What to do When You Hit a Sewer Line while Digging

Hitting an unexpected pipe or line when digging can be a minor nuisance or a major disaster. The best approach is to avoid the problem in the first place with some safety pre-planning. Use one of your local “call before you dig” services to help you get a handle on the lines that may be under your property.

For a more complete picture, you can also hire a utility mapping service that will come and actually take a direct look (usually with ground penetrating radar technology) and see what is under the surface. This can be a safer route because there can be things underground that the utility companies don’t know about.

If you haven’t taken these steps, or if the information you get from the utility company is off, there is a chance you could hit and damage utility lines. So what do you do if you hit something like a sewer pipe line while digging?

Identify the Line

All pipes can look the same to the average homeowner, so if you hit something while excavating, it may not be immediately obvious what it is. Water coming into the property is under pressure and will gush when the pipe is cracked. On the other hand sewage drains are not. When cracked or broken, there shouldn’t be a fountain or spray. There will be a strong unpleasant smell though. That’s the best way to tell that it’s a sewer pipe.

If you have come across the pipe but not damaged it, it may not be easy to identify. Over the decades, plumbing trends have led to sewage pipes being made from clay, concrete, iron, and plastic PVC. The material of the pipe may not help you. It may not matter anyway, since you are going to have to adjust your digging plans no matter what sort of pipe it is.

Handling Damage

If the sewer line is actually damaged, you should clear out the work site and call the appropriate utility company. Pipes on your property are most likely going to be your responsibility to repair, unless they gave you explicit locations for their pipes that ended up being incorrect.

At any rate, let the utility company know that damage has occurred. They will be able to give you some instructions on what to do, which will probably involve getting a plumber out to your home. While you are waiting, don’t run any water or flush the toilets in the house to reduce any flow or leakage through the broken pipe.

Also avoid any open flames. It’s definitely not as hazardous as a gas line, but there can be methane within a sewer pipe that can ignite.

Keep these steps in mind for any unexpected sewer line problems, but remember that digging safely in the first place is the best approach. No matter what kind of utility line you hit, always call a professional and stay clear of the damage.