Maintenance and Operations, Plumbing

How to Prevent and Fix Sewage Backups

Commercial and industrial (C&I) toilets, sewage drains, shower and tub drains, and utility tub drains can clog and back up, at any time, causing major damage to floors, walls, furniture, HVAC systems, electrical systems, and a property’s structural integrity. Mitigation, remediation, and restoration costs of sewage backups can be anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars, to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What to Do If You Experience a Sewer Backup

A sewer backup can lead to disease, mold growth, destruction of your valuables, damage to your C&I property structure, and even electrical malfunctions. Prompt cleanup of affected property can help minimize the inconvenience and prevent microbial growth or further secondary damage. If you experience a sewer backup situation, immediately arrange for the cleanup of your property, with a certified, trained, and insured restoration company. Sewage cleanup is considered Category 3, Biohazard cleaning and requires special certified training, proper personal protection, specialized equipment, specialized cleanup and disposal, and proper treatment of the affected areas. Otherwise, a property owner can accidentally cause more secondary damage to the property and also increase health hazards.

Category 3 “black water” contains disease-causing organisms and toxins and is grossly unsanitary and a biohazard. Typical black-water conditions occur from a sewer backup, a broken toilet bowl containing feces, and rising flood waters. (Rising flood water is considered Category 3 because of the possibility of chemicals and organisms found in lawn chemicals, fertilizers, animal feces, decaying ground debris, and overfilled sewer and septic systems.)

Serious diseases are likely to be present in rising flood waters. The water restoration technician must wear full-body personal protection equipment. Affected objects such as carpet, padding, and sheetrock must be removed and disposed of safely and properly. A disinfectant, with a virucide/biocide/fungicide, must be applied to kill microorganisms on site.

Pre- and post-project adenosine triphosphate (ATP) surface and/or swab sample testing may be completed, then the proper plan of action, protocol, and remediation takes place, preparation of personnel are instructed, and personal protection equipment is implemented. Project documentation, including creating building sketches, floor plans, building diagrams, emergency evacuation maps, emergency shutoff locations, pictures, videos, and data logs, is necessary.

Causes of Sewer Backup

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% 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 30 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 rainstorms, 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 C&I properties 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 a basement at a rapid rate, then 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 toward the building and down the outside of the foundation. 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 rainstorms, 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 and foundation.

Most C&I building owners may not realize that they are responsible for the maintenance and repair of their 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.

How to File a Claim

For insurance purposes, take before and after photos of the affected areas and itemize any property losses. Save all receipts related to repair, cleaning, or damages, and contact your insurance agent or company representative as soon as possible. Sewer backup coverage is available from most insurers.

For properties that have been severely damaged and are uninhabitable, commercial insurance policies may provide loss-of-use coverage, which provides reimbursement for lodging, food, and other living expenses you may incur. Loss-of-use coverage also reimburses you for the lost rental income, if you rent out part of the commercial property.

How to Prevent Backups in Your Lateral and in the City Main

Video Inspection: A certified trained, licensed, and insured plumbing or drain company can perform a Sewage and Lateral Line Video camera inspection.

This inspection can determine the condition of the interior of the sewage and lateral lines and determine a plan of action, cleaning, repair, or replacement, if necessary.

Dispose of Grease Properly: Cooking oil should be poured into a heat-resistant container and disposed of properly, after it cools off, not in the drain. Washing grease down the drain with hot water is unsatisfactory. As the grease cools off, it will solidify either in the drain, the property owner’s line, or in the main sewer, causing the line to constrict and eventually clog.

Dispose of Paper Products Properly: Paper towels, disposable (and cloth) diapers, and feminine products can cause a great deal of trouble in the property owner’s lateral as well as in the city main. These products do not deteriorate quickly, as bathroom tissue does, so do not put them down the drain or toilet.

Replace Your Sewer Line with New PVC Pipe: One way to prevent tree roots from entering your line is to replace your sewer line and tap with new PVC pipe. If you have continuing problems with tree roots in your lateral, you may need to have the roots cut periodically.

Correct Illegal Plumbing Connections: Do not connect French drains, sump pumps, and other flood control systems to your sanitary sewer. It is illegal, and debris and silt will clog your line. Consult a plumber to correct any pre-existing illegal connections. French drains are common drainage systems, primarily used to prevent ground and surface water from penetrating or damaging building foundations.

Install a Backwater Prevention Valve: A backwater valve is a fixture installed into a sewer line, and sometimes into a drain line, in the basement of your C&I property to prevent sewer backflows. A properly installed and maintained backwater valve allows sewage to go out, but not to come back in. Property owners are responsible for the installation and maintenance of backwater valves. The cost to install one depends on the type of plumbing in the building and the difficulty of installation. Check with a qualified, licensed, and insured plumber.

These best practices will allow a property owner to have better knowledge during a sewage backup incident and will help prevent secondary damage to their property. These methods will also help by safely planning and executing C&I property water damage restoration projects, which may have sewage biohazards.

Jon A. Barrett is the marketing manager of SERVPRO of Blackwood and Gloucester Township, N.J., which is a veteran-owned small business, an independent franchise, and a registered government contractor. Barrett has several certifications and over 30 years of remediation and restoration cleaning experience in the government, industrial, manufacturing, commercial, residential, and insurance industry sectors.