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An animal, probably a fat rat, has got stuck in an underground 100mm (4 inch) stormwater drain pipe and blocked it somewhere in our front yard, possibly under the driveway. The drain has started to stink and rainwater to pool in the backyard. The pipe is around 60 meters (~200 feet) long and I don't know where exactly the blockage is. Hiring a plumber to use a jet drain cleaner and inspection camera will cost about $500. Is there any cost-effective way of dealing with this stinky situation?

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    Is it in your responsibility to clean that, or the responsibility of your local city?
    – Martin
    Feb 14 at 8:03
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    Do you know for sure it's a dead animal? You could also have a blockage due to a collapsed/caved-in pipe or tree roots. That would require a completely different treatment.
    – TooTea
    Feb 14 at 13:15
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    @Reza "The drain has started to stink." Dead animals have a fairly distinct and pungent stink to them. It's noticeably different than regular sewage or rotting debris is drain pipe smell.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Feb 14 at 15:32
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    @TooTea I can't obviously be sure about it before seeing it. I had a plumber inspect the same pipe using a drain camera a couple of years ago. There was no tree root then but the pipe was visibly deformed at some points. That observation together with the distinctly pungent smell makes me think it is a rat stuck in one of those bottlenecks.
    – Reza
    Feb 14 at 23:50
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    @Reza: You can get USB "endoscope" cameras equivalent to what the plumber used (may need to attach to an appropriate stick or whatever yourself) for under $20, which would be helpful for confirming what the problem is and assessing what to do. Feb 15 at 16:14

7 Answers 7

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Many hardware stores will rent out tools. Renting a tool for a couple of hours usually doesn't cost very much. I recommend renting an inspection camera and getting a good look at exactly what the problem is. Look at the blockage from both directions, if possible. Once you understand what's blocking the pipe, you'll have a better idea about what to do next. You might be able to rent a drain clearing machine and take care of the problem yourself. If you end up having to call a plumber, you can tell them precisely what's needed ("there's a tree root obstructing my 4" PVC storm drain line 35 meters from the opening"), which could end up cheaper because they won't have to spend time diagnosing the problem and they'll know exactly which tools they need to bring.

When renting tools, be careful and ensure that you know how to use the tool safely before attempting anything non-trivial. An inspection camera is unlikely to damage anything, but you could damage a motorized pipe cleaner (or your pipes) if you try to clear out a tree root and the tool isn't rated for that. When in doubt, tell the store what you're trying to do and let them recommend which tool to use. I usually try to get the tool's model number ahead of time so that I can go through operating and safety manuals, video tutorials, etc. ahead of time.

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    "which could end up cheaper because they won't have to spend time diagnosing the problem and they'll know exactly which tools they need to bring" <- you have too much faith in plumbers. I once had to call an emergency plumber on Christmas eve because of a bathtub valve that couldn't be shut off, and told him exactly the tool he needed to bring (matching deep socket for valve). He showed up without it and tried to charge me double for the time he spent getting lost on the road. Feb 15 at 16:17
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    A large sewer machine that could be used to clear a 4" pipe can be a real bear to use if you don't know how to do it. And dangerous. That cable is under a lot of twisting stress, and if it twists around your arm or leg, it could easily break it or worse. $500 seems to be a fairly low price considering the effort. You could try asking your plumber to charge you on time and materials basis if you don't think it will take too long, but understand that they are putting wear and tear on some fairly expensive machinery. It's not just one man's time you are paying for. Feb 15 at 17:32
  • @jmarkmurphy Yeah, it really depends on what you see with the scope. If it can be cleared with one of those hand-cranked cleanout tools (like a big wad of leaves), it's probably DIY-able. If there's a root involved, you'll likely have to call a plumber anyway to dig up and replace the damaged section of pipe. My personal rule is to compare the cost of the pro vs. the amount of damage I could cause when I inevitably use the tool incorrectly.
    – bta
    Feb 17 at 16:58
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Seems like a mechanical rooter type of job. I wouldn't be surprised if there were roots or other intrusions that may have trapped the dead rat. In my area, that would be closer to a $200 job as the equipment is lower-tech.

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    Wow, I usually do my own work but I don't think I could even get a plumber to come to my house for less than $200, and that doesn't even start to cover anything they might do. I got a power rooter job done a few years back and it was like $800CAD (~$630 USD) - job was less than an hour. OP's estimate sounds closer to reality.
    – J...
    Feb 14 at 13:55
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    @J... $630USD for a mechanical power rooter job? Are you in the middle of nowhere which required a 3-hour drive? You got robbed. I had my leach field camera scoped and hydro-jetted for about $800USD last year. 5 years ago I paid $200 for a mechanical power rooter job; today it would probably be $250-$300
    – MonkeyZeus
    Feb 14 at 15:38
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    @MonkeyZeus Nope, middle ring of a 1M+ pop city. It was after hours and a weekend and during early covid - would have been about 30% cheaper scheduled, but still $500CAD is pretty typical for a big mainline job here. They were also good guys I knew and trusted - maybe could have found someone to do it cheaper but I also didn't want some cowboy damaging the sewer line either. Guys who work for bargain basement prices make me nervous...
    – J...
    Feb 14 at 15:55
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    @J... Well that makes more sense then; especially the "emergency" nature of it. Prices without context usually lead to disbelief. My services were scheduled during normal hours and I'm on the outskirts of Central New York; 15 minutes from "civilization" =)
    – MonkeyZeus
    Feb 14 at 16:23
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    If you do have to hire a pro remember that hesitating when he offers to shake hands will cost you an extra 20% Feb 14 at 18:26
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If you have access to the start of the pipe then you could rig it to accept a plunger, fill it with water, and start plunging.

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I would start by walking the line on the surface and look for extra damp spots, or sunken spots that may imply where a fault is. You mention a deformed area in the previous inspection, that could be a likely suspect spot too.

You say the street end is open because its storm-water. So there's a good chance you can get into the pipe at the top end, where your drain is or downpipes are. Start by pushing a long garden hose in there with a jet-type nozzle blasting, and keep shoving the hose into the pipe till it ether slows to a stop, or you feel it hit something and stop abruptly.
In the former case, its because of friction with the pipe and means nothing, the latter means you may have found a block.

You can also try and shove the hose up from the downstream side, but that's harder because you're fighting gravity and the water coming down again.

Measure off the length of hose that you got into the pipe, and that should give a rough idea of where it stopped, which may give clues.

If nothing else helps, you may have to dig down, find the pipe, and install an inspection hatch or simply cut it and scab in a repair length afterward. That will reduce your pipe from 60 to 2x 30 metres, and hope you get lucky. Also hopefully pipe is not fully under your concrete/driveway.

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I didn't see anyone else mention them. Isn't this exactly what drain rods are for?

Long flexible rods that have a corkscrew on the end (if you are wanting to pull something back) or can have a 4" flat plate on the end (push). The rods (each about 6' long) screw together to reach many times that distance.

Not too expensive - far cheaper than a plumber (and can, I'm sure be hired)

e.g. https://www.toolstation.com/heavy-duty-drain-rod-set/p83318

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You could take a chance and use a strong chemical drain cleaner, such as caustic lye or hydrochloric acid.

There are several pros and cons to weigh up.

Pros

  • Caustic chemicals are relatively cheap.
  • Your plastic pipes are (practically) immune to chemical corrosion that would affect metal pipes.
  • Caustic chemicals can digest animal tissue with frightening speed and effectiveness.

Cons

  • Caustic chemicals react exothermically, generating heat. This would need to be managed to avoid heat damage to your plastic pipes (i.e. using an appropriate dilution and flushing with copious water once the drain clears)
  • Caustic chemicals can be dangerous to you and the environment. As others have pointed out, this is a storm drain, hence the use of caustic chemicals may be especially hazardous to the enviroment and possibly even illegal.
  • As your pipes are 60 feet long, it would be difficult to monitor progress of the reaction.
  • We don't actually know that the blockage is caused by an animal carcass, so caustic chemicals may not work as expected.

A lot of plumbers would advise you to run a mile from this suggestion, given the risk of things going wrong. But it since you're asking for cost-effective alternative options, this is one to consider. Good luck.

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    is that chemical ends up killing a bunch of fish in some creek you could be in trouble.
    – Jasen
    Feb 14 at 10:23
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    If a rat is stuck, I'd guess that roots have blocked the downstream side. This means roots have likely compromised the integrity of the pipe, and this caustic chemical will be leaking into your yard. Without knowing the effect of these on plants in your yard, or downstream fish, I'd run far away from this advice.
    – Patrick M
    Feb 14 at 14:39
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    Using lye is a cheap and easy thing to try. You might run a plastic hose through the pipe down to the point of the blockage, and introduce the chemical there. You might add a little camera for a DIY camera probe too!
    – JDługosz
    Feb 14 at 16:33
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    I suspect that this would be impractical unless (a) the water currently in the drain could be extracted and (b) the fall on the pipe was sufficiently steep that you could cover the accessible end of the putative carcass without having to dump several hundred litres of environmentally unfriendly fluid into the pipe. Feb 14 at 17:56
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    @Jasen At first I thought "no, that's not a problem". Then I realized this is stormwater, not sanitary sewer. Stormwater drainage in many places is not treated like sewage, so chemicals really could cause damage after leaving your property. Feb 15 at 0:27
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A hosepipe with fishing spear hooks

Use a garden hosepipe, try and get a stiff one, keep a bucket of soap and sponge handy to squeeze it as it comes out. The hosepipe will be fairly buoyant compared to the water and should be able to go through the drain easily by the time it's cleared.

Firstly, tie some fishing spear hooks to the end of the hosepipe, see if you can snag whatever it is.

Secondly, use a jet nozzle.

Every time you pull out the hosepipe, squeeze it down with a soapy sponge.

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