This is the second part of our series on how we are dealing with a plumbing disaster that involves a damaged home sewer line. This segment shares our experiences with various types of contractors, as well as lessons learned from the proposal and diagnostic phase.
Advances in materials science and other new technologies offer improved solutions to age-old problems for homeowners. Traditional methods of sewer line repair typically call for excavation of flooring, landscaping and even hardscaping, in order to remove old piping and install new lines. Today, homeowners have several options that require minimally invasive techniques, which can be more reliable, less intrusive and less expensive.
In this second installment of our journey through a sewer line disaster in our 40-year-old home in Southern California, we share what we learned during the diagnostic phase, the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposals we received, and the bid we eventually chose and why.
For information on how we discovered the issue and our preventative measures before the solution was deployed, please read:
To find out how we achieved final remediation, be sure to read:
Table of Contents
- Getting Bids & Proposals
- The Proposal Results
- The Winning Proposal
- Lessons Learned
- Closing Thoughts
- Trenchless Repair Resource Links
- Recommended Reading
Getting Bids & Proposals
As we mentioned in part 1 of this article, there are four major methods of rectifying a sewer line issue. One involves digging trenches and excavating flooring, landscaping and sometimes hardscaping, while the other three are less invasive methods that involve relatively newer technologies that have been used commercially for decades.
Although less invasive technologies have been available as early as the 1940’s, application to residential properties is less commonly available as an option to homeowners. Perhaps the reason for this is that local plumbers have not expanded their skills or invested in the technology and knowledge to offer a lower-cost, higher-convenience option. Trenchless sewer repair is a way to drive down costs, while providing durable, long-lasting solutions.
Vetting Plumbing Contractors
When screening contractors for your sewer issue, we recommend getting input from a diverse group of plumbing professionals (e.g. “old school” plumbers, “newer technologists” and “combination” plumbers with general contracting (GC) licenses) to see what your options and costs are with respect to their individual approaches.
The latter group, plumbers with GC licenses, will allow you to use one company to perform all of the necessary work from “soup to nuts”, as you will likely need to make repairs to outdoor concrete, landscaping and interior flooring, if choosing traditional methods of piping repair.
Though a consensus recommendation from consumer rights advocates is to get bids from at least three contractors, this is especially important and pertinent when involving situations that have a wide range of potential solutions, such as sewer line repair and replacement projects.
We strongly recommend getting at least one proposal that recommends traditional methods (e.g. trench excavation), in order to compare diagnosis and mitigation plans versus those of trenchless contractors.
Regardless of method chosen, only accept bids from licensed contractors and check each contractor for lawsuits, arbitration/mediation cases with your state’s licensing board or consumer protection agency.
Also make sure that your contractor has workman’s compensation insurance, as this is not a one-person effort and each worker on your property must be insured.
Make sure to clarify that you expect your bid or proposal to get you back to a perfect state. In other words, if flooring or landscaping needs to be excavated, this must be stated clearly in writing, with mention of whether the contractor will perform “patch work” to get your home and lawn back to its pre-project condition.
Getting written confirmation upfront on what a specific contractor will NOT perform is vitally important to identify additional work and costs necessary to return your space back to “normal”.
The Proposal Results
We engaged with four different contractors during the proposal process. This was due mainly to the fact that one of contractors was a recommendation from a tile/stone care specialist that we hired to assess our kitchen limestone damage. Although this contractor was initially chosen to be the “tile replacement guy”, he quickly informed us that he had a “B” general contractor’s license and could perform the plumbing work, as well as any necessary floor replacement.
Also important to point out is that we also spoke with another experienced “old-school” plumber, as well as an additional trenchless specialist during this process. Both declined to come to our residence for in-person assessments. However, in both cases, these interactions helped to increase our understanding of options under consideration.
Here’s how we conceptualized the competing proposals under consideration:
- Contractor 1: Hybrid Plumber
- Contractor 2: Experienced Old-School Plumber
- Contractor 3: General Contractor with Plumbing License
- Contractor 4: Trenchless Specialist
Contractor 1: Hybrid Plumber
Though Contractor 1 stated that they were versed in trenchless sewer repair, they ultimately proposed a traditional solution. After “hydro-jetting” away the obstruction that was causing water buildup in the sewer line, they performed a CCTV camera inspection of the sewer line from the cleanout to the obstruction point at 15′ 2″.
The first proposal we received from Contractor 1 was for $4,500 ($265 per linear feet). They proposed using a 2” liner for 17 feet of the kitchen piping to shore up the deteriorating cast iron pipe. Access to the piping would be from the cleanout, outside the kitchen, by cutting open a small section of exterior stucco wall and cement-covered ground.
Even though we mentioned that turning on the shower in the master bath caused us to see water in the kitchen, their proposal did not specify any investigation of the master bath drain line or how our shower experience played into the overall problem and our observations.
Re-Inspection and Revised Proposal
When we inquired about the role that the master bath played in our debacle, Contractor 1 agreed to re-inspect our sewer line, which led to a revised quote of $11,860, which of course did not include repairs to the excavated floors or broken stucco to access the pipe from the kitchen. The technician’s new proposal was to cut open a section of the kitchen floor and excavate outside the kitchen to tunnel pipe underneath the cabinet.
The contractor would need to cut open a section of outside wall behind the kitchen sink to run pipe and connect to the plumbing vent or vent stack on the roof. Next the proposal called for cleaning and descaling 3″ cast iron pipe that connected with the 2″ kitchen pipe which required excavating a section of dining room floor to connect the 2 and 3 inch pipes, which eventually leads to the garage and out to city sewer.
This contractor confirmed that we could continue to use the guest bathroom, but that we should not use our master bathroom until the problem was fully rectified, as any continual use would cause further damage to the subflooring.
Contractor 2: Experienced Old-School Plumber
Contractor 2, a California-licensed C-36 plumber was recommended by another plumber, who was a neighborhood favorite. The recommender insisted that Contractor 2 was an expert at rectifying sewer line issues in homes with slab foundations.
Contractor 2 walked around the property and peeked into cleanouts and various other crevices around the property. They did not perform a camera sewer line inspection, but instead asked us to email them the results of Contractor 1’s video inspection footage.
Contractor 2 proceeded to tell us that water from the master shower was the result of the vertical pipe from the third level being compromised or deteriorated. Their proposal included cutting into the custom cherry wood kitchen cabinetry, including the crown molding, to access the pipe for replacement.
Mind you, they never ran a camera into the pipe, this was their conclusion based on our observation that water from the shower also caused seepage of water through the kitchen grout lines. Their partial quote was $6,900 and did not include the cabinetry repairs or the patch and repairs after demolition of the entire kitchen floor, all of which they insisted had to be performed to resolve our issue.
This contractor told us not to use the master bathroom since the problem probably involved a vertical pipe from the master to the kitchen drain connection below.
Despite several text message to Contractor 2, we never heard back from them.
Contractor 3: General Contractor with Plumbing License
Contractor 3 was actually a tile floor specialist, who was referred to us by a tile-stone care specialist whom we had hired to assess the state of the kitchen’s limestone tiles. Contractor 3 also had a California B-General Contractor’s license, which would not only allow them to repair or replace our flooring, but would also allow them to perform all of the necessary plumbing work as needed.
After spending nearly two hours walking around the property and asking various questions, this contractor gave us more comfort choosing a GC that could handle all aspects of the project, if a trenchless solution was not viable for our situation.
However, this contractor also did not perform their own video camera inspection of the sewer lines. Their final quote of $17,700 plus the cost of over 650 square feet of tile (their solution required complete excavation of both the kitchen and dining room floors and complete re-tiling of both rooms) did not speak to the master bath part of the equation or how this would be resolved. When asked about how they planned to rectify this issue, they responded “we will see everything when we open up the floors”.
This quote also did not include the cost of tile, which would easily bring the total amount to at least $20,000.
This contractor reiterated the warning of the previous two contractors and told us not to use our master bath until the plumbing work was completed.
Before proceeding any further with this contractor, we knew that we had to have a trenchless specialist inspect our situation to weigh our options before signing a contract.
Contractor 4: Trenchless Specialist
Contractor 4 is a long-established trenchless specialist who has been working with CIPP (Cured-In-Place Pipe) and related trenchless technologies for over 15 years. An aggressive adopter of newer plumbing technologies, this contractor has been instrumental in applying these methods commercially, in numerous cities across the United States and now into residential properties. We discovered them on the site of a leading manufacturer of plumbing technology.
As both licensed California plumbers, C-36 and B-General Contractors, Contractor 4 spent over two hours performing video camera assessments of our situation and testing various fixtures before arriving at their conclusions.
In fact, the technician provided an initial assessment, but clarified that he would need to review the video recording with his supervisor later that day to ensure his assessment was as accurate as possible. Keep in mind, our technician has over twenty years of plumbing experience, and his boss has even more.
The problem turned out to be a hole in the kitchen pipe that was approximately 10 feet from the cleanout. The hole was at the 9 o’clock position, such that only when the pipe became completely engorged from the obstruction, it caused water to escape from this hole into the subfloor and to seep out through cracks in the grout lines.
After conducting several test scenarios, with our assistance, Contractor 4 confidently gave us the go-ahead to continue to use our master bath, as it was the original obstruction (since cleared by Contractor 1) that caused the water to back up and seep onto the kitchen floor.
Contractor 4 also assured us that it was unnecessary to excavate the kitchen and dining room floors, as the pipes could be accessed through various methods, such as exterior concrete, cleanouts, or roof plumbing vents known as “vent stacks”.
The only excavation would be a 2′ x 1′ section of stucco outside of the kitchen to access the section of the kitchen drain and a 3’ x 2’ section of the concrete walkway outside of the kitchen. Next they proposed to clean, prep and remove buildup in the kitchen drain with a Picote cast iron descaling machine.
After descaling the pipe, the company proposed to clean and flush out all debris with a high pressure “mini-jetter” before inserting a CIPP (Cured-In-Place Pipe) 2” sleeve from the exterior excavation access point up to the main sewer drain tie-up, which is approximately 15’ 2” of pipe. The company further agreed to replace any and all concrete, with a skilled contractor, leaving us only with the need to paint the section of new stucco.
The proposal included cleaning and de-scaling the entire sewer line and re-examining the entire line once cleaned and descaled to check the pipe conditions. Their proposal also included installing a 2″ ABS cleanout, as the previous cleanout was terribly corroded after 40 years. The total cost of their proposal came in at $9,300.
Contractor 4 was the only vendor that provided a warranty for the work as part of their proposal. The CIPP sleeve has a 25-year warranty from the liner manufacturer, assuming no misuse, wrong or inadequate water or drain services, negligence and inappropriate onsite conditions.
The Winning Proposal
The winning bid (Contractor 4) was chosen for a number of reasons:
- Time Spent Diagnosing the Problem
- A+ Level of Technical Expertise and Experience
- Quality of Service Beyond Technology
Time Spent Diagnosing the Problem
Contractor 4 spent over 2 hours assessing and reviewing our sewer architecture, from both a walk around the property approach and their own CCTV video sewer line inspection. They worked with us to test, fixture by fixture, to confirm exactly how and where water was flowing through the sewer line.
In the end, we felt that Contractor 4 had the best understanding of the underlying issues causing the water seepage in the kitchen and proved that it was the obstruction that caused the shower to add to the sewer pipe’s volume, and thus the water in the kitchen grout lines.
We checked each and every fixture with a camera firmly planted at the affected connection points and watched as water flowed through the lines without affecting the kitchen tiles. Contractor 4 was the ONLY contractor who noticed the hole in the 2 inch pipe at the 9 o’clock position that was causing the water seepage to the subfloor.
Though Contractor 4’s proposal to employ newer technologies to rectify the issue was of definite interest to us, we were equally impressed with their overall knowledge and problem-solving skills.
A+ Level of Technical Expertise and Experience
We first learned of Contractor 4 through a directory of a leading manufacturer of trenchless products and solutions. The implied endorsement of Contractor 4 was an indication to us that Contractor 4 was ranked exceptionally high by their vendor partner in terms of technical capabilities, commitment to training and exceptional customer service. We have since learned that this contractor has had a long track record of investing and adopting new technology to improve their services and capabilities.
Here is a representative video that gives an overview of the general approach and similar technology that our selected contractor will take with our plumbing issue.
Quality of Service Beyond Technology
Contractor 4 also came in above other competing bids in terms of customer service, such as having:
- An Appointment Coordinator
- We had a point of contact to schedule and confirm our first on-site assessment visit. The use of customer service technology, in this case Service Titan, was an added plus, as we could reliably communicate with our contacts, further proving that Contractor 4 had the requisite infrastructure to handle their growth responsibly.
- Experienced Personnel
- Based on a strong industry track record, this particular vendor is able to hire and retain a broad team of highly experienced professionals. In the case of our project manager, he confided that he had previously worked with other firms that also hired Contractor 4 when needing to resolve challenging situations.
- All of our follow-up questions were answered thoroughly and expediently, without any signs of defensiveness or pushback.
- Easily Accessible Proof of Licensing, Workman’s Comp, and Warranty Information
- All of Contractor 4’s state licenses, ownership information and workman’s’ compensation insurance were all easily accessible and matched with the licensing information presented on their website and business cards.
- We found no history of past or current litigation concerning this contractor.
We grouped our lessons learned into two categories:
- Lessons Learned Specific to Plumbing & Sewer Projects
- Lessons Learned Applicable to All Types of Contractor Projects
1. Lessons Learned Specific to Plumbing & Sewer Projects
- Educate Yourself on the 4 Non-Invasive Methods of Repairing Home Sewer Lines
- If You Live in a Condo Community, Trenchless Solutions Should be on the Radar of Your HOA
- When Scheduling a CCTV Video Sewer Line Inspection Be Sure to Confirm You Will Receive the Recorded Video Footage
- Always Keep a Log Book to Track Details of Incidents and Interactions with Contractors
- Always Be Present with Contractors to Help Assessments and to Learn
Educate Yourself on the 4 Non-Invasive Methods of Repairing Home Sewer Lines
Not all professional plumbers will be knowledgeable or capable of offering all possible types of resolutions. Plumbing solutions can have a wide range of costs, time-to-completion and risks.
See the section titled “Options for Repairing a Damaged Sewer Pipe” in part 1 for more details.
If You Live in a Condo Community, Trenchless Solutions Should be on the Radar of Your HOA
We see tremendous potential for HOA’s to look at non-invasive sewer repair technology for the high number of fixtures connected to a main sewer line that undergoes extreme stress and usage.
Since trenchless plumbing technology has had years of commercial success, consideration for residential, multifamily properties should be a priority for its convenience, reliability and durability.
When Scheduling a CCTV Video Sewer Line Inspection Be Sure to Confirm You Will Receive the Recorded Video Footage
Saving and sharing the recorded inspection video is standard practice of most reputable plumbers. Since you are paying for this service, this will allow you to share it with third-parties, such as your insurance carrier and other plumbing professionals for second opinions.
Always Keep a Log Book to Track Details of Incidents and Interactions with Contractors
Homeowners should keep a logbook with dates noting what happened, when and the situation that occurred before their plumbing event, to help in the diagnostic and assessment phase of their plumbing project. Take note of which fixtures when turned on or flushed caused which conditions.
Always Be Present with Contractors to Help Assessments and to Learn
Homeowners should be present with the plumber to help run diagnostic tests during the assessment phase, such as turning on various fixtures and noting any water seepage or other signs of pipe deterioration. This is extremely helpful for learning your home’s plumbing architecture for future projects or incidences.
2. Lessons Learned Applicable to All Types of Contractor Projects
- All Licensed Contractors Are Not Equal
- Quality Contractors Will Not Rely on Assessments Conducted by Others
- Contractors Willing to Cut Corners is a Red Flag
- Contractors May Look for a Way Out of Their Responsibility after The Proposal is Written
- Exemptions for Workman’s Compensation is a Red Flag
- Long-Term Investment in New Technology & Training is a Sign of Quality & Innovation
- Before Choosing a Solution, Research for New Technology
- Keep an Eye Out for Methods Used for Commercial & Public Utilities Being Applied to Residential Applications
- Look for Contractors that Have Strong Strategic Partnerships with Leading Technology Manufacturers
- Always Educate Yourself Before Considering Options
All Licensed Contractors Are Not Equal
Regardless of whether they have been on the job for 30 years or 15 years, the intelligence and ability to diagnose and repair a problem does not necessarily come from “years in the business”. Be sure to take note if any of the contractors appear to be rushing their assessment or ignoring your questions.
Quality Contractors Will Not Rely on Assessments Conducted by Others
The best contractors will perform their own assessments and diagnostics, preferably with the homeowner’s help and observation.
Contractors Willing to Cut Corners is a Red Flag
Never hire a contractor who suggests that you cut corners such as foregoing city and municipal permitting regulations.
Contractors May Look for a Way Out of Their Responsibility after The Proposal is Written
Be leery of contractors who respond to your questions with “we’ll have to see once the floor is open”, thus increasing the likelihood of unforeseen circumstances, which can expand the project’s scope and increase costs. Conversely, lesser contractors may shy away from your project if you are very specific in your questioning and may “self-opt-out” as a result.
Exemptions for Workman’s Compensation is a Red Flag
When checking the licenses of the contractors, make sure they are NOT exempt from workman’s compensation insurance, as it would be very difficult for anyone to perform this type of work alone. Should an employee or worker, brought onto your property by a contractor, have an accident on your property, you will be liable for resulting injuries and medical bills.
Long-Term Investment in New Technology & Training is a Sign of Quality & Innovation
Forward looking plumbing professionals are investing in newer technology and advanced training in new techniques, tools and methodologies that have made their way to residential applications. Continuing education and certifications from leading technology vendors are also an indication that a contractor is highly trained, committed and competent in using requisite technological solutions.
Before Choosing a Solution, Research for New Technology
Technology is continually improving methods of performing common tasks such as plumbing repairs. With plumbing tech, for example, advancements are constantly improving new materials such as resins, polymers, and epoxies, and associated application methods.
Keep an Eye Out for Methods Used for Commercial & Public Utilities Being Applied to Residential Applications
Tools and applications used for many years are now being applied to residential use with greater success and lower costs (e.g. liners, sprays, pipe bursting, UV light curing)
Look for Contractors that Have Strong Strategic Partnerships with Leading Technology Manufacturers
It is in manufacturers’ best interest to promote their strategic partners that are best-in-class in terms of mastering their products and solutions, packaged with great customer service. Implicit endorsements can be found in vendor sanctioned contractor directories, content that highlight partner successes and certification programs.
Always Educate Yourself Before Considering Options
Homeowners need to educate themselves on the range of potential solutions available to them before blindly accepting that there is only one way to “skin a cat”.
As we step back and review each of the plumbers who provided proposals, we are reminded of doctors who barely listen to a patient detailing his particular symptoms. The doctor then applies the same “fix” that he has been applying to all of his patients for the last thirty years because that is what he has been conditioned to do.
If your plumber is not open to exploring the latest technologies available to his profession that will benefit his customers, maybe it’s time to change your plumber!
Part 3 will detail the actual project and the finished product.
Trenchless Repair Resource Links
- Perma-Liner Trenchless Pipelining Solutions
- Verified & Certified Trenchless Sewer Repair Contractors
- Sewer Contractors Listed on BuildZoom
- Waterline Renewal Technologies
- Repipe Lining Systems
- Pipe Lining Supply
- RIDGID Tools
- Dancutter USA Pipe Rehab Robotics
- A-1 Total Service Plumbing
- Sewer Pros
- Part 1: Non-Invasive Plumbing Tech for Repairing Your Home’s Sewer Line
- Part 3: Non-Invasive Plumbing Tech: How We Repaired Our Home Sewer Line
- Signs It May Be Time to Replace Your Piping
- How to Plan & Manage a Renovation Successfully
- Essential Elements of a Home Renovation Contract
- Why Prescriptive Maintenance is the Cure for Homeowner Headaches
- How to Choose a Qualified & Trustworthy Contractor
- How to Hire a Handyman Safely, Wisely & Virtually
- How to Increase Your Chances of Hiring a Good Contractor
- Signs of a Bad Contractor Before You Sign a Contract
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