Prevent Sewer Backups

Sewer backups are an unfortunate, but common problem in U.S. cities and towns. Although municipal utility departments make every effort to prevent such incidents, they still may occur. The following information is offered to help property owners and residents understand why backups happen, how they can be prevented and what steps citizens should take if a sewer backup affects their property.

Causes of a Sewer Backup

Sanitary sewers flow by gravity so they generally follow the natural slope of the ground. The sewer mains that the city owns and maintains are typically located 8 to 15 feet below ground.

Utility crews use a vactor truck to clean out a sanitary manhole.

Sanitary sewer backups can be caused by a number of factors. They usually involve sewer pipe blockages in either the City’s main sewer lines or in the private sewer service line which the property owner owns and maintains (sewer line between buildings and the City’s main sewer line). 

Other Causes

Other causes of a backup may include:

  • Pipe breaks or cracks due to tree roots.
  • System deterioration.
  • Construction mishaps.
  • Grease accumulation: Fats, oils and grease (FOG) can be a major problem for the City's sanitary sewers. When FOG is discharged to the sewer, it cools and accumulates on the sidewalls of the pipes. Over time, the accumulation of grease restricts the flow and causes blockages in the sewer, clogging the pipes and constricting the flow of wastewater. This can lead to overflowing manholes onto City streets or in residential yards becoming an environmental and health hazard. FOG can also cause basement backups costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars in damage and clean-up costs at the property owner's expense. About 75% of sewer stoppages are attributed to FOG buildup.
    • Proper Grease DisposalThe best way you can help reduce the amount of FOG entering the sanitary sewer system is by properly disposing of fats, oils and grease. Do not put FOG down the drain. Instead, let the grease cool in a jar or old coffee can. Then place the container in the trash for pick up during your normal trash day. Or, if you recycle old cans in your curbside recycle bin or drop off your glass at a RippleGlass bin, you can let the grease cool in a ceramic dish then spoon it out into the trash once it solidifies.
  • Solid materials: such as hair, disposable diapers or sanitary napkins.
  • Vandalism: Leaves, sticks, rocks, bricks and trash are sometimes found stuffed down manholes. If you see an open manhole or vandalism, please call 816.439.4763 to alert the sewer maintenance division and prevent an unfortunate backup from occurring.
  • Ground Water Connection: Another frequent cause of backups in residences is a stormwater connection to the sanitary sewer system. If you suspect there may be a sump pump or other stormwater connection to the sanitary sewer, please contact the Utilities Department for assistance at 816.439.4763. Stormwater connections may cause major backups in city lines as well as in residents’ private service lines.

Effects of Backups

If the backup occurs in a City maintained line, the wastewater will normally overflow out of the lowest possible opening. In some homes - especially those with basements or where the lowest level is even with the sewer lines - the overflowing wastewater may exit through the home’s lower drains and toilets.