipe, the roots themselves can cause the pipe blockage. Your plumber explains that even though there are no trees on your property, there is a huge, old, tree in a nearby yard that can be causing the root invasions.

Your plumber explains the three common methods for dealing with failed sewer pipes.  They include pipe-relining, pipe-bursting, and conventional open-trench excavation.  The first two are considered “trenchless” and are sometimes preferred where an open excavation could destroy the property.

The Conventional Open-Trench Excavation Process

sewer 1

First, the contractor uses electronic detection equipment to locate the path of the pipe and where to dig directly over it. The excavator digs an open trench over the path of the old sewer line.

sewer 2

The damaged sections of sewer pipe show the collapse, indentations, and holes created by old age and tree roots. The indentations were face-down in the trench as the roots grew under the pipe, seeking out the water leaking by gravity.

sewer 3

Next, new PVC sewer pipe is installed in the trench which will have fewer pipe joints and future points-of-failure for tree root intrusion.  Notice how many tree roots are visible coming from the direction of the fence and property line to the left.

Finally, the contractors will fill in the trench, re-establish the grade, and this sewer replacement project is complete. The lawn will need to be seeded in the spring to restore everything back to normal. Luckily, this repair did not require the city street to be cut open. If it had, in most cases, the homeowner would be responsible for that additional work and cost.

There is not much a homeowner can do to prevent the natural aging of underground sewer lines and their eventual demise, especially if your system has an old pipe and is vulnerable to tree root intrusion. Thankfully, there are service line insurance products that can protect against unexpected repair expenditure such as this one and can help make the incident less disruptive financially.

Interested in how to get this coverage? Click here for information on HSB Service Line Insurance.

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© 2019 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content herein. Under no circumstances shall HSB or any party involved in creating or delivering this article be liable to you for any loss or damage that results from the use of the information contained herein. Except as otherwise expressly permitted by HSB in writing, no portion of this article may be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any way. This article does not modify or invalidate any of the provisions, exclusions, terms or conditions of the applicable policy and endorsements. For specific terms and conditions, please refer to the applicable endorsement form.

John A. Weber

John Weber is principal electrical engineer for HSB. He has over 25 years’ experience in solving facilities and electrical engineering challenges.


  • My sewer line has been having issues, and I think it’s due to tree branches damaging it. It makes sense that I would want to get a professional to fix this for me! They would be able to ensure that it’s properly replaced with something a bit stronger.

  • My toilet is not flushing at all; therefore, I’ve been thinking that maybe the problem is already with the sewer pipelining. I agree with you that pipe replacement may cause me thousands of dollars. That’s why I would like to have it inspected first and hire a service that specializes in restoration.

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