Beyond the backhoe? Sewer line replacement alternatives

Traditional sewer line replacement used to be your only option, but now there's trenchless technology and pipe bursting. (Photo courtesy of Rick Adams)

Traditional sewer line replacement used to be your only option, but now there's trenchless technology and pipe bursting. (Photo courtesy of Rick Adams)

Tree roots often invade and clog broken sewer lines. Experts say copper sulfate, available from plumbers and garden centers, repels roots. While this may only be a temporary fix, it can buy time before extensive work is required. The Indianapolis Department of Public Works recommends this process, once in spring and again in fall:

  • Pour 2 pounds of medium-sized copper sulfate into toilet bowl, a half cup at a time.
  • Flush toilet after each addition.
  • Leave the last half cup of copper sulfate in toilet bowl overnight before flushing.

Will insurance help?

Homeowners' insurance policies generally exclude sewer line replacements needed due to damage caused by gradual wear and tear. However, adding a sewer and drain endorsement, which costs about $50 to $100 a year, often pays for damaged carpet and other losses from a sewage backup, says Joe Luchik, an agent with highly rated May Insurance & Financial Services Corp. in Fishers.

Citizens Energy Group, which oversees Indianapolis' sewer and water systems, offers a $14.95-per-month UtilityShield protection plan. It covers inside gas, electric, water and sewer lines and outside water and sewer, spokesman Dan Considine says. The outside sewer line plan pays up to $4,000 to repair or replace a broken or leaking lateral, and up to $4,000 if street cutting is required. Tree roots, a major cause of backups, are subject to extra exclusions specific to sewer lines.

Anthony Swinger, spokesman for Indiana's Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, advises consumers to carefully review any utility line plan for limitations, hidden fees and specifics, such as who will perform the work.

"It's definitely a technology that's on the rise and will continue to grow."

Know the laws before you dig

Local laws governing contractors who perform sewer work at your home vary according to municipality. In Indianapolis, only licensed and bonded contractors can do sewer lateral work, and they must be registered with the Department of Code Enforcement. The Indiana Plumbing Commission requires all contractors in the state who perform residential sewer line work to be licensed. In surrounding areas:

  • Beech Grove requires a permit if services exceed $500.
  • Speedway requires a business license and permit.
  • Lawrence, Brownsburg, Greenfield and Greenwood require a permit.
  • Carmel requires proof of bond.
  • Fishers requires a permit and registration.
  • Noblesville requires a permit from Hamilton County Health Department.
  • Zionsville requires a permit from town's Planning and Building Department. 

For more on licensing and permits, email

An expensive headache

A messy wastewater backup in the middle of a cold, winter night heralded a homeowner headache of epic proportions for Angie's List member Raymond Ingham. The $8,500 he says he spent just to restore basic plumbing left a large hole in his Lebanon yard and required removal of three 15-year-old evergreens, 10 feet of boxwoods and some porch pavers. It also failed to fully fix the problem, as Ingham learned he needed to reroute the 1930s-era home's interior sewer line and replace the clay tile pipes leading to the city main.

The long-term fix meant a choice between spending another $12,000 to $18,000 for a major excavation to expose the sewer pipe in his yard - which would destroy part of his driveway and 13 years of hardscape and plantings, including his wife's prize lilies - or $18,000 on no-dig, trenchless pipe lining that would preserve most of his yard. Either way, Ingham says, he had to bear the cost since his homeowners' insurance wouldn't cover normal sewer line wear and tear.

He chose the less intrusive method of pipe lining offered by A-rated Ciriello Plumbing of Beech Grove, one of a handful of Central Indiana companies that provides residential trenchless sewer line repair and replacement. "I ended up with two holes, one right by the house and another by the street," Ingham says. "But they were able to miss the rest of the boxwoods, pavers and driveway. I just wish I had had it done at the very beginning."

What are your replacement options?

Sooner or later, local experts say, most Indianapolis-area homes, especially those built in the 1970s or earlier, will require sewer line repair or replacement - and the responsibility to pay for it most often falls on the homeowner. Sewer pipes, or laterals, in older homes are usually made of clay tiles that can crack or break apart, allowing tree roots to infiltrate and create clogs. Other problems result from settling or collapsed pipe sections.

Traditionally, sewer replacements required a contractor to dig a trench in a homeowner's yard along the length of the lateral. In Indianapolis, that method's still used in more than 95 percent of residential sewer replacement jobs, says Dan Considine, spokesman for Citizens Energy Group, which in late August took over the city's sewer and water utilities. Traditional excavation can be the cheapest option, particularly if a home is near the main sewer with few obstacles in the lateral's path.

For homeowners wanting an option beyond the backhoe, however, the trenchless technology of pipe lining or pipe bursting may be the way to go. "It's definitely a technology that's on the rise and will continue to grow," says Laura Ciriello-Benedict, president of Ciriello, which only performs pipe lining. She notes that many Indianapolis plumbing companies don't do either because it requires a costly investment in technology and training. "As time wears on, we'll see more inquiries and it will become more affordable."

A pipe liner, also known as "cured in place pipe," is installed via a process in which a resin-coated, flexible tube is blown or pulled into the interior of the damaged pipe and inflated. It typically requires one access hole. After several hours the resin hardens, creating a "pipe within a pipe." Lining reduces the lateral's diameter by about one-quarter inch, which experts say won't affect its capacity to convey home waste, especially as appliances trend toward low-flow. The material's slipperiness can actually increase flow and capacity, says Robert Masbaum Jr., CEG's design and construction manager.

The pipe bursting method involves pulling a new pipe through a damaged pipe while simultaneously fracturing it outward. This method typically requires access holes to be dug on either end of the lateral. Pipe bursting can be used when existing pipe is extensively damaged, whereas pipe lining requires an intact lateral. Experts say both pipe bursting and pipe lining are equally durable, and many come with warranties ranging from 10 to 50 years.

First employed for commercial and municipal projects, trenchless sewer line replacement entered the Indianapolis residential market about 10 years ago. However, many consumers remain unaware of it. About 78 percent of respondents in an online Angie's List poll had never heard of trenchless technology, though 73 percent say they would pay more for sewer line replacement if it preserved landscaping, patio, deck or other features.

Preservation was a top priority for Indianapolis Angie's List member Allen Pekar, who paid about $7,000 for A-rated Metzler's Mr. Plumber of Carmel to do pipe bursting at his Meridian Kessler home a few years ago. "I wasn't real crazy about having my whole yard dug up," he says, adding that filling in and leveling the two access holes from the pipe bursting was hard enough. "If I had had the conventional thing done, where they dig a trench the entire length of the pipe, that would have been a real drag."

Trenchless technology generally costs more, but homeowners often save money in the long run because of less disruption to existing structures and landscaping. "Two guys with a backhoe can do a simple [trench-digging] job in a day, and it might be about $1,800," says Rich Walker, field supervisor for Ciriello, which has offered residential pipe lining for about four years. "With pipe lining, the same job would be $3,500. But if we have to reroute the line, and you have a tree and landscape pavers that you'd have to remove, then pipe lining can be cheaper."

Chris Davis, plumbing supervisor for Mr. Plumber, which only performs pipe bursting, estimates that his trenchless jobs cost an average $1,500 to $2,000 more than traditional excavation. He says about 60 to 70 percent of Mr. Plumber's overall workload employs pipe bursting. Considine, CEG's spokesman, notes that the city's sanitary district standards apply to pipe bursting, but a variance is required for pipe lining because it's not covered in the city standards. Trenchless techniques also require before-and-after camera inspection by the city.

Considine warns that due to the difficulty of assessing the full amount of lateral damage, consumers should be clear about the scope of work and costs outlined in their contract. "A homeowner can have the contractor internally inspect the line with a camera, but this doesn't always show the extent of the damage," he says. "The best advice I would give is to clearly define the work."

Consumers should also work to ensure that the contract limits their financial responsibility in case of unexpected situations, such as a deteriorated city main. "If the main is crumbling, lateral contractors should inform CEG so our staff can assess the mainline damage and determine if repairs are needed," Considine says. "If a sewer becomes damaged when a lateral contractor tries to connect, the homeowner is typically responsible for any repair that would allow for the connection.











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