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New ordinance will require Oakland property owners to replace leaking sewer pipes

Aging sewer laterals become clogged or let in excess rainwater, which can cause raw sewage to overflow into the street.

Aging sewer laterals become clogged or let in excess rainwater, which can cause raw sewage to overflow into the street.

As the new year approaches, Oakland officials are preparing residents for a new ordinance that will require certain property owners to replace their leaking sewer pipes. The regional Private Sewer Lateral (PSL) program—already in effect in Emeryville, Piedmont, El Cerrito, Kensington and Richmond— will start in Oakland on January 16.

A lateral is a small pipe the connects a building’s plumbing to the public sewer main. These pipes are privately owned and it is the property owner’s responsibility to fix them if they corrode, clog or overflow. The difficulty is, most laterals are not replaced until after a homeowner experiences a problem, like a sewer backup. By this time the damage is already done—cracks or holes in aging laterals can let in roots, grease, or other materials, which then accumulate and clog the pipes. This can eventually cause raw sewage to overflow into people’s homes, the street and possibly the San Francisco Bay.

A poorly fitted joint or a crack in a small underground sewer pipe may not seem like a disaster waiting to happen, but environment and water quality experts contend that leaking sewer laterals are a problem—both for public health and that of area waterways—because there is not currently a reliable way to monitor the condition of sewer pipes on private property.

“Human nature is to not fix things when we don’t see a problem,” said Lila Tang, chief of the wastewater control division of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB). “The sewer lines in the streets are old, but in private homes they tend to be even older because there are no programs to get those replaced.”

When the Private Sewer Lateral program goes into effect in January, certain Oakland property owners—those selling their property, doing building or remodeling worth more than $100,000, or installing a different size water meter —will have to fix any leaking sewer laterals beforehand.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and Oakland’s Public Works department are holding neighborhood meetings to explain the requirements of the new program and answer any questions. The Lake Merritt community meeting was held in mid-November; two more are scheduled for December 14 (7:00 pm at the East Oakland Sports Center) and January 5 (7:00 pm at the Joaquin Miller Community Center).

Before selling, building or installing a new water meter, a property owner will need a compliance certificate from EBMUD certifying that their lateral is in good condition: no cracks, holes or leaking connections. If the sewer lateral was replaced completely, this certificate is good for 20 years. If it was only repaired or passed the inspection with no repairs needed, the certificate is valid for seven years.

The new private sewer lateral ordinance is an effort by the RWQCB and the Environmental Protection Agency to keep the San Francisco Bay and other area waterways clean. “With houses close to a creek, there is sewage that could be slowly going into the water,” said Tang. “This is not as big of a threat as urban runoff, but on a localized basis, when there is a large sewer spill, that could wipe out that small creek.”

Seeping raw sewage is not the only hazard of aging laterals. Since these small pipes are buried at shallow depths, leaky laterals allow rainwater and groundwater into the pipes. This can overwhelm the public sewer system, which is designed to hold only so much wastewater.

“When the bigger pipes can’t handle the water, the system is going to overflow,” Tang said. “That is a threat because raw sewage is on the street, people walk through it, drive through it, and it can flow into storm drains and into creeks.”

If the public sewer pipes themselves don’t overflow, all this extra wastewater will travel to the sewage treatment plants, yet another potential problem. These can overflow and release partially treated sewage directly into the San Francisco Bay, said Michelle Moustakas, an environmental engineer at the state’s Clean Water Act compliance office.

“It is difficult to provide a comparison of the extent of this type of pollution compared with urban runoff,” Moustakas said, “but a sewage release can contain contaminants not generally found in urban runoff, including fecal matter, which may carry disease-causing organisms.”

In the East Bay, there are seven sewage collection agencies which discharge to the EBMUD system—the cities of Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, as well as the Stege Sanitary District, which includes El Cerrito, Kensington and Richmond. The new lateral replacement program was necessary to lessen the risk of overflows at the three primary EBMUD sewage treatment plants, said Moustakas, by reducing the excess water that enters the system through leaking pipes.

It is not always possible to pinpoint the cause of a sewer overflow, Moustakas said, since there could be a leak in someone’s private lateral pipe, or the overflow could happen further down the system, either from the public sewer pipes under the street or at a wastewater treatment center. But since overflows occur more during heavy rains, leaking laterals are likely culprits.

Many homes in Oakland and around the East Bay were built before 1950 and have never had their sewer laterals replaced, Tang said. Aging laterals are most likely clay (rigid pipes which don’t last long in a region beset by earthquakes) or iron, which tend to leak at the joints when jostled by shifting soils like those found in the Oakland hills. New lateral pipes are installed as one long sleeve and made from high-density polyethylene, said Tang, which is more flexible, sturdy and resistant to corrosion. The polyethylene pipes are expected to last about 50 years or more, she said.

But installing new pipes can be expensive. The cost can vary depending on the length and depth of the lateral and the terrain, said Moustakas, usually running between $3,000 and $5,000 for the whole job. If the pipe is not too deteriorated, it could also be repaired rather than completely replaced. If the lateral was replaced in the last ten years, property owners can apply for an exemption.

Tang and Moustakas said their agencies are trying to help property owners deal with the cost. EBMUD started a Private Sewer Lateral Incentive Program to encourage property owners to replace the private pipes at a lower cost—for example, a homeowner might be able to replace their lateral in conjunction with a larger sewer project, said Moustakas. In an area where a public sewer replacement is scheduled, all the surrounding laterals could be replaced at the same time, she said. The homeowner would still have to pay for their lateral replacement, but it would likely cost less when done en masse.

The ordinance came into effect in Piedmont in August, and the city’s director of Public Works, Chester Nakahara, said most residents were not opposed to the new program. “People here are good about taking care of their homes,” he said. “They just needed to understand why the requirements were necessary. People don’t want to have sewage backing up.”

Nakahara said most of the questions and concerns came not from Piedmont property owners, but from realtors, since one of the triggering events for pipe replacement is the sale of property. Real estate agents wanted to know whether the buyer or seller would be responsible for the pipe repairs (it can be either), he said, and were worried about having yet another thing to account for in the sale of a home.

“It is sort of like a termite report,” Nakahara said. “When you sell your house, this is something you need to do. It is important for the environment and public health.”

EBMUD is trying to streamline the process with online inspection scheduling, compliance certificates that can be downloaded and a database that realtors can use to search parcels and check on a client’s certificate status. A homeowner can also request a time extension if they cannot complete the lateral repairs before transferring the title. The homeowner must make a $4,500 refundable deposit with EBMUD, and they then have 180 days to make the repairs and get a compliance certificate.

Since not all property owners will hit one of the three “triggers,” some of the city’s private sewer laterals will not be repaired or replaced. But Moustakas is optimistic. “We do believe that a majority of the lateral pipes will eventually be replaced,” she said, “so as to have a positive impact on the San Francisco Bay ecosystem and on the health of the Bay Area population.”

For more details see the East Bay Regional Private Sewer Lateral Program Guide.

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