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How to Dig a Sewer Trench

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How to Dig a Sewer Trench: Save Thousands, But Be Aware of Limitations
Dig Sewer Trench
(c) Lee Wallender; Licensed to About.com
Sewer line replacement is one project that always strikes fear in the hearts of homeowners. Costs routinely run into the five figures.

A large part of that is excavating the sewer line. It is possible to hand-dig your own sewer trench. But before taking on this daunting task, assess your strengths and weaknesses.

Important: How Much Can You Dig By Hand?

How much is too much? Should you even take this on in the first place?

By hand, I can dig a sewer trench 4 feet deep, 8 feet long, and 3 feet wide in about six hours. This is based on sandy but heavily rooted soil. But this is just me. Factors change everything: soil composition, seasons, number of people in your "help force," etc. Breaking through frozen winter ground is an added task in itself. In general, it will be far slower and harder than you can imagine.

Shown here is just a relatively small spot repair. Personally, I would not want to dig an entire sewer line. But if you have the luxury of time, good conditions, and you love working outside, it can be done.

1. Locate Your Sewer Line

If you have no idea where your sewer line runs, a video camera inspection can tell you. The technician will run the camera down the line and can stop at various points. The camera has a radio transmitter that signals its location. At each point, the technician will sweep a locator over the ground until it reads the strongest signal. Your sewer clean out may also give you a visual clue as to the line's location.

2. Mark the Dig Point

Get this point as accurate as possible. You will pay a high price for hand-digging at the wrong spot. Work with the inspector until he/she feels this is accurate, then hit it with a spot of marking paint.

3. Utilities Location, Permits

Call your local "miss utilities" number. This is usually a service free to residences which is supported by utility companies. They will mark your yard for electrical, water, gas, etc. Don't forget that there are other homeowner-installed "utilities" (sprinkler, landscape lights, etc.) in your yard outside the purview of utility companies.

Additionally, any work involving replacement of sewer pipes will likely involve pulling a permit.

4. Break Up or Remove Obstructions (Optional)

Before you can get to the dirt, you have to remove obstructions like concrete or pavers. Use an 8 lb. sledgehammer to break up concrete, starting on the edge and making sure that you have an opening under the concrete. Scraping out this opening (with a trowel or prybar) will make it much easier to break.
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