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Preventing Tree Root Damage to Sidewalks, Foundations & Plumbing

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Tree roots are often blamed for numerous problems on the South Shore, including lifting sidewalks, infiltrating sewage systems, damaging building foundations, and causing injuries by tripping. Though many people view tree roots as the culprit in these situations, there’s usually an underlying cause that has nothing to do with roots.

In this article, we’ll examine four common situations where roots often take the blame. We’ll act as the defense attorney for the roots, examine the real culprits behind the issues, and offer solutions if you’re dealing with one of these problems. We’ll also provide insight on avoiding future issues with your tree roots and preventing additional problems.

Case #1: Tree Roots Take the Blame for Clogging Underground Pipes

Many homeowners have had issues with tree roots entering their underground pipes and blocking the sewage system. If there is a full clog, they may have had to call a plumber to flush out the system and remove the blockage. While tree roots take most of the blame for this, it is not entirely their fault.

Why It Happens

Roots take the path of least resistance; they won’t go anywhere where there isn’t already an opening. Contrary to popular belief, roots very rarely “break into” intact pipes. Rather, roots will enter through preexisting cracks or weaknesses in the pipe that have occurred from age or soil movement. The joints of pipes, especially, are vulnerable to failures and breaks.

DID YOU KNOW? Tree roots can grow 100 feet or more from the base of a tree. Almost any tree around your property could be causing the issue.

What to Do About Tree Roots in Pipes

The roots, which may have taken up the entire pipe system, obviously need to be removed. Blocked sewers must be cleared mechanically (with additional maintenance required at least yearly). There are also chemical foam treatments available, or, if nothing else works, the ruptured pipes may need to be replaced.

How to Keep Roots Out of Sewer and Drain Lines

Prevention focuses on keeping the pipes in good repair to stop roots from entering in the first place. Have a plumber conduct regular inspections of any underground pipes to identify and remedy any cracks, misalignment, or leaks before tree roots work their way into it.

Know where your underground pipes are (call 811 or visit if you’re not sure – they’ll mark out the lines for you). Then avoid planting trees too close to them.

A tree being removed from along a road in Plymouth County, Massachusetts to prevent root damage to the street.

Trees near roads and sidewalks may cause problems if they are too close to the pavement or too large for the area.

Case #2: Tree Roots Cause Buckling in Sidewalks, Driveways, and Roadways

Whether it’s a walkway you install on your property or a sidewalk the government builds, you’ve probably noticed more than one that has buckled and cracked from tree roots. These problems can also affect driveways and roads.

Why It Happens

Most often this is a case of the wrong tree being planted in the wrong place. For example, maples are the most common street tree in Massachusetts, although they need a lot of room to grow. Thousands have been planted in the small area between sidewalks and street curbs, leaving roots without enough room to spread out. If the roots cannot grow outward, they’ll grow toward the surface, pushing everything out of their way, including the sidewalk, curb, and street surface!

Preventing Future Tree Root Interference with Paved Areas

This can be easily prevented by planting trees or shrubs with a smaller root zone in the area, ensuring that there are at least 4 feet between the tree and pavement, or using a root barrier to prevent roots growing under sidewalks or roadways.

Arborists have developed a guide for planting trees near paved surfaces. Here are the general guidelines for how far away to plant a tree from a paved surface:

  • Trees that are less than 30 feet in height at full maturity should be planted at least three to four feet from a paved area.
  • Trees that grow to between 30 to 50 feet tall must be approximately five to six feet from any paved area.
  • Any trees over 50 feet at maturity should be at least eight feet from any sidewalk or road.

If you decide to install a paved area on your property, such as a patio or driveway, ensure you provide a wide enough berth between the paved area and any trees you already have. You could also use pavers instead of asphalt or concrete; pavers allow water and oxygen to reach tree roots below and can be individually replaced if roots shift them out of position.

If none of these are viable options, consider cutting down the tree so it won’t interfere with you newly-installed surface as it continues to grow.

How to Fix Problems with Roots that are Buckling Sidewalks or Cracking Driveways

If a mature tree is causing the problem, suggested solutions include moving the sidewalk away from the tree (you’ve probably seen those meandering sidewalks before) to give the roots more room to grow or creating a bridge over the roots. You’ll see the bridge option a lot in state parks.

Other options include using an air spade (a device that uses air pressure to remove soil and expose roots) to remove some of the soil below the roots to create more room for them to grow. The sidewalk will need to be replaced in this instance, and a meandering version still might make the most sense.

Some choose to prune away offending roots, but this should be attempted cautiously, as roots help stabilize the tree and absorb water and nutrients from the soil. The tree may fall if the roots are pruned back, especially in high-wind situations. Cutting too many roots or the wrong ones can kill the tree, so root pruning should only be attempted by a Certified Arborist, like a member of our team at Top Notch Tree.

You should never pave over the roots of a tree unless permeable material or an aeration system is installed, as doing so will almost certainly kill the tree and lead to many problems in the future. A tree needs water and oxygen to survive, and paving over the roots is like suffocating the tree. Finally, if none of these solutions are possible, it’s best to contact a professional tree removal service to remove the tree safely and prevent further root damage.

A tree growing near a house in Kingston, Massachusetts.

The roots of a tree too close to a building may interfere with the foundation. Keep your foundations secured and avoid planting too close to any buildings.

Case #3: Tree Roots Attacking a Building’s Foundation

Some South Shore homeowners have had trouble with tree roots growing into the foundation of their houses. However, roots are almost never the cause of this problem. Rather, they are highlighting a preexisting problem with the home’s foundation.

Why It Happens

As with underground pipes, trees will typically only cause root damage to your foundation if there’s a weakness in it. If the roots can’t easily pass into the foundation, they redirect above or below the structure. But if there is a crack or weakness, the roots will work their way into the foundation.

If roots are found in a foundation, it may point to a recent drought in the area, as foundations tend to shift when significant amounts of moisture are removed from the surrounding soil. Tree roots can add to this issue as they also remove moisture from the ground (since they need it to survive). Remember that in most instances, however, tree roots remain closer to the surface.

While we don’t often have to deal with the effects of drought on the South Shore, we occasionally see periods that are “abnormally dry” or are classified as “moderate drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

How to Avoid Tree Roots in Your Foundation

Again, prevention can go a long way. Don’t plant large trees close to a building – ideally, you shouldn’t plant them within at least 20 feet of your house. If you have a mature tree close to your house, be sure that it is well-watered so that it doesn’t have to seek moisture elsewhere.

Watch out for things that can remove moisture from the soil around your home’s foundation, including landscape plants, poorly insulated basements, and drainage pipes. Careful monitoring of soil moisture can prevent trees from interfering with the foundation.

PRO TIP: Just because a tree is near a foundation that is failing does not mean that the tree needs to be removed. A root barrier may be a solution in this case.

Exposed tree roots that present a tripping hazard for anyone walking through the area.

Case #4: Tree Roots Become Exposed and Trip Pedestrians

It’s not uncommon to walk through a yard and nearly trip over an exposed root. These roots often bear the blame for someone tripping and falling, however, it is not their fault they end up exposed.

Why It Happens

Exposed roots typically occur due to soil erosion or frost heaving (soil freezing and thawing). With most tree roots growing in the top few inches of soil, even a slight amount of erosion can expose them and lead to tripping hazards.

Preventing Exposed Tree Roots

Exposed roots should NOT be cut or covered with soil of more than 3 inches. Cutting the roots can stress or kill the tree and covering them with excessive soil can cut off the oxygen supply.

Mulch is usually the best option for dealing with exposed tree roots. Cover the roots with compost or wood chips in a layer no more than 3 inches deep. Make sure that the mulch doesn’t touch the tree’s trunk and avoid “mulch volcanoes” at all costs. The mulch helps retain moisture, keeps the ground from eroding further, and acts as an insulator, protecting against further frost damage.

Top Notch Tree Can Help You Crack the Case of Your Root Problems

Now that we’ve presented you with the evidence, we believe it’s clear that the roots have been accused of crimes they didn’t commit. With proper care, maintenance, and preparation, you shouldn’t have to deal with roots damaging your property or causing injuries. We hope this article clears the good name of tree roots and allows you to find new methods to prevent root damage.

If you have problems with root damage, we can help. The team at Top Notch Tree can determine the root of the issue and offer solutions. We may suggest tree removal or another plan if we think we can save the tree. Call us at 781-871-8008 or request an estimate online to learn more about how we can help you root out the real culprits and keep your trees healthy.

Jeff Van Meter

Jeff has been in the green industry since working at his father’s landscaping industry as a kid. Jeff uses his many years of experience to guide his customers and to help them find the best solutions for their tree and landscape needs. More about Jeff >>>

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