What to do When Your Sewer Backs Up: 6 Critical Steps

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: July 31, 2023

If your sewer has backed up, what you do next matters. In fact, the actions you take now are critical to minimize damage to your home.

In this blog, we’ll share our tips for recognizing, addressing, and preventing sewer backup and discuss when to contact a professional restoration company.

What are the Signs of a Sewer Backup?

sewage backup

It’s rare for sewer backups to be sudden and catastrophic. 

In fact, most start slow, displaying several telltale signs that are easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for.

Here are a few signs that there’s trouble with your sewer lines:

  1. Bad smells. If you smell sewer gas in your home, it’s a sign that you’re in danger of sewer backup. The sewer backup has already begun if you can see sewage in your crawl space or basement.
  2. Slow drains. If the drains throughout your home are moving slower than usual, it could indicate that your sewer line is struggling. If multiple drains are affected, contact a plumber to inspect your plumbing immediately. 
  3. Gurgling noises. Do your toilets make a gurgling noise when you flush them? If so, it may mean that your main sewer line is blocked. In most cases, the gurgling sounds are air bubbles trying to get around the blockage. 
  4. Tub or shower backups. If your bathtub or shower has started to back up, that’s usually an indication that your sewer line is blocked and there’s nowhere for the excess water to go.
  5. Wet floor drains. Take a look at the floor drains in your basement or laundry room. If they’re wet or damp, it may mean that your sewer line is backing up. In most cases, these are the first places you’ll notice sewage backup, so it’s critical to call a plumber at the first sign of wetness around your floor drains.
  6. Strange changes in your yard. If you notice odd changes in your yard, such as water pooling in areas that used to be dry, sudden sinkholes, or uncharacteristically lush spots, it could mean that your main sewer line is blocked and wastewater is backing up under your grass. 

How to Deal With a Sewer Backup in Your Home

sewage removal services

Large sewage backups are NOT something you should handle on your own. 

In addition to the fact that sewage-contaminated wastewater presents a severe threat to human health, it’s impossible to adequately clean up and remove the bacteria and pathogens contained in sewage without professional-grade equipment.

While you may be able to clean up small sewage overflows (see our blog for a step-by-step guide on basement sewage cleanup), we strongly recommend calling in the pros for larger jobs. 

With that in mind, follow these tips to keep yourself safe and prevent further damage to your home:

1. Get everyone to safety

If the sewage backup is in your crawl space or basement, it might not affect your primary living areas. 

Still, the backup will release dangerous sewer gasses into your home, so getting everyone out is essential. 

If the sewage backup is in a bathroom, laundry room, or other more-trafficked area of the home, gather all people and pets and evacuate the home immediately.

2. Turn off the electricity

Because sewage backup involves standing water, it can create an electrical shock hazard when electrical appliances are affected. 

To prevent this, turn off your home’s electricity at the main breaker panel. This helps secure the area and make it as safe as possible for response teams to enter. 

3. Call an emergency plumber

Next, you’ll need to stop the flow of sewage. To do this, contact an emergency plumber who can respond to the situation as quickly as possible. 

They’ll be able to assess your home, identify the source of the sewage backup, and make the repairs needed to stop the flow of wastewater. 

4. Call your insurance company

Once the flooding is contained, contact your insurance company to file a sewage backup claim. 

When you talk to your insurance provider, make sure you understand the next steps for filing a claim and that you have a way to submit documents and photos to the company as needed. 

5. Contact a restoration company

While a plumber may be able to stop the flow of sewage, they won’t clean up the mess or repair the damage it leaves behind. For this, you’ll need to contact a professional restoration company. If you’re in the Chicago area, contact ServiceMaster by Zaba: 773-647-1985 

Our team can help you clean up standing sewage and floodwater, clean and sanitize the area, replace building materials, and restore your home to its original condition. 

6. Report the backup

Last but not least, report the sewage backup to the city. This allows the city to respond appropriately and to dispatch a sewer repair crew if needed. You’ll find a link to do this in the “helpful resources” section at the end of this blog. 

What Causes Sewage Backup in the House?

sewage backup cleaning equipment

There are many things that could cause a sewage backup in your home. 

Here are a few of the most common culprits:

1. Aging sewer infrastructure

In most cities, sewer pipes are made of cast iron, PVC, clay, or a material called Orangeburg. 

In many metro areas in the US, these materials are outdated, with some sewer systems being more than 100 years old

While cities across the country are allocating to repair and rebuild aging sewer infrastructure, deteriorating sewer pipes remain a leading cause for sewage backup in many homes.

2. Gutters, downspouts, and sump pumps routed into sewers

Gutters, downspouts, and sump pumps are designed to be routed into storm sewers. When they get connected to sanitary sewers, though, it causes problems. 

When these systems dump large amounts of water into sanitary sewers (the systems used to move and manage sewage), it can overwhelm the sanitary sewer system, increasing the likelihood of a sewage backup.

3. Tree root damage

As trees grow, they send thick roots deep through the ground.

When these roots encounter sewer pipes, they can crack the pipes and their joints, causing breaks or blockages that cause sewage backups. 

Once tree roots start to infringe on sewer lines, the only way to repair the issue is to dig into the ground, cut the root, and repair or replace the pipe. 

4. Municipal sewer issues

Sometimes, the blockage doesn’t start in your home. 

In some cases, a blockage in a municipal sewer isn’t detected or resolved quickly enough, which can cause wastewater to back up into surrounding homes through floor drains. 

This problem usually happens gradually but can be difficult to detect because there are few early warning signs. 

How to Prevent Sewage Backup in the House

Nobody wants to repair the damage caused by a sewage backup. 

Fortunately, you can prevent most sewage backup issues by taking the following proactive steps:

  • Have your sewer pipes inspected annually. If your home is older than about 30 or 40 years, annual inspections can help prevent sewer pipe malfunctions that can lead to costly backups.
  • Be careful what you put down the drain. Never put cooking grease down a drain, and make sure you’re only flushing human waste and toilet paper down the toilet, as other materials can easily cause a clog. 
  • Avoid planting trees near sewer lines. To prevent tree root infringement, keep landscaping trees and bushes away from sewer lines or laterals. 
  • Install a sewer backup valve. A backup valve, also known as a backflow or backwater valve, is a valve that you can install on your sewer line to help prevent sewage backups. The valve allows sewage to flow just one way: out of the house. If you have a backflow valve and heavy rainwater overwhelms the city’s sewer lines, for example, the backwater valve will prevent sewage from flowing back up the pipe and into your home. 

Has Your Chicago-Area Sewage System Backed Up? We can Help!

If you’re dealing with sewage backup in your Chicago home, don’t face it alone. 

The team here at ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba provides comprehensive sewage cleanup services to restore your home to its clean, comfortable, and safe condition. 

Contact us today to learn more about our team and how we work or to request your service!

Is it safe to stay in a house with sewage backup?

No! Sewage backup releases gasses and physical, air-borne contaminants that can be dangerous to inhale. Symptoms of sewer gas exposure include vomiting, fever, and gastroenteritis.

How much does professional sewage backup cleanup cost?

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule. The price you’ll pay for professional sewage backup cleaning services depends on the severity of the backup, the amount of wastewater affected, the parts of your home that were impacted, and the degree of restoration needed.

Is sewage backup covered by homeowner’s insurance?

Most homeowners insurance policies don’t automatically include sewer backup coverage, although most companies offer it as an optional add-on to their standard policies.