Homeowners speak on sewer backups, what to do in aftermath

By: Mike Koury | Metro | Published April 28, 2021

 Royal Oak resident Christie Siegel has been dealing with sewer backups in her basement since she  moved into her home in 2018.

Royal Oak resident Christie Siegel has been dealing with sewer backups in her basement since she moved into her home in 2018.

Photo provided by Christie Siegel

 Along with digging out her front yard, Siegel replaced the pipes  in her basement in hopes of correcting the backup problem.

Along with digging out her front yard, Siegel replaced the pipes in her basement in hopes of correcting the backup problem.

Photo provided by Christie Siegel

METRO DETROIT — One of the scariest situations that homeowners have to deal with is what to do when their basement suffers a sewer backup.

Homeowners in the tri-county area have known the horrors of sewer backups in the past, but outside of historic rainstorms that brought water up to people’s knees, even a small amount of water can bring headaches and damage to a house.

The Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner’s Office listed the common causes of sewer backups as blockages in the sewer pipes, intense rainfall and indoor plumbing problems.

The department recently put out a list of do’s and don’ts for homeowners on how they can minimize the risks of sewer backups. The office stated that homeowners should find where the sewer pipe is located in their home, hire a plumber to evaluate the sewer piping, add a special endorsement to their homeowner’s insurance policy to cover damage from water backup and install a backflow prevention system.

The department advised against pouring fats, oils and greases down drains; flushing wipes, diapers and feminine hygiene products down the toilet; and storing valuables in the basement. It also suggested that a prospective homeowner should get a comprehensive plumbing inspection done before buying a home and that homeowners explore green infrastructure options to slow down or reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewer system.

Owner of Paul Scott Plumbing in Troy, Christine Scott advised that if someone’s sewer pipes begin to back up, they should get someone out there soon so they can cable through and break whatever is blocking the drain.

Scott agreed that many backup issues can be traced back to foreign objects that people put down their drains, like wipes and paper towels. She added that certain foods that go down the kitchen sink can cause problems.

“Garbage disposals are fine, and they’re there to break up food, but a lot of people put all kinds of things (in there),” she said. “I had a lady call me the other day. She put frozen waffles down the garbage disposal, so it just swelled right up and filled her drain. I would say you want as minimal as possible to go down there. We tell people … your food waste is good, but there’s some food waste like carrot peels and potato skins that are just too much to put down.”

Scott also said that people should keep chemicals out of their drains and, instead, choose options that clean out the sewer such as hydro jetting.

“People like to put a lot of chemicals down the drain, thinking they’re gonna eat up the roots, and it doesn’t work and it does cause problems in our ecosystem,” she said.

Heather Dandy, the personal lines supervisor at InPro Insurance in Troy, has been in business for 19 years and has advised homeowners regarding sewer backup problems.

Dandy has had her own experience with sewer backups. She stated that the backups she’s experienced involved an inch or two of water.

“It’s actually more common than you would think,” she said. “I used to live in Royal Oak, and for me living in Royal Oak, it happened to me almost every single year. It’s very common.”

That being said, water from a sewer backup, aside from destroying personal property, has the potential to turn into mold if left unaddressed.

Dandy said a homeowner doesn’t have to have a basement to apply for an endorsement, and if someone has sewer pipes that run under their slab and one breaks causing water to enter the house, water backup coverage would cover the damage.

A homeowner who has dealt with flooding issues for the past three years is Christie Siegel, of Royal Oak. When she first moved into her house, she had a carpeted and finished basement. Then, the basement flooded and Siegel was told by a plumber that it happened because tree roots had made their way into the sewer pipes.

The water originated in Siegel’s laundry room and made its way to the carpet, which absorbed the backup like a sponge and spread it everywhere. Every subsequent backup came from the laundry room.

“The tree roots grow into the cracks in the pipes and then causes a backup with toilet paper or feces. … It just starts to build up and backs up, and that’s what comes in your basement,” she said.

Siegel said she had to have someone come over every spring to clean out the tree roots. It got to the point where, last year, she redid her entire basement to put in new piping — because, while the home was remodeled in 2014, the sewer pipes were from the 1940s.

In March, Siegel dug out her front yard and redid much of the piping underneath to correct the problem. When a plumber searched the piping with a camera, it was discovered that a PVC pipe wasn’t connected to a crock pipe out front. Over the course of three years, she believes she has spent $8,000 in total.

While she hopes this will be the end of her flooding issue, Siegel still will clean out the roots each year.

“It’s something you have to worry about every year, spring,” she said. “You have to be conscious about timing of clearing out the roots. That’s why I had it done a month ago, because if I wait too long, then the … flooding (comes) back up in the pipes, the roots grow and then the backup’s going to happen. ... It weighs on your mind that a flood could happen if you don’t take care of it in time.”

For anything with a root issue, Scott recommended yearly camera maintenance and cabling for the home.

“We do a cabling once a year to keep the line open and clear,” she said. “Clear out those roots, because toilet paper, things like that, get caught up on roots and then it builds up and then you’ve got a clog.”

Siegel said that dealing with the sewer backups has been a stressful experience to the point where she had to hope each time she walked downstairs, it wasn’t a flooded mess.

Her advice to all homeowners is, every spring, they should run a camera down their pipes from their basement to make sure the pipes are clear of roots and debris.

“Just make sure it’s cleared out each year so it doesn’t back up into your basement,” Siegel said. “Preventive maintenance is the key.”