Sewer Replacement Scams

“They told me they need to dig up my sewer and replace it.”  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone through this with a homeowner, but it must have been scores.  Ninety percent of the time I’ve found it to be a scam.

The Electric Roto-Rooter Machine was invented during the Depression so that people would be able to unstop a clogged sewer “without putting a GRAVE in your yard” (and they would display a picture of a trench going through a yard).  Nowadays there  are many makes of sewer machines in addition to the ones made by Roto-Rooter, but they all do the same thing: a cable with blades on its end is pushed through the sewer pipe to cut up the stoppage so that it can be washed away or, in some cases, retrieved.  If the machine simply can’t accomplish the task, then surgery is necessary.

Why might a machine fail?  To tell the truth, a lot of the time it is incompetence on the part of the technician.  It is also possible for a root stoppage to just be impervious.  (This is very rare in Memphis.)  Most of the time it is a problem with the pipe: broken, caved in, or separated and displaced.  The tech should be able to show the homeowner the evidence in the form of mud caked up on the blades, indicating that the blades have left the pipe and gone into the surrounding soil.

Unfortunately, we have a tool for larceny that was unavailable when I began cleaning drains in 1990: The Camera.  Running a camera down a sewer line is roughly analogous to showing a car owner the metal filings from his transmission.  (Such filings are normal, not proof that the transmission needs replacing.)  A homeowner is made to think that the camera is a benevolent gesture on the part of the plumbing company for more precise diagnosis.  Au contraire, mon sewer, plumbing companies know that it is really a sales tool.

When a plumbing company gets a call for a clogged sewer, everybody’s ears go ka-ching!  The camera goes into the van and the raid is underway.  At the house, the tech runs a sewer machine and cleans the drain (hopefully he does a good job), then he offers to run The Camera at no extra charge.  The customer watches the little TV screen during the performance.

Have you ever seen the security camera recordings of a robbery at the Quick Stop?  They’re usually pathetic.  You can clearly see that the robber has two arms, two legs, etc., and may be black or hispanic, or maybe not.  Sewer camera results tend to be like that.  Techs like it that way.  Why?  Because they aren’t trying to learn something, they’re trying to sell something.

Many of my customers have asked me “should I get a camera to look down the pipe for problems?”  Ordinarily my response is “I got my blades all the way through and back.  If there were a problem, I would have felt it.”  When I’ve hit mud (a sad day) and they ask the same question, the answer is “we already know it’s broken; otherwise I couldn’t dig into mud.  The camera won’t add any useful info.”  A good drain tech basically NEVER needs a camera.  There are exceptions, but they’re rare.

A tech trying to sell an unnecessary sewer replacement, however, ALWAYS needs a camera.  It may not provide him with any useful information, but it can certainly bamboozle a customer.

As the camera goes down the line, the customer sees what looks like a tunnel.  It’s rather blurry and indistinct, but clear enough for the salesman’s purposes.  They come to a place where some stringy roots are hanging down.  “Oh, you see that?  The roots have penetrated your line!”  They come to some irregularity.  “Yep, it’s broken there.  You see that right there?”  They come to some water lying in the pipe.  “You got a belly in the line.  It’s washed away underneath and is sinking.”  They come to a joint where the stub ends of some roots are visible.  “Oh, no — more roots.  I can’t believe it; they’ve penetrated everywhere.”  Finally the diagnosis is complete:

Mr. Smith, this line just needs replaced.  You got roots coming in everywhere and it’s just gonna get worse.  It’s breaking, it’s sinking down.  I mean, my God, it’s sixty years old.  Every time we come out it’s costing you $200.  You’d just as well as to go ahead on and replace it now and cut your losses.  This oughta cost  seventy two fifty, but we’re slow this week and I know I can talk the boss down to sixty five hunnerd if you’ll do it this week.  And we even give a senior discount on top of that.

Roots are in nearly every sewer line.  It’s no big deal. Call me when the sewer clogs up every 18-24 months and I’ll shave ’em out for $100-$150.  Most sewer lines have minor “bellies” where they’ve settled and sagged; ignore them.  Broken line?  If the blades still pass through, that line might be fine for another twenty years.  Age?  It’s just a number.  There are sewer pipes in Memphis that have worked fine for a hundred years.  Price?  Even after their phony discounts, these bandits are usually 50% higher than I.  (If I’m charging $4,000, they’re charging $6,000.)

Last week I replaced a sewer for $4,500, and that was underpriced a little.  (You never really know what kinds of problems you’ll encounter when you undertake a project like this.)  The owner called me originally because another company had said the line needed replacing.  I cabled the line and found no problem.  But this house was for sale and the buyer insisted on the sewer being replaced first.  Great expense, thanks to The Camera and a plumbing company without a conscience.