The Backup Differences

Storm Water Backing Up

In many older houses with basements (mostly pre-1980), there is a perimeter foundation drain outside the exterior wall, at the level of the basement floor, next to the footings at the time the house was built. A pipe was usually installed from the perimeter foundation drain to the street where it was connected to the city storm sewer system.

This can become a problem as the city storm sewer system becomes too small when more development causes more rain runoff. When this happens, the rainwater in the sewer system can get so high that water flows backwards toward the house.

Usually, the installation of an interior perimeter basement drain system connected to a sump pump will take care of the problem. If it doesn’t, the (more expensive) alternative is to dig up and cap the pipe that is running from the house to the street from the perimeter foundation drain. However, this is not always possible; many times, this pipe is also draining sanitary waste from toilets and sinks in the house.

Sewer Water Back Up

If the water is coming up through floor drains or sink drains in the basement, then the problem is often water backing up from the municipal sanitary sewer system. During heavy rains, combined sewer systems can become overwhelmed with water. This can cause sewer water to back up in the system and sometimes into homes.

There are other possible explanations, too. Sewer backups can be caused by individual service lines being plugged by grease, waste, tree roots, breaks in pipes or saturated ground. Sewer mains can also be plugged by vandalism or large items dropped down manholes. This kind of flooding is an enormous problem for homeowners, as it’s largely out of your control and probably means fecal waste backing up into basements. Not only is it disgusting, but it can also be a serious health hazard.

In order to keep your individual lines clear, you can install backflow preventers that help stop sewer water from flowing backward into the house. Proper maintenance of your individual lines – for example, pouring tree root killer down your toilets once a year – can also go a long way in preventing sewage backups. Still, the problem is often out of your control. Sewage in your basement means a major cleanup and a lot of uncertainty about future problems. If it’s something you’ve seen in your home, you’ll have to get your city government involved. At the very least, be aware of the problem and don’t leave anything valuable near your downstairs drains.

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What Causes Sewer Backups

Aging Sewer Systems

The Civil Engineering Research Foundation reports that the number of backed up sewers is increasing at an alarming rate of about 3 percent annually. In addition, a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers indicates that the nation’s 500,000-plus miles of sewer lines are on average over thirty years old. The increase in the number of homes connected to already aging sewage systems has also contributed to rapid increases in sanitary sewer backups, flooded basements and overflows.

Combined Pipelines

Problems also arise in systems that combine storm water and raw sewage into the same pipeline. During many rain storms, the systems are exposed to more volume than they can handle, and the result is a sewage backup situation that allows sewage to spew out into basements and other low lying drains.

Blockages Due to Tree Roots

Shrubs and trees seeking moisture will make their way into sewer line cracks. These roots can cause extensive damage. They may start out small, getting into a small crack in the pipe; but as the tree or shrub continues to grow, so does the root. Tree roots can enter the service pipe at joints and cause blockages. Tree roots can travel a long way, and roots from different types of trees act differently. If city trees are suspected, your plumber can contact the city, and samples of the roots will be used to help identify the trees and who is responsible for cleanup. Sometimes the blockage is a result of a combination of city and private trees. In this case costs are split between the city and the property owner.

Sanitary Main

A blockage can occur in a city sanitary main. If the blockage is not detected in time, sewage from the main can back up into homes and businesses through floor drains. Usually this happens slowly, giving the owner time to call a licensed plumber to assess the damage. If water is entering into your basement at a rapid rate, call the city public works office and report the problem immediately.

Water in Basement

Most basement flooding is not related to the sanitary sewer system. In many cases, soil settles adjacent to the building and, if not corrected, leads to rainwater flowing towards the building and down the outside of the foundation wall. This is particularly true in older buildings, where cracks may have developed in the foundation or floor slab that allow water to enter the basement. The cement floor and basement walls of these structures may have deteriorated to the point that they are no longer waterproof. In these cases, water can show up in a basement that has never had a water problem. This will usually happen after a number of rain storms, when the ground is saturated. Drainage can be improved by making sure that water drains away from the building. Owners may also be able to prevent flooding by water sealing the basement.

Most homeowners may not realize that they are responsible for the maintenance and repair of their house or sewer lateral—the pipeline between the city sanitary sewer main, usually located in the street—and the building. The sewer lateral is owned and maintained by the property owner including any part that extends into the street or public right of way. A cracked or deteriorated lateral or one filled with tree roots can allow groundwater to seep into the system, contributing to the problem.