How Tree Roots Cause Plumbing Problems and What You Can Do About It

Imagine a drain that seems to get slower by the day, or a stubborn clog that you can’t seem to clear. All of the usual tips and tricks aren’t doing anything, and you’re getting frustrated. Turns out, your plumbing system has been invaded by tree roots. When mother earth decides to wreak havoc on underground pipes, you’re looking at a potentially dangerous and expensive headache that can result in major damage. Fortunately, there are a few tell-tale signs that can help you undercover the problem before it gets worse.

Tree roots and your plumbing system

Mature tree roots have the ability to spread beyond 2-3 times the diameter of the tree’s canopy. This means that a 30 ft tree can have roots that reach anywhere from 60-90 feet past the trunk. Usually, these roots remain close to the top 6-18 inches of soil, where most of the nutrients are. However, during times of drought, or in areas of the country with very dry weather, trees send their roots further underground in search of water. This puts the roots in a prime position to interact with your home’s underground pipes.

Most modern plumbing and septic systems use PVC pipes, or other types of plastic. These tightly sealed pipes aren’t as vulnerable to tree roots as older clay pipes. This is why tree root problems are more common in older homes. However, tree roots can still wreak havoc on newer pipes if the pipes have been compromised or broken, and the roots have an opportunity to invade.

Slow drains and clogs

For many homeowners, the first signs of tree root problems are sudden slow drains or recurring clogs. Tree roots cause these problems by blocking the flow of water in and out of your underground plumbing system. While the occasional clog is common, and usually nothing to worry about, it’s not normal to have frequent clogs that are difficult or impossible to clear completely. If you always seem to end up wading in ankle-deep water during your showers, or your sink holds water long after you turn it off, you may be dealing with a clog caused by tree roots.

Strange noises can also alert you that something’s not quite right. If your drains aren’t flowing correctly, you’ll likely hear a gurgling noise whenever you flush your toilet. This indicates that there’s some sort of blockage in the pipes.

Sewage backup

When there’s a blockage somewhere in your sewer lines, sewage backup can occur. Sewage backup can result in foul smells due to leaking sewer gas. This smell can resemble rotten eggs, spoiled milk, or other generally stomach-churning odors. If you notice any of these smells around your sinks or toilets, chances are your sewer lines are experiencing a backup that could be caused by tree roots.


Landscaping research, keeping an eye on your yard, and maintaining a regular plumbing maintenance schedule are some key ways to prevent tree roots from encroaching on your plumbing system.

Do landscaping research

Before planting trees or other plants in your yard, check to make sure you’re not putting their roots in a position to impact your pipes. This may seem like a daunting task, considering that pipes and utility lines are dozens of feet underground and you may not have been involved in the construction of your house when they were placed initially. Fortunately, all you need to do to get the inside scoop on where pipes are located in your yard is to dial the national 8-1-1 “dial before you dig” service. You can also contact a home inspector or your city’s sewer department to find out pipe locations. Once you have a clear map of where the pipes are, you can plant your trees accordingly.

If it’s not realistic for your landscaping to avoid all sewer line locations, you can re-think your landscaping choices to minimize your risk of root obstructions. Slow-growing trees that don’t reach more than 20 feet tall are a safe bet—this includes species such as Japanese maple, eastern redbud, and common fig trees. Cacti, the classic desert staple, also have a shallow root system and aren’t much of a risk to your plumbing. On the flip side, avoid planting trees known to cause damage, such as willow, birch, oak, and citrus trees.

Keep an eye on your yard

Sometimes, changes in your yard can be clear signs of tree roots invading your plumbing. For example, if an existing tree in your yard seems to be growing much faster than the others, or seems much greener than usual, it may be getting an extra nutrient boost from the water in your pipes. Keep an eye on any changes like this and contact a plumber if you notice anything especially out of the ordinary.


Another warning sign to keep an eye on is the possible emergence of sinkholes. When tree roots grow into your pipes, they create leaks. These leaks allow for excess moisture to flow into your yard, creating potentially dangerous sinkholes. Signs of sinkholes include large puddles of water or mud and noticeable depressions in the landscape. If you notice the beginnings of a sinkhole in your yard, call for professional assistance right away.

Continue plumbing inspection and maintenance

Working with a plumber to keep your plumbing system in good working order helps to prevent many common plumbing problems, including those caused by tree roots. If you believe you have an obstruction caused by tree roots, a plumber can diagnose the problem with a video inspection. Using a high-resolution camera, a plumber can clearly see any roots that have made their home in your plumbing system, or any signs that they may be moving in that direction.

Get to the root of your plumbing problems with Chas Roberts

Tree roots can cause costly damage to your plumbing—save yourself the headache and work with a plumber to keep everything running smoothly before anything drastic occurs. Our expert plumbers can do much more than unclog drains. From sewer and septic services to water heating and filtration, we’ll solve whatever plumbing situation you’re faced with.  Contact us to get started.