Your sewer lateral: Something you'd rather not think about

If you have a home in an urban area, it’s probably connected to the city sewer system by a pipe, commonly called a “sewer lateral” or a lateral connection. As much as you don’t want to think about your sewer lateral, it’s one place you should probably visit at least once in awhile.

Your sewer lateral carries all of the waste water from your home to the sewer. That includes whatever you flush down your toilets and wash down your sinks. You assume (and hope) that the waste water from your home takes a one-way trip elsewhere, but where the waste water goes depends heavily on the condition of your sewer lateral.

The uncomfortable news for homeowners is that they own their sewer laterals. That means the homeowner is responsible for the maintenance and condition of the vast majority of their home’s connection to the city sewer. Unless you have the right equipment, sewer lateral maintenance really isn’t a DIY job. Nor do you want it to be.

The city sewer is a pretty inhospitable place and decidedly hazardous to human health. Sewer connections are typically buried, so it’s easy to assume that all’s well as long as you don’t have sewage in your basement. That’s a dangerous assumption, especially for older homes.

Many sewer laterals are made from materials that don’t last forever, like clay, cement and galvanized iron pipe. Some homes have sewer laterals made of a material called “Orangeburg” pipe, bituminous fiber pipe, or Bermico pipe. This pipe was made of wood pulp and pine pitch, and was manufactured between the 1860’s and 1970’s. The first known use of Orangeburg pipe was in the Boston area, but it typically wasn’t used for sewers. Instead, it was used as a conduit for electrical wiring and other dry applications. Following World War II, builders began to use Orangeburg pipe for sewer laterals. Under ideal conditions, Orangeburg pipe had a life expectancy of about 50 years, but because of its organic nature, Orangeburg pipe could fail in as little as 10 years. And it did – in big ways!

Other common materials like clay and cement don’t fare much better, though they may last longer. Clay and cement are both porous and fragile. They can be broken by tree root invasions, compression from heavy equipment, seismic activity and the frost/thaw cycle. Galvanized iron pipes corrode and rust over time, leading to weakness and eventual failure.

Sewer laterals are not very large, so even small bends and obstructions can cause big problems. Small cracks and breaks in the pipe can lead to sewage overflows into the surrounding ground, and can also allow rainwater intrusion into the sewer system. Water leaking from a broken sewer pipe can wash away the dirt around the pipe. This can cause support problems (like sinkholes) for the pipe and the ground around the pipe.

Sewer inflows and outflows can throw off the sanitation of an entire area. An exposed sewer pipe can lead to dangerous E. coli blooms and fecal contamination of groundwater, so addressing aging sewer laterals is important.

My next post will cover some interesting options for repairing or rehabilitating old or failing sewer laterals. These options are often faster and less expensive than replacing a failed sewer lateral. In the mean time, if you have problems with sewer backups, or need an assessment of your sewer line, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll be happy to show you what’s going on in your sewer lateral!

Photo Credit: Marcelo Terazza, via FreeImages.com