Sanitary sewer backups happen and it is not a pretty sight. Debris, grease, roots, pipe breaks, insufficient capacity and obstructions all cause sewage to back up into homes and businesses through basement drain pipes, sinks, toilets or shower drains. Even wet weather can contribute to the problem. The result is property damage, health risks, irate citizens and possibly lawsuits. This is just the beginning—the source of the problem has to be located, the mess cleaned up and the property restored. I hear a big “cha-ching.”
Because many homeowner insurance policies do not cover sewer backups, residents look to their government for help, assuming the community is at fault. To pinpoint the cause of the backup and responsibility, an inspection is needed to determine whether the problem is in the city’s sewer main or the resident’s sewer lateral. The sewer lateral is the pipe that connects the community’s sewer main to private homes and businesses. If the source of the problem is the sewer lateral, the resident is likely responsible for repairs to the sewer line outside of the house as well as the cleanup and repairs needed inside.
Communities can adopt various best practices to prevent sewer backups. Some suggestions from the Alabama Municipal Insurance Corporation (AMIC) could benefit your community. The AMIC’s Loss Control Division recommends a formal sewer cleaning and inspection program that includes:
- Undertaking routine maintenance to address infiltration and inflow problems. Infiltration is excess groundwater that seeps into the collection system from surrounding soil and inflow is excess water from storms, roofs and other above ground sources.
- Monitoring sewer lines with TV cameras on a regular, routine schedule.
- Documenting and tracking reported incidents to assure problems receive prompt correction.
- Monitoring and gauging rainfall if problems with infiltration and inflow exist so pump stations and basins have adequate staffing and monitoring during periods of heavy rainfall.
- Requiring grease traps for all restaurants and laundromats and repaired connections.
- Requiring that durable materials be used in pipe repairs or improvements.
- Requiring wastewater employees to meet qualifications for licensing and receive regular, updated training.
According to 15th Century Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, “Prevention is better than cure.” In addition to adopting prevention programs, a public education program should be available to residents to explain the causes of backups and what can be done to keep sewer laterals in good working order. Homeowners should be advised of their sewer line responsibilities and that they may have the option to obtain sewer backup coverage under their homeowner's insurance policy or through programs like the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners. If the cause of the backup is in a homeowner’s sewer lateral and the homeowner purchased a sewer service line warranty, the warranty would cover the costs of outside repairs subject to the policy limits.
Sewer backups can be costly and a public relations nightmare for a community. Some communities have adopted policies and developed programs to assist homeowners and businesses cope with the aftermath of sewer backups. Some examples of programs are:
- Recommending qualified businesses that specialize in sewer cleanup services.
- Providing reimbursements for cleanup and/or restoration needed after a backup of sewage caused by the city’s sewer main.
- Making payments to residents to help pay for installing sewer backflow prevention devices.
- Providing cleanup assistance services.
- Educating residents about sewer line backup prevention
The consequences of sewer backups are considerable—disease, destruction of valuables, and property damage. Shouldn’t your community do all that it can to prevent sewer backups?
Cathy Spain is a National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program Advisor and President of The Spain Group. She works with private companies and nonprofits to design, analyze and promote local government programs. She’s held senior management, research and lobbying positions at the National League of Cities, Government Finance Officers Association, Public Risk Database Project and the New York State Assembly.