How Your Sewer System Works

A residential plumbing system

Understanding how your sewer system functions is essential for Utah homeowners. It is not just about knowing what goes down the drain; it is about comprehending the intricate network that handles everything, from your toilet to the treatment plant.


In this article, we will delve into the anatomy of your sewer system, explore the different types of pipes used, uncover common challenges, and discuss expert solutions for resolving sewer line problems. Whether you are a new homeowner or just curious about what lurks beneath, join us as we demystify the inner workings of your sewer system.


The Anatomy of Your Sewer System

Your sewer system's operation is actually quite simple. It functions as an underground network that utilizes gravity to transport wastewater from your home to a water treatment facility, where it is cleaned and returned to the local water system.


The hierarchy of the network looks something like this:

  • Your plumbing connect to pipes called branch lines, which are usually around 1 ½" to 2"

  • These branch lines lead to what is called a main trunk line, which is 3"—4".

  • The main trunk connects to a sewer lateral outside the house.

  • This lateral eventually connects to the city's main sewer line—where, you know, the Ninja Turtles live.

  • The main sewer line eventually connects to a local waste treatment facility.


In some instances, if your sewer system is situated lower than the main trunk line in your house, you may need to employ a pump system to elevate the sewage up to that level.


After the sewage undergoes treatment at the plant, it is repurposed, often returning to lakes and rivers. Surprisingly, the solids collected during this process can also be utilized as fertilizer.


Different Types of Sewer Systems

Utah has three main types of pipes: clay, cast iron, and orangeburg. There's a fourth, although it is quite rare—transite. It is a concrete-based mix.


These materials are commonly used for sewer laterals and the pipes outside the house. On the inside, the drainage system typically consists of two different materials: galvanized and cast iron.


Common Challenges and Issues in Sewer Systems

As pipes age, various issues tend to arise. One common problem with galvanized pipes inside the house is rust buildup, which can lead to reduced flow due to narrowing diameter.


On the other hand, cast iron pipes are prone to developing channels or valleys at the bottom, a condition we refer to as "trench rot" or "channel rot." This creates snag points where solids, including toilet paper, can accumulate, causing blockages.


Tree roots pose a significant challenge outside the house, particularly in Utah. In our dry climate, trees seek out water and nutrients, often infiltrating the joints of lateral pipes. This obstructs the flow and damages the pipes, leading to misalignments, separations, and breaks.


How Experts Solve Sewer Line Problems

Snaking the drain is a temporary fix, typically done to clear the blockage temporarily so we can assess the situation and advise the customer on the next steps.


Sewer line replacement is undoubtedly the ideal solution, and I always advocate for being proactive rather than reactive.


Now, the approach to replacements differs indoors and outdoors. We cut out the old pipe and replace it with ABS or PVC. However, outside is where things get interesting.


We specialize in trenchless replacement, particularly a method called pipe lining. It is akin to a heart stent but for pipes. We soak a fiberglass-like material in a two-part epoxy, creating a sleeve. This sleeve is then inserted into the old pipe using a calibration tube, which acts like a bladder. After filling it with hot water, the epoxy cures the liner, creating a brand-new sewer line inside the old one in about four hours.


Trenchless repairs and replacement are our forte—we excel in that arena.

There is also something called a Picote system for pipe cleaning. It is a special cable with a chain cutter head that can effectively clean cast iron and galvanized pipes, restoring their lost diameter due to rust buildup. We've got one of those in our arsenal.


Resolving a Major Sewer System Problem

One memorable experience I had was assisting a customer who had just moved into a new home. After only two weeks, they discovered sewage from their exterior cleanout in the yard. Initially, they were told the line was fixed, but it turned out that only the portion up to their property line had been addressed; everything beyond that, including the street section, was still old and deteriorating. They had essentially inherited a massive problem. The issue stemmed from a collapsed sewer line, and the repair cost was estimated at around $20,000.


Fortunately, I was able to help them secure a grant through the Community Development Corporation, which covered the entire cost of the repair. Despite facing a daunting $19,000 job, they did not have to pay a single dollar out of pocket because they inherited the problem with the house.



Understanding the intricacies of your sewer system empowers you as a homeowner to make informed decisions about maintenance and repairs. From the materials used in your pipes to the innovative solutions available for addressing issues, knowledge is vital to preserving the integrity of your home's plumbing infrastructure.


As experts in the field, we at Salt City Plumbing are committed to providing the best solutions for our customers, ensuring their sewer systems operate smoothly and efficiently. Remember, proactive maintenance and prompt attention to problems can save you time, money, and headaches in the long run. So, whether you are dealing with a minor clog or a major sewer line issue, do not hesitate to contact trusted professionals for assistance. Your home—and your peace of mind—deserve it.

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