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jayhill 08-10-2008 11:23 PM

sewer backup and stench
I had a sewer back-up in a rental property. The tenants did not tell me about the problem. The sewer debris sat on the basement floor apparently for sometime. The stench was unbearable! They eventually moved (Thank God!) I had the sewer snaked and it appears to be running smoothly. I eventually had the floor power washed and a concrete skim laid over the existing floor. I have two questions: how do I get rid of the sewer flies and the stench? It occurred to me that I had the basement snaked with I purchased the property in 2005. Why does this problem continue to recur? Could it be the nearby trees and how do I find out? The last plumber said there appeared to be lots of gook and grease. Now that the water is flowing how long can I expect it to last. The last tenants are not very friendly and/or talkative about the subject. Thanks for any advice...:huh:

Nestor_Kelebay 08-10-2008 11:57 PM

Normally, the cause of a sewer back up is the accumulation of solids in the main drain line from a house, mostly from the kitchen sink.

Here's how the drainage piping in a typical house is set up:

There's a pipe that runs vertically from just below your basement concrete floor to just above the roof shingles where it's open to the atmosphere. That pipe is typically called your "vent stack". At the bottom of the vent stack, the pipe will bend through an angle of almost 90 degrees and head at a shallow downward angle toward the main sewer buried about 16 feet under the middle of the street your house is on. Near the bottom of the vent stack there will be a "clean out cap" on your basement floor which allows you to clear that gradually down ward sloping drain pipe under your basement floor. Similarily, the plumbing code will require a clean out at every change in direction of that drain pipe under your basement floor.

All of the drains in the house drain into that "vent stack". Often, however, drain pipes will connect directly to the gradually sloping pipe that comes off the bottom of the vent stack.

That gradually sloping pipe gradually clogs up with solids, mostly from your kitchen sink, so it's a good idea to clear the drain line from your house every 10 years.

Now, buried around the perimeter of your house at the depth of your foundation footing will be "weeping tiles". These weeping tiles allow any excess water in the soil around your house's foundation to drain into the weeping tiles so that there's no pressure driving that water THROUGH your house's foundation into your basement. The water that is collected in those weeping tiles will flow either to a "catch basin" (which looks for all the world like a floor drain on your basement floor) or a sump pit in your basement. Years ago, they allowed catch basins to be connected directly to the drain pipe that carries all the dirty water (and sewage) from your house. So, the catch basin will have a P-trap on the bottom of it, and will then flow to that gradually sloping pipe that comes off the bottom of your vent stack if you have an older house.

Now, as mentioned, that gradually sloping drain line that comes off the bottom of the vent stack will clog up with solids from your kitchen sink after a while. If the drain pipe from your basement catch basin connects to that drain pipe upstream of where it can be partially clogged with solids from your kitchen sink, you can have a problem.

What happens is that if that gradually sloping drain pipe is partially clogged with crap from your kitchen sink, then water from your toilet may collect upstream of the clogged section and back up the catch basin's drain pipe toward the catch basin. If someone flushes the toilet too often, or if the main drain line is too clogged up, the water from the toilets won't drain away passed the clogged section fast enough and will end up backing up into your catch basin, flooding your basement floor with sewage.

What you need to do is keep the main drain line (which is that gradually sloping pipe that comes off the bottom of your vent stack) from your house UNCLOGGED to prevent any backing up of your drain piping. I'd say if you hired a plumber to clear that main drain line once every 10 years, you should be safe.

Any time you see toilet paper floating in your basement floor catch basin, that's a sure sign that the main drain line needs to be cleared.

Maybe just draw a stick diagram while reading through this post to see if you can follow the piping layout, and post of you don't understand anything. Once you have the right piping in mind, the reason for the sewer backing up through the basement floor drain will be obvious.

Mike Swearingen 08-11-2008 12:31 AM

An excellent master description of a residential DWV system!
The other thing that may be occuring are rootballs or larger roots growing into your main underground drain pipe IF you have a sectional drain line such as cast iron.
If you have ABS black plastic or PVC white plastic line, roots cannot get into it unless you have a break in the line.
Snaking a line with roots growing into it will only clear it temporarily. Usually the snake will just punch through roots, and they'll quickly close back up.
"Roto-rootering" a line with roots in it will work for a year or two, then they will grow back. The best solution to root problems is to replace the line with solid plastic if allowed by code in your jurisdiction. (Some areas still require cast iron only.)
If snaking the mainline doesn't do the trick, you may want to hire a drain cleaning company with video inspection equipment to diagnose the problem.
Good luck!

Piedmont 08-11-2008 07:48 AM

If what was already posted doesn't solve the problem, your sewer pipe may have a dip in the line or doesn't sustain pitch going out to the street/septic system for one reason or another. After my house was built something occured 11 years later under my sewer line going to the street causing it to dip (either settling, or something else). Solids collected in the dip, and over several months it eventually clogged completely and sewage would back up (and come out the tub in my basement).

I went to a plumbing place that has a a camera they can feed down a sewer pipe and snake it around to see exactly the problem, it has a tracking beacon in its head. We saw the dip and he left the camera in that spot and we went outside and with a sensor he was able to tell me within 1' exactly where the head of the camera was below... pointing me to exactly where the problem was. In my case I ended up having to replace the sewer pipe completely.

I ended up cutting and replacing all the bottoms of all walls including the framing of my basement to get rid of the stench/problem. That was hell, particularly the support wall.

ccarlisle 08-11-2008 08:48 AM

You've had some great replies to the question of why your sewer pipe backs up but only slight reference made to the stench problem.

Sewage backup requires perhaps the most extensive clean up protocols in the water damage industry because of the variety of issues you deal with; for starters, this is contaminated water - no matter how long it sat or how soon it was cleaned up - and therefore would be considered carrier of any type of bacteria. In such cases, any soft furnishings in the way of that sewage must be discarded...carpet, drywall, paper, upholstery, wood etc - anywhere where bacteria have touched. Then on relatively hard surfaces such as concrete, being porous, a thorough disinfection must be carried out. Finally, impervious surfaces such as glass, can be cleaned and disinfected normally.

Covering over the concrete with another layer of concrete won't solve this stench issue, repainting the drywall won't either. The whole area might have to be fogged or ozoned, but these are procedurees best left to pros.

jayhill 08-12-2008 03:41 PM

Thank you...
Absolutely, the replies did not address the stench fully. I have tried everything! One thing I have yet to do and that is to cap off where there was a toilet. Would this help? It also sounds like I may need to call the guys with the camera and the professionals to get rid of the odor.

I am at my wits end. Thanks for everybody's replies.


Originally Posted by ccarlisle (Post 147726)
You've had some great replies to the question of why your sewer pipe backs up but only slight reference made to the stench problem.

Sewage backup requires perhaps the most extensive clean up protocols in the water damage industry because of the variety of issues you deal with; for starters, this is contaminated water - no matter how long it sat or how soon it was cleaned up - and therefore would be considered carrier of any type of bacteria. In such cases, any soft furnishings in the way of that sewage must be discarded...carpet, drywall, paper, upholstery, wood etc - anywhere where bacteria have touched. Then on relatively hard surfaces such as concrete, being porous, a thorough disinfection must be carried out. Finally, impervious surfaces such as glass, can be cleaned and disinfected normally.

Covering over the concrete with another layer of concrete won't solve this stench issue, repainting the drywall won't either. The whole area might have to be fogged or ozoned, but these are procedurees best left to pros.

ccarlisle 08-12-2008 03:51 PM

Water damage restoration companies see this all the time and have a way of cleaning it up, otherwise they'd be out of business, so maybe you on your own are overlooking something that a pro would spot. I mean it is common sense but there's more to being a water damage restoration pro than just cleaning carpet.

This is already a severe case; you're going to need tools that few homeowners have. It may be time to call in a deodorizing pro.

Cap the toilet? you mean there isn't a toilet now?

Nestor_Kelebay 08-13-2008 12:46 AM


Did you ever notice how sometimes, something someone says in passing makes you think "WHAT!"

Like for instance when you just said casually and offhandedly:
"One thing I have yet to do and that is to cap off where there was a toilet. Would this help?"

Which, correct me if I'm wrong, means that there was a toilet in that basement, someone removed the toilet and left the toilet drain wide open!

Yes sir, stuffing a 7-11 Super Big Gulp cup in that toilet drain pipe will go 99% of the way to removing the stench from your rental property's basement. Maybe not 99%, but my guess would be that MOST of the smell in the basement is from that open sewer pipe.


I've had apartments stay empty for long enough that the water in the toilet bowl evaporated and the apartment stunk like the dickens when I first opened the door to show the suite to prospective tenants.

If you haven't already done it, also pour a cup of water into every drain in the house too. The p-traps under the drains are for that very purpose, to trap a small amount of water in the drain pipe to serve as a physical barrier between the stench in the drain piping and the air in the living space you breathe.

Normally, the water in a toilet's toilet bowl serves the same function as the small amount of water in a drain's P-trap, but since you're saying the toilet bowl is no longer there, there's nothing stopping the sewer gas in your toilet drain pipe from wafting up into the air you breathe and making your house's basement smell just like a sewer. That is, you're basement will smell just like a sewer so long as that toilet drain pipe is left wide open, even if you never had a sewer back up.

Stick a Super Big Gulp Cup in that open toilet drain pipe, open up some windows in the place and give it a day to air out. Then see what it smells like in there. No matter how much you clean it's going to smell like a sewer as long as that toilet drain pipe has been left unplugged.

Re: Hiring a Flood and Fire Restoration Company:

Also, here's what I'd do. Open your yellow pages to Fire & Flood Restoration Services and phone around to several of them to find out whether they buy their chemicals locally from the places listed under Janitorial Equipment & Supply in your Yellow Pages or if they use their own chemicals.

If they buy them locally from a Janitorial Supply store, then you can go to that same place, buy the same stuff, and the person selling it to you will tell you where, when and how to use it. This is especially true if it's a family or privately run business because private businessmen make more of an effort to learn about the products they sell than their hired help. Either that, or Google the company that makes the stuff, go to their web site to get their phone number, invest in a $5 long distance phone card so you can phone them for 4.3 cents a minute and phone up that company to get advice on where, when and how to use their cleaning products. (Normally, each Janitorial Supply store will sell several different brands of cleaning chemicals, and truth be told, there are instances where some products work better than others, but most times the similarities outweigh the differences.) Also, the preceding assumes the local Fire and Flood Restoration Service company won't be willing to give you advice on how to use those products, and in all liklihood they will. If you talk to the owner or manager and just ask what he would use on the floors and walls in your situation, most likely he'll tell you what they use, how they use it and who they buy it from.

But, quite frankly, what you'll find is that in the cleaning industry, it's the people working at the Janitorial Supply stores that are really the modern day troubadores of the cleaning industry. That's because if a custodian has trouble cleaning something, about the only person he has to turn to for help will be the guy he buys his cleaning supplies from. That retailer, in turn may know of someone else who had the same problem, and will probably remember how he solved it if he did. With the retailers being involved in so many cleaning problems and subsequently usually finding out "what worked best", the retailers acquire a great deal of knowledge as well. Certainly, they will be well aware of how their customers use their own products, but they'll also know what works well in particular situations that don't often come up, like sewer back ups. I think you will find that same kind of thing to a lesser extent in every industry, but it's particularily true in the cleaning industry because cleaning professionals really only have their suppliers and the sales reps of the companies whose products they use to turn to for help. So, the retailers, especially the people that own their own businesses, will always be "in the loop" when problems are encountered and will learn as much as the pros on their solutions.

If the Flood and Fire Restoration Service you phone use their own cleaning chemicals, then they almost certainly sell their chemicals to their customers for regular maintenance and follow up, as well as customers who want to save money by doing what they can themselves. I'll bet my dollars to your donuts that if you buy the cleaning chemicals they say you need from them, they'll give you all the advice you want or need about how use those cleaners tossed in free of charge.

That is, you don't need to hire an Fire and Flood Restoration Company to get the information and chemicals you need to do a proper job cleaning your basement. If you follow the advice of people who do that work, and use the same cleaners they use, you'll get the same results.

But, plug the toilet drain pipe and it might smell like it's clean as a whistle already.
The rest is just my own ramblings...

I am not a professional carpet cleaner. But, I own a commercial carpet extractor, I use Chem-Spec products (which are popular in the carpet cleaning industry) and I do as good a job on the carpets in my building as any pro would. And, I've never felt that any of the carpet cleaning contractors I've ever phoned up to get advice from ever "withheld" information from me because he knew he wouldn't make anything off me. In fact I've found the opposite. I've found them to be more than willing to share their knowledge with me, just as the pros in here share their knowledge with us. I've found every person in the cleaning industry willing to share their knowledge and experience with me if they had the time to do so, so I think all you need is to contact some of the places that do fire and flood restoration work and you'll be on your way before you know it.

jayhill 08-13-2008 08:43 AM

sewer back-up and residual issues
Guys: Nester and Carlise (sp)

You guys have been wonderful! I woke up this morning wondering if the issue was hopeless. I now feel re-energized and hopeful. I was wondering if my efforts were in vain. Thank you for the suggestions and more importantly the inspiration to feel confident about taking care of the stench. Someone also suggested to me that if the problem re-occurs that I should snake from the street back towards the house and then from the street to the main drain. Again, this back-up seems to be a recurring issue; I'd say about once a year or 6 months....

jayhill 08-13-2008 08:55 AM

I purchased a 3" test cap to cap off the toilet. It did not fit. It appears as though it is twice the size. Is the toilet opening that comes out of the floor a standard size? (I know I should know this but I have misplaced my measuring tape.) There was a cap on it at one time but when the sewer backed up it became too cruddy to save. (Please don't think my question to be 'dumb.' It's just that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed right now.) Thanks for your assistance.

CirtexHosting 08-13-2008 09:22 AM

I believe that you do not need any accistance right now and I believe that soon you will be ok yourself

Nestor_Kelebay 08-13-2008 10:52 AM


For the time being just stuff a 7-11 Super Big Gulp cup in the hole to determine if the smell is coming from that hole. Most of it probably is.

If there's no one living in that house, then the drain piping is probably all drained and dry all the way out to the city sewer, and the gas in the city sewer is coming up into your basement through that drain piping. Phone up any drain clearing company that offers a video service (most do nowadays) and have them run a camera into your house's main drain line out to the city sewer. If there is a problem that's causing the sewer back up, not only will the video camera tell a knowledgeable plumber what is actually wrong, but the length of line run out to the camera will determine where the problem actually is; under your cement floor, in your front yard, or under the street. Pay the extra $4 to get a VHS video made of your main drain pipe inspection so you can show it to a plumbing company so they can see it before they do anything. That way, they know what and where the problem is and what needs to be done to fix it before they begin. (I was quoted a price of $200 to do a video inspection of my main drain line, but that was a lont time ago when the service wasn't as commonly available.)

For the time being, just stuff something, anything, even a pillow, into the toilet drain pipe to stop the sewer gas from coming into your basement. Also, open up some windows and let the basement air out. Then you'll see how important it is to plug up open sewer drain pipes. And, pour a cup of water into each drain in the house cuz sewer gas may be coming up through them too.

Normally toilets have a 3 inch inside diameter drain pipe.

The places listed under "Janitorial Equipment & Supplies" will sell anything and everything they have in stock to the general public. For some reason, people think that these places are strictly wholesale because they normally only sell to commercial establishments and cleaning contractors. The truth is, the only reason they mostly only sell to commercial establishments and contractors is because 99.9 percent of people buy their cleaning supplies in grocery and hardware stores. The Janitorial Supply stores will also sell to you because they don't sell to those other stores, so they don't have retailers to bark at them for stealing their business.

And, in fact, it's really kinda stupid to buy your cleaning supplies from a grocery store or home center. MOST of the difficulty encountered in cleaning is to know what to use on what and how to use it. If you go to a Janitorial Supply company, you get all the knowledge and experience of someone who's spent a career in the cleaning business tossed in for free. If you buy your cleaning supplies from a grocery store, if you have a problem with the product or the results you're getting, the only person you have to turn to for help is the 17 year old stocking the shelves. It's foolish not to buy from the more knowledgeable person to get the benefit of their knowledge and experience.

Also, when you're phoning around to the Fire & Flood Restoration Service companies, ask to talk to the manager or owner, and if he tells you they buy their cleaning chemicals from XYZ company, also ask them who's really knowledgeable about cleaning up sewer back ups over there. If you get 3 or 4 Restoration companies all getting their stuff from the same place and recommending you seek out the same guy, that's where you should be buying your stuff, and that's who you should be talking to. Most likely you'll be referred to several Janitorial Supply companies, all of whom have knowledgeable people on staff. The cleaning industry is like any other industry, and there are some people that are more knowledgable than others. There are Janitorial Supply companies that eek out a living selling light bulbs and toilet paper to bingo halls. In those cases, neither the Janitorial Supply company nor their customers know squat about how to clean anything, and that's not the kind of support you need to surround yourself with. You need to talk to the companies that actually clean, and find out who they consider to be knowledgeable about their business.

Just for your own curiosity, here's a web site that caters to the cleaning industry (and has particular emphasis on carpet cleaning) for some reason:

The articles you read in there will be written by knowledgeable people and the products advertised on that site will be popular in the industry. Maybe go to the top right corner and type in "sewer" where it says "Archive Search" and see if they have any articles in their archives about cleaning up after a sewer back up. Just use the search feature on your browser to find the word "sewer" in each article to see if it deals with a sewer back up. If not, the articles you find with Google should be knowledgeable too.

Me thinks the real problem here is that you're facing what in your mind are huge problems that you have no idea how to solve, and so you feel overwhelmed and in despair. You need to understand that this is simply because you're at the bottom of quite a few learning curves. But, we can cure that.

jayhill 08-13-2008 11:06 PM

sewer back-up and residual issues

Good news and not soooo good news, at least for today. I took your 7-11 Super Gulp advice, except at first I thought "Super Gulp" was a technical term until I look it up and saw the giant coffee cup. Then, of course, you referenced the 7-11 idea in a later post. Nevertheless, the idea of covering the opening with 'something' helped tremendously! However, the not so good news is the cleaning part. I still have residual gook that must be cleaned. Tomorrow my goal is to contact the cleaning companies. Tonight, I will spend time reading articles.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you (even though your replies are quite lengthy, I appreciate the background information and commentary, thanks again) and all who have replied to this post. You are sooo right. I am at the beginning of my learning curve. Thanks for putting that into perspective too.

Again, my next strategy is to talk to someone who does this type of clean up for a living....I believe you referred to them as fire and water restoration people...or something like that. I will check the post again. I am now off to explore the website you recommended.

Thanks again guys...I will keep you posted. (I only ask that you not leave me while I climb the learning curve...:))

J Hill

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