Private Sewer System Defects and Overflows
Most sanitary sewer systems are constructed as a network of
manholes and pipes that flow from each building that generates sewage to a
wastewater treatment plant. Private services, also called laterals, are pipes
from the building to the sewer main. In some areas, the public system owns and
maintains the “lower lateral” from the sewer main to the edge of the easement
or right-of-way, and the private property owner owns and maintains the “upper
lateral” the remainder of the way to the building. In other areas, the private
property owner owns and maintains both the lower and upper laterals.
Finding and fixing sewer defects on private property sewer systems
can prevent sewer overflows and backups that can cause health hazards, inhibit
economic growth, and result in long-term environmental damage.
How Do Sewer System Defects Cause Overflows?
Private sanitary sewer systems, the earliest of which were built
in the mid 1800s, carry domestic wastewater away from private properties
separately from stormwater. These systems have deteriorated over the years, are
typically not maintained or replaced due to funding, and their ability to
transport sanitary wastewater has been compromised due to population growth. As
a result, these systems can experience separate sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs)
both on public and private property.
SSOs are generally caused by infiltration that occurs when clean
water such as groundwater enters the sanitary sewer through defects in the
system or inflow from stormwater that enters the system through defects and
illegal connections. SSOs can also be caused by inadequate pipe sizes when
population growth exceeds the original design conditions. Dry weather SSOs can
be caused by maintenance problems when debris, roots, or fats, oils, and grease
block normal flow in the pipes.
What Are the Results of Defective Systems?
The inability of sewer systems to transport flows caused by defects can result
in inadequate service to customers, sewer backups into buildings, and sanitary
sewers overflowing into waterways. Sewer overflows, whether into private
residences and buildings, into parks and streets, or into waterways, pose
health hazards and may violate the Federal Clean Water Act. If owners and
communities ignore the deterioration of the sanitary sewer systems, the systems
will continue to deteriorate, and the cost of repair will increase. Not
addressing these sewer system defects may force cause economic development
issues and long-term damage to the environment. (For more information on aging
infrastructure visit www.waterislife.net.)
What Are Private System Defects?
Common defects on private systems include:
• Missing cleanout caps;
• Broken cleanouts and cleanout caps;
• Broken service lines;
• Sump pump flows discharged to sanitary sewers; and
• Stormwater flow from downspouts, area drains, basement drains, stairwell
and window well drains.
How Can Defects Be Located and Fixed?
Private system defects are found using sanitary sewer evaluation survey (SSES)
techniques such as smoke testing, dyed water flooding, internal television
inspection (such as CCTV), or building inspections. If a property owner
experiences consistent sewer backups it typically means that there are defects
in their private system.
Eliminating private service defects can be as simple as replacing
a cleanout cap. Other defect repairs may require an entire service lateral to
be rehabilitated or replaced and may require hiring a licensed plumber. Cost of
repairs can range from $2,000 to $20,000.
What Are Some Typical Programs to Eliminate
Private Service Defects?
Many agencies have developed programs to eliminate private service defects.
Programs include locating the defects, educating the public, providing
assistance for repair, repairing defects with either agency funds or property
owner funds, and using ordinances to enforce the repair by the property owner.
(If interested in learning what programs exist across the nation, visit www.wef.org/privatepropery.)
This fact sheet is based on a brochure formerly provided by the
Water Environment Federation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
Cooperative Agreement Assistance I.D. No. CX824505.