Drains, drains everywhere but where do we begin?

By Fred Bretzke


Back in the day, I don’t know how many times I had to look for cleanouts to access the main drain in a finished basement. This article is dedicated to pointing out different hints on where to start if you have a backed up main drain.

I’ll start with the more uncommon drains which would be the rural houses out in the country. If clients have a plugged sewer in the country, I would suggest you find out if they have a septic tank and/or septic field. This is usually the case in rural situations. In Canada, if the sewer is exiting the basement wall about five or six feet from the basement floor, it is likely a septic tank. The main cleanout or building drain and building sewer exit the house at about two to three feet below the outside ground and then enter the septic tank. In this case most of your drain service work will probably involve the septic tank or field.



For urban plumbing or in the city, let’s discuss the servicing of the plumbing drains. It tells us in the 2015 and 2020 National Plumbing Code (NPC) in 6) that Building drains shall be provided with a cleanout fitting of NPS 4 or larger that is located as close as practical to the place where the building drain leaves the building. (Note A- 6).) from the Appendix notes, under the title Cleanouts for Drainage Systems. To accommodate the limitations of sewer cleaning equipment, the cleanout should be located as close as possible to the exterior wall of the building, either inside or outside, and be accessible for sewer cleaning equipment. This is a clearer definition of 4” cleanout placement for building drains than in the previous code books.

One interesting difference is this code clause says the main cleanout can be inside the building or outside the building as long as it is accessible. I’m not sure how logical it would be to put a main cleanout outside of the building as it may induce some frost closure. Either way this main cleanout is located on the main building drain in order to access clearing a stoppage in the building sewer outside.

If your main floor drain backs up in the basement, which is usually the lowest drain in the house, it will most likely be plugged in the main building drain or main building sewer outside of the house. Typically, main sewers in the city can be clogged with grease or tree roots. These types of plugs can be cleared with drain cleaning augers, jet augers or steel tapes from the main cleanout



Another famous commercial drain cleaning service call is a main drain plugged in a mall. There are usually two reasons for a clogged main sewer in a mall. You only have to look at two kinds of places. One is the hair salons and the other is the restaurants.


Hair salons

The thing I like most about getting my hair cut is sitting in the hair salon chair, leaning back and getting my hair washed and the scalp massage. While this is happening, some hair gets washed down the sink … and some people lose more hair than others (like me). Every hair salon sink must have a drum trap that works like a hair interceptor. This is stated in 5) of the 2020 NPC. A drum trap shall not be used as a fixture trap unless required to serve as an interceptor and access for servicing is provided. I once had to unplug a main building drain in a mall and as I was inserting the cable down the drain it got hung up on what seemed like something big. It was like fishing and catching a whale. As I struggled pulling it back to the end of the cable, out came a 30-ft snake of twisted rotten hair the full 4-in. diameter of the main building drain. Sure enough, the hair salon sinks had the improper p-traps on them instead of drum type hair interceptors.



Let’s talk about one of the most common backed up drains in the actual house. Some people are not aware that they should not pour frying pan grease down the kitchen drain. Even if you don’t do that, eventually the kitchen drain does tend to have grease build up over the years from rinsing plates and so on. The letters Y,X, and V in Figure 1 represent a wet vented kitchen stack. Typically grease accumulates when a drain turns from vertical to horizontal under the floor in this case (downstream of cleanout at Y). There must be a cleanout at the base (Y) of every stack as it states in 7) a). It is always nice if they upsize the cleanout to 3 in. instead of the minimum 2 in., this allows for cleaning downstream of the basement floor drain as well. When this drain is being cleaned it’s very important that you run the cable back and forth several times while running hot water and then slowly adjusting it to warm then cool water. This helps move the greasy water through the drain and pushes it into the bigger 4 in. building drain and then the building sewer. One can also use pressurized water to help remove the grease with a jet system.

The main idea is not to just run the snake quickly through the drain, clear the plug, and leave. The grease will usually coagulate again and reclog the drain. In my opinion, drain cleaning companies that charge a flat expensive rate to clean a main drain or especially a greasy kitchen drain, incentify the drain cleaner to quickly clear the plug, collect their money and leave.

I still believe it’s more fair to both the customer and the company to charge cost plus to clear drains. This way the customer gets what they paid for. If the drain cleaner spends several hours cleaning a greasy drain then they charge several hours. If the drain cleaner gets the job done quickly, the customer should know that it’s cheap only because they wanted the pricing to be fair.



2020 NPC reference: 1) Where a fixture discharges sewage that includes fats, oil or grease and is located in a public kitchen, in a restaurant or in a care or detention occupancy, it shall discharge through a grease interceptor.

Another main reason for main building drain plugs is too much grease in the system due to poor grease trap maintenance. The whole grease trap business is changing due to environmental reasons. For years restaurant grease traps would have to be sucked out − typically by vacuum trucks at the source. The grease would be removed and then disposed of as contaminated fill. Companies would charge for this service. However, it seems now there are some environmental companies removing the grease free of charge as they are reclaiming the grease into a useful substance. This may literally clear up many commercial grease problems due to its cheap removal.

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