ASK ELi: Sewer Back-Ups in EL Homes

Friday, August 14, 2015, 7:27 am
Alice Dreger

Image: East Lansing work crew dealing with a sewer

After Monday’s very heavy rain, a reader wrote to ask: “We have had this [a sewer back-up in the drain] happen in our home for three years in a row now, and East Lansing govt. says it is a freak ‘act of nature’ that they can't control. Do you know if there are any organizations discussing putting some pressure on City to deal with combined storm/sanitary sewer problems? I would like to be part of a group making this effort.”

The short answer: I did not find any organized group, but I did find out more about this problem from Ron Lacasse, Infrastructure Administrator for the City of East Lansing, as reported below. If ELi readers who have this problem want to be connected with each other, we can put them in touch. In that case, click on our “contact us” link and choose the category “message to Politics/Gov editor.”

Some background: In the older parts of East Lansing, many homes have open floor drains in the basements and these connect to the sewers. During a heavy rain, material can backup in the sewers running under the streets, causing a backup into the open floor drains and a big mess in basements. Where the sanitary sewers (the toilet sewers) are joined with the storm sewers (the sewers that collect rain water via street drains), this can mean raw toilet sewage backing up into your house.

Where are the sanitary and storm sewers combined? Lacasse provided us with a map that shows the answer. Click here to see the map. Perhaps because the Department of Public Works has a sense of humor, the “bad” area is marked in brown.

Is there a specific plan to separate the remaining combined sewers? Lacasse says there is not. “The combined sewers and associated tunnel, retention basin and other appurtenances are permitted by MDEQ [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] under the City's NPDES Permit. This is not to say that when we review future sewer projects, we would not consider whether we could remove some storm water flow from the existing combined sewers.”

What can a homeowner do to try to stop this problem from happening? Lacasse says, “Residents can take steps to protect their properties from basement flooding such as extending downspouts away from their foundations, grading their lots so rainwater runs away from the structure, and ensuring the ball float in their basement floor drain works (if so equipped).”

A ball float is a device that stops backflow from coming up through the pipe that connects the floor drain to the sewer. A ball “floats” inside the pipe, and when sewer backflow starts to happen, the backflow of fluids in the pipe pushes the ball up into the drain to temporarily stop-up the drain. When the pressure goes back down, the ball falls back away from the drain and the drain is again open. You can pay a plumber to install this in your drain, although it is sometimes quite expensive and can involve digging up the floor.

According to Lacasse, “There are other measures that can be taken to protect basements that a licensed plumber should be consulted before implementing. They include installing a check valve to prevent the sewer from back flowing through a service lead, hydraulically disconnecting the basement from the sewer system by using a grinder or ejection pump, and inspecting foundation drains that may have become silted up over time and may require replacement, either externally or internally with an new drainage system.”

Lacasse says the cost of fixing this problem falls to homeowners, not the City.

Can a homeowner file a claim with the City if sewer backflow damages her or his home? Lacasse explains that “Act 170 of 1964, as amended by Public Act 222 of 2001, generally provides municipalities, such as the City of East Lansing, with governmental immunity from basement flooding damages, unless the property owner can demonstrate all of the following:

1. The City of East Lansing or your local governmental unit is the appropriate governmental agency.

2. The public sewage disposal system had a defect.

3. The City of East Lansing or your local governmental unit knew about the defect, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known about the defect.

4. The City of East Lansing or your local governmental unit having the legal authority to do so, failed to take reasonable steps in a reasonable amount of time to repair, correct, or remedy the defect.

5. The defect was a substantial proximate cause of the event and the property damage or physical injury.”

Lacasse adds, “The public sewer system is not considered defective if the sewage backup was caused by a rain event greater than what the sewage system was designed to carry.” Further, “If a resident believes they have fulfilled these eligibility requirements, they may file a claim with the City by calling the Finance Department at 319-6911.”

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