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Prevent Sewer Gas Backup

Sewer gas backup can be a health hazard.

Sewer gas can become a serious health threat in cold winter weather.

Symptoms of illness from sewer gas backup include headaches, nausea, dizziness and drowsiness.

The most common indicator of a problem is a persistent odor near a water fixture. The odor may be like what you’d smell from an open septic tank or sewer line. It also can have a “rotten egg” smell. Often, the odor dissipates so it is not noticeable in other parts of the house, but it still produces symptoms.

One way sewer gas can get into a home is through dried-out water traps in basement floor drains and drains of infrequently used water fixtures such as sinks, showers and bathtubs. The best way to solve that problem is to fill the drains with water regularly.

“Simply pour a quart of water into the drains every three to four weeks,” North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer Ken Hellevang recommends.

Blocked sewer air vents can be another cause of sewer gas backup. In very cold weather, moisture in sewer gas condenses and forms frost or ice at the end of the sewer vent on the roof of the house. The ice can build up to the point that it plugs the end of the vent.

“The first indication of a problem might be a toilet that’s gurgling or not flushing properly,” NDSU Extension agricultural engineer Tom Scherer says. “The sewer vent on the roof can be opened by pouring hot water onto and into it to melt the ice.”

More permanent solutions would be to insulate the vent pipe where it passes through the attic and installing insulated sewer vents on the pipe above the roof, if these haven’t been done. Insulated sewer vents are available at hardware stores.

Using an insulating sleeve or wrapping fiberglass insulation around the pipe in the attic are options. However, do not use heat tape on sewer vents in the attic because it can create a fire hazard.

Scherer and Hellevang also warn homeowners to be very careful if they plan to get on the roof to clear a blocked sewer vent because that can be dangerous in icy, snowy conditions.

For more information, contact Scherer at (701) 231-7239 or

NDSU Agriculture Communication - Feb. 4, 2013

Source:Ken Hellevang, (701) 231-7243,
Source:Tom Scherer, (701) 231-7239,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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