Myths Busted! Water and sewer lines never break

Repair water pipe

A common myth is that water and sewer lines never break. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind – because the service lines usually lie underground and buried beneath our homes, we don’t think about them. Yet, more than 850 water main breaks occur in North America every day according to www.watermainbreakclock.com!  It is only when the water or sewer line fails (clogs, leaks or breaks) that we give them any thought. Often the pipes or lines for which homeowners are responsible are generally believed to last for 40, 50 or even 60 years.  Many factors contribute to the useful lifetime of a homeowner’s water and sewer pipes or service lines, some of which include the material from which the lines are made, the weather and soil conditions.

What causes water and sewer lines to fail?
Root Intrusion
Do you often admire the saplings the former property owner planted some 40 years ago? The roots of those now full-grown trees stretch deep into the ground and could very well be permeating the small cracks in your service lines that are as old or older. The roots grow in the direction of the water source to thrive and, once a small opening in the service line is found, will begin to penetrate the line. Roots invading sewer lines could cause clogs and result in raw sewage seeping into the yard, not to mention an unpleasant odor and soil contamination.

Ground Shifting
As a result of ground movement or shifting, water and sewer line joints may become loosened or dislodged, often causing the pipes to crack, misalign or collapse. Once this happens, it becomes an easy entry point for clay and debris, which will eventually cause the line to clog.

Especially susceptible to shifting are the areas where earthquakes occurs. The shifts can be of such magnitude that damages to the public water and sewer lines could hamper the delivery of fresh, clean water to communities for several days.

Weather
We’ve experienced some extreme fluctuations in temperature, drought conditions and record amounts of rain and snowfall during the past few years. These extremes can cause water and sewer line corrosion and accelerated soil erosion, which affects the quality of the lines. A slight change of only a few degrees in air or water temperatures can cause significant stress on service lines. For example, water temperatures below 4 degrees can cause the pipes to become brittle and air temperatures at or below 0 degrees cause the ground above it to freeze, thereby increasing stress on the line.

The bottom line – water and sewer lines can and will break.

 

Drought season brings thirsty roots

iStock_000014458292MediumWhen it’s hot outside, you might cool off with a refreshing drink of cold water. That same theory applies to plants during summer months. When the weather is hot, coupled with extended periods of drought, roots seek water and are naturally drawn to your water and sewer lines. If you have trees, bushes or other plants with deep-penetrating roots, your lines may be at risk of root intrusion, even if located across the yard.

To survive trees need water and when exposed to long periods without rain, their roots will seek other water sources such as sewer and water pipes. Typically, service pipes are cooler than the surrounding soil, which can create condensation on the outside surface of the line, thus attracting roots when they are thirsty. When trees are first exposed to drought, root growth may actually increase. Sewer lines can be significantly warmer than the surrounding soil, which promotes root growth, cell division and nutrient uptake causing roots to form around your pipes. As lines age or are compromised, it’s possible that tree roots will penetrate and clog the pipes. While shrubs are also problematic, their roots are generally not as long and their life span shorter than trees.

Roots do not typically follow a growth pattern because they are dependent on environmental conditions. While all roots pose a potential problem to water and sewer lines, some preventive measures can be taken to circumvent tree and shrub roots from penetrating your water and sewer lines, including planting at least 10-20 feet from any water or sewer line and avoiding plants with deep, invasive root systems such as

  • Poplar, Cottonwood and Aspen
  • Willow
  • American elm
  • Silver maple
  • Fig
  • Birch
  • Mulberry

Consider planting trees with minimally invasive root systems such as:

  • Japanese fir and maple
  • Acacia
  • Crabapple
  • Vine maple
  • Gingko

CalPoly’s Urban Forests Ecosystems Institute provides a list of plants with low root damage potential to help you avoid tree root problems. As a general rule of thumb – maintain a minimum boundary of 5-10′ between a tree and any underground utilities. Consider root control methods like creating a growth barrier with compact layers of soil, or air gaps using large stones or solid barriers like plastic, metal and wood. Landscape fabric with slow-release chemicals, such as sulfur, sodium, zinc, borate, salt or herbicides (which may be harmful to trees), is also an option. Finally, consider pruning tree roots every five years with the help of an experienced landscaper.