Reader Question: Monty, I am seeking a resource that might be able to help a client with a unique problem.
They entered into a contract for the construction of a home near the local university. The initial contract was with a building contractor, who sold out to another building contractor that finished the home. They moved into the home in December 2009. During the move, sewage gurgled up from the basement floor drain. Family members were able to remove gravel and stones from the drain. The builder attributed the problem to vandals.
The problem recurred in December 2010. This time, much of what they had stored in the basement was water damaged. They retained a plumbing company. The plumber’s technician ran a camera in the drain line and found nothing too remarkable. The municipality checked the main in the street, concluding it must be a lateral problem. Someone seriously suggested reducing the use of toilet paper.
The drain backed up again in May of this year and a fourth time earlier this month. The builder, original plumber (contractor who did the work during construction) and city inspector, determined no problem exists. This does not sound right that a new construction homebuyer should have this problem.
The construction contract requires arbitration.
My question is whether you encountered anyone in your experience who might be able to help my client.Thanks, Monty. Anonymous – Attorney at Law
Monty’s Answer: Hello, Anonymous. I can offer some thoughts to help your client. No one, new construction buyer or not, should have to deal with this problem.
Unfortunately, these are the types of issues that no one wants to be accountable for, and take some detective work to figure out. This may not be the builder’s problem. We cannot rule out the owner of the sewer system. I have many questions to ask here. Ultimately, we may need an experienced engineer who works in the public utility field if the municipality or the sewer district owner will not cooperate. Often, it is difficult to litigate against municipalities.
What I would do first is to attempt to identify the source of the problem. Currently, all we know is the effect of the problem. If we can find the cause, I suspect there is a solution.
First, I would survey several neighbors in proximity to your client’s home to learn if they have experienced similar issues. One possibility is an improperly installed or clogged main sewer. Is the home at the bottom of a hill or slope? Is the home the closest connection to a change in elevation or course to the sewer line? While this is remote, it can happen. I would try the neighbors to determine if the problem is exclusive to this one home.
Most sewer systems operate on the principle of gravity. Less frequently, they incorporate lift stations into a system. The lift station pumps the effluent to a higher elevation where it can then drain with gravity. A possibility is the pitch somewhere may be to shallow, and volume from “upstream” creates a back flow.
I am curious about the gravel. Does the gravel appear at each of the events? Have they ever been home when this event occurred? Does the effluent backing into the basement appear to be under pressure? Does the effluent have the same properties each time? Is there an ejection pump installed as a part of the home’s sewer system? Is there some natural event that could be somehow tied to this, such as heavy rain? Does it occur at approximately the same time of day?
Another possibility is the municipality lateral connection was installed above the proper elevation where the plumber connected the home lateral to it. This could cause a lack of enough pitch to drain properly. The opposite of that possibility was the builder set the foundation below the established grade, which could cause the same problem. Someone who can use an elevation transit can determine if the top of the foundation meets the grade requirements. Was the plumber who ran the camera able to determine the degree of slope or pitch? The reason I tend to discount this possibility is that the events seem to be random, which points back to some municipal jurisdiction.
Your email mentioned the home is “near the university”. Are there any real large university buildings within a quarter of a mile? Any large water retention ponds in the vicinity? If there is a pond, how is the water controlled? Where and how does it discharge? Many years ago, communities rain water runoff drained directly into the sewer lines. As the cost, of treating effluent in the treatment plants rose, so did the need to separate the rain water from the sewer lines. Thus, municipalities installed storm sewer lines. Most subdivisions installed sewer and groundwater lines years ago. Seek help from an elected official like an alderperson or ward chairman to check for completion of storm sewer on this street. They can (sometimes) get better answers at city hall than an ordinary taxpayer. This may sound cynical, but it is also a way for them to garner votes in an election. Get that person on your side.
Does the floor drain contain a back flow preventer device? It is a Palmer Valve. This is a mechanical device designed to prevent sewer backups from entering the basement from the floor drain. I had heard of instances when the water pressure was so powerful it blew the back flow valve out. In many cases, this device could stop the back flow at the drain. Even if this works, realize it is a stopgap measure as we have not solved the underlying problem.
In many instances, your client can do the sleuthing and research work on their own to reduce the cost. I also wonder if their property insurance will help cover their personal effects loss. If the solution remains elusive, the insurance company may ultimately raise the policy premium. They should also keep their belongs off the floor. I have also created a link to an article that sheds additional light on the subject. I hope these observations will lead your client to the proper solution. I am interested in the outcome. Keep me posted, and if they have more questions, please ask me.