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Tree roots in sewer drains have legal rights

Tree roots in sewer drains are an issue we are confronted with every week. They can be confronting for plumbers as we are frequently faced with situations where clients want us to give quasi-legal rulings on non-compliance of tree roots in the sewer drains where there is, in reality, no black-or-white answer. The truth is there are multiple opinions in multiple shades of grey.

A perennial issue for all plumbers as long as I can remember is the issues created by trees and tree roots. Trees can significantly damage plumbing infrastructure, mainly underground water pipes and drains. Often the damage has been slowly occurring over many years before you are affected.

A common issue we are confronted with, numerous times every month, is tree roots in sewer drains and stormwater drains.

A fact that some people fail to grasp is that tree roots don’t respect or understand property boundaries. Trees grow, and their tree roots search for water and nutrients from the soil. Regrettably, your sewer drains are a great source of water and nutrients for tree roots. So your broken drains are the ultimate party time for trees.

tree roots in sewer drains

The photo above perfectly shows how far tree roots will infiltrate a drain. These tree roots we removed from a stormwater drain had infiltrated 42 meters down the drain and were causing flooding to the property every time there was a rainfall event.

These tree roots came from multiple trees situated in multiple surrounding properties. The roots infiltrated the drain in multiple locations where the pipe was cracked and broken. Broken pipes are how tree roots infiltrate a drain. Tree roots by themselves cannot break a pipe open.

Large trees are a source of neighbourhood disputes

Recently, the Gold Coast has allowed urban blocks to become smaller and smaller.  Over the years, as the trees in landscaped urban blocks mature, problems begin to occur. Any large tree can become a natural source of angst and stress. This results in trees becoming a source of disagreements between otherwise friendly neighbours, with the most common disputes being:

  • Branches overhanging the boundary fence and pushing over dividing fences
  • Branches, fruit and leaf litter dropping into the neighbouring property
  • Roots causing damage to underground drains, water mains, electrical conduits and telecommunications conduits
  • Roots damaging fences, walls, house foundations and concrete paths and driveways
  • Branches blocking sunlight for solar PV panels, solar hot water panels, windows, Foxtel microwave dishes and TV aerials

Issues with branches are visible to everyone, so they are generally much easier to resolve. In most instants, an amicable discussion with your neighbour can resolve most branch issues as there is a common interest.

Roots in sewer drains or stormwater drains are vastly different. These underground root infiltrations are neither visible nor easily traceable to their source. 

Tree roots in sewer drains & stormwater drains

When we find your drain blocked with tree roots, multiple roots are often inside the drain causing the blockage. Without an extensive horticultural investigation to determine the type of tree the roots are from, no one can ascertain which tree’s roots have infiltrated your drain and where the tree roots originate from.

As you can see in the photo above, where we have undertaken vacuum excavation of a drain, the roots are everywhere around the sewer pipe. In addition, it is visible that there are multiple roots of varying sizes and tree types.

Contrary to multiple urban myths, tree roots do not break drains whether the drain is installed in PVC pipe or earthenware pipe.

Yes, in old earthenware, tree roots will infiltrate the drain around the rubber ring joints over time, but that is because of movement in the ground that enable the roots to infiltrate slowly over a number of years.

With PVC drains, tree roots can’t break open pipes or fittings. In every instant I have seen, the drain was broken, usually on a bend or junction that allowed the roots to infiltrate the drain. In just about every instant we come across broken PVC drains, it is our opinion the drain was damaged during the initial installation of the drain at the time of construction.

It is almost impossible to prevent tree roots from entering a broken drain without repairing the drain. This is where we commonly see the problems originating with neighbour disputes. It is not unusual to have clients misinterpret what we inform them and attempt to put words in our mouths as to whom is responsible for clearing the blocked drain and repairing the damaged drain.

The law concerning tree roots in sewer drains

If you have no trees on your property and your neighbour has a fully landscaped garden full of trees, then yes, it’s likely the neighbour is responsible.

Having been drawn into these arguments between neighbours on several occasions over the years, I highly recommend that you try to resolve the issue tactfully with your neighbour before things get out of hand. I can assure you this is always quicker, cheaper and much less stressful than taking legal action, which will ultimately end up in mediation after spending a small fortune with a solicitor.

From the legal perspective, the Neighbourhood Disputes (Dividing Fences and Trees) Act 2011 is legislation relating to trees. The legislation requires that you determine who has the responsibility for the tree. However, if the tree is on the boundary, both parties will have responsibility equivalent to the number of trees on each property.

Trees have legal rights

You must know that you cannot take the law into your own hands where trees are concerned. You cannot remove a tree outside your property that you believe is damaging your property. Legally all you can do is remove overhanging branches up to the boundary.

If you back onto a City of Gold Coast public park or reserve, you must contact the council about the problems as many trees in public parks are protected.

Before planting any large trees on your property, you should consider the height they will grow to when they mature and where their roots can spread. Similarly, assessing neighbouring trees with your neighbour now may prevent property damage and large bills in the future.

Ultimately your house is your primary asset, and it is in your interests to protect your investment but remember trees have rights to, and just cannot be chopped down for no reason if they are not on your property.