Cleanouts – Who Needs ‘em

Cleanouts – Who Needs ‘em

David Olson, PE

When I consider the cost of a properly installed plumbing system, I feel that the cost of installing adequate floor and wall cleanouts is negligible. I have been told by building engineers that more cleanouts is always better – it allows them to maintain their plumbing waste and vent system more effectively. Unfortunately, when we introduce solid material into a plumbing system, sometimes it gets clogged up. Perhaps there is a section of pipe that is installed too steep. Consequently, the liquid waste quickly runs down the pipe, and the solid waste tends to stay behind. The presence of a properly located cleanout won’t correct the pipe slope issue, but it will make dealing with it much simpler.

The formerly enforced Uniform Plumbing Code took the approach that no cleanouts were required on plumbing systems above the lowest level of a building. Section 707.4 of this code required cleanouts at minimum every 100 feet along a horizontal drainage pipe. However, exception (3) said,

Excepting the building drain and its horizontal branches, a cleanout shall not be required on any pipe that is above the first floor of the building.

I believe that some designers and installers still believe that this code exception is in place? The problem with the above exception is that most waste piping is installed within walls and above ceilings – many of which are relatively inaccessible. The only sure way to get to a waste line on an upper floor of a building is by removing the P-trap and trap arm of a lavatory. This gives the service individual a place to insert a snake device to remove the obstruction – if they are lucky enough to locate a lavatory relatively close upstream, and providing that the sewage is not backed up above the level of this waste fitting.

The current International Plumbing Code requires cleanouts on every waste line in the building, regardless of location within the building. Section 708.3.1 reads,

708.3.1 Horizontal drains within buildings. All horizontal drains shall be provided with cleanouts, located more than 100 feet (30 480 mm) apart.

The code goes on to require cleanouts at every 100 feet in Building Drains, at changes of direction of greater than 45 degrees – where located more than 40 feet downstream of an accessible cleanout, at bases of stacks, and at the Building Drain – Building Sewer junction. Cleanouts are required in all sanitary waste systems, as well as storm drain systems (see IPC 1101.8) and indirect drainage systems (see IPC 804.1).

Whenever I have a question about the interpretation of a code section I have two approaches, first, I go to Chapter 2 – Definitions, and see if there are stated definitions of terms that are used within text of the code that may be clarified by this section. Second, I use the IPC Code and Commentary and look up a particular section to see the intended meaning, as issued by the author of the code section.

In this case, I am getting mixed signals from the code. In Chapter 2, Horizontal Branch Drain is defined as follows:

Horizontal Branch Drain. A drainage branch pipe extending laterally from a soil or waste stack or building drain, with or without vertical sections or branches, that receives the discharge from two or more fixture drains or branches and conducts the discharge to the soil or waste stack or to the building drain.

This definition suggests to me that the code authors intended for any branch that serves two or more fixtures must contain a cleanout. This is how I normally interpret this requirement when I perform plan review assignments. However, I am often uneasy about approving a waste piping design that includes fixtures that are drained into a waste branch that only serves a single fixture. Sometimes these are well off the building drain and seem to be fixture types that could generate clogging – such as floor sinks or mop service basins. Once again, referring to the generally obsolete UPC, that code required cleanouts on any individual branch line if it exceeded five feet from the building drain connection and did not serve a sink or urinal (UPC Section 707.4 – Exception (1)). I liked this limitation; it defined the need for cleanouts on single fixture branches that were removed from the building drain by more than five feet.

The IPC Code and Commentary clarifies section 708.3.1 a little more forcefully. It reads as follows:

Cleanouts must be spaced a reasonable distance apart to facilitate cleaning any portion of the drainage system. This distance is based on the use of modern-day cleaning equipment, and attempts to minimize the inconvenience and health hazard associated with creating a mess inside the building as a result of removing a blockage. Inadequate cleanout spacing may require the use of excessively long rodding cables, which complicates the task and increases the likelihood that the rodding cable will jam or break inside the pipe. Every horizontal drain must have at least one cleanout, regardless of length.

According to this interpretation, every branch waste line, regardless of length, requires a cleanout. This begs to question, if a cleanout is required on every branch waste line, why doesn’t the code just come out and say so? It remains my opinion that branch waste lines which serve two or more fixtures requires a cleanout at the upmost point of this branch. This seems like a reasonable interpretation for my purposes.

I believe that cleanouts should always be shown clearly on an engineer’s or contractors drawings. As the above discussion suggests, there is some uncertainty as to where the code requires cleanouts. Many engineering firms it seems, like to put a simple note on a plan that says something like, “Install cleanouts per code.” Consequently, it is up to the interpretation of the installing plumbing where these will be installed. In today’s construction environment, contractors are forced to be very competitive when bidding for a project. Cleanouts are relatively inexpensive, but they do add up, especially when installed in quantities as mandated by the governing IPC. If the engineer doesn’t bother to show these on their plans, and the bidding contractor does not diligently include all the cleanouts within the bid, whose fault is it when the building inspector arrives and says that additional cleanouts must be installed. It is my feeling that the contractor has then been subject to a disservice by the engineer of record.

Cleanouts are necessary for normal maintenance of plumbing waste and vent systems. The engineers are responsible for designing systems that are in compliance with the governing codes and standards. These simple devices must be shown on the plans in order to assure that the installing contractor provides these where needed. The building engineer will be much happier when a clog happens in his waste system and there is a cleanout installed that allows him to perform maintenance on the system. The bottom line: cleanouts are good – we need em!