With our sewer system stretching over 600 miles and with 30 million gallons flowing through it every day, it might seem like a few drops of water here and there wouldn’t make much difference. But our system is connected to tens of thousands of homes, so all those drops from all our homes add up.
Each of our households can contribute to helping prevent our sewer system from overflowing. And some of these tips don’t just help our sewers — they can help you avoid costly repairs or even help you save money on your water bill.
Check downspouts and sump pumps
Check your downspouts and the drain of your sump pump to make sure all that extra rainwater from your house is flowing out onto the ground, away from your house — so the water can seep into the ground and replenish the water table — or out towards the storm drains that are designed to carry rainwater away to rivers and streams.
If your downspouts and sump pumps are directing all that water into the sanitary sewer along with all the wastewater from your showers, washing machines and toilets, your house is flushing hundreds of gallons of rainwater into the sewers every rainstorm.
If you find your house has that kind of unauthorized hookup, talk to your township or borough officials. Some municipalities may help pay for you to fix the situation. In the future, some townships and boroughs may start issuing fines for these hookups.
Watch what you put down the drain
Help keep your plumbing in good shape by making sure food grease, rags, baby wipes, and other materials don’t go down the drains and toilets in your house.
When you pour hot, liquid food grease down your drain, it cools off and congeals into a thick, solid mess inside your pipes. Instead, pour it into a jar that you can keep in your fridge until it’s full, then throw it away with your garbage. Other sanitary and hygienic items not intended for the toilet belong in a trash can. (Be careful, because even some items marketed as “flushable” really aren’t. Baby wipes are the biggest offender and have been known to cause major blockages in urban sewer systems around the country.)
Even if you manage to avoid clogging your own pipes, all these materials can build up in the sewer pipes and mains that carry waste away from your house. Just like buildup in your arteries is bad for your health, this kind of buildup is bad for our sewer system: It limits the system’s capacity and can even contribute to backups and overflows.
Learn how your home is connected to the sewer
An underground pipe called a “sewer lateral” carries waste from your house out to the nearest sewer main. That lateral is on your property, and it’s actually your responsibility.
Planting trees or shrubs over your lateral can cause big problems. As they grow, their roots can dig down and crack the pipe, poke holes in it, or even grow inside it. You could end up with a clogged pipe or a sewage leak. Even if you don’t see problems on your own property, the groundwater under your yard can pour into those cracks and into the sewer, contributing to overflows.
A plumber may be able to help you find your lateral, but in general you can figure out where it goes by locating the “cleanout valve”: A pipe that sticks up through the ground from your lateral near where it joins the sewer main, and which helps keep everything from backing up into your home if there’s a clog. Once you find your cleanout valve, your lateral probably follows a straight line from there to your house.
Be careful where you dig
Before planting a tree, installing a fence or mailbox, or doing any kind of digging in your yard, be sure to call 811. This free service will bring a crew to your yard to locate any underground utilities including electrical wires, natural gas lines, and water pipes. In addition to helping you avoid expensive or even dangerous accidents with your shovel, it’s required by law!
Keep in mind that the 811 locator crews will only mark the portion of your sewer lateral that is publicly owned by the municipality. The portion of the line that lies on your property is your responsibility. Depending on where you live, the township or borough may mark the sewer lateral from the street up to the curb line. So make sure you know where your lateral is, too.
Put in rain barrels
Rainwater causes lots of problems when it’s in our sanitary sewers — but it’s a great resource when we can put it to use instead.
Rather than connecting a downspout to a sewer with an unauthorized hookup, a rain barrel lets you collect some of that free rainwater to use for watering your lawn or garden. When you’re installing the rain barrel, it’s a great opportunity to make sure the rest of your downspout system is set up to let the rainwater flow to your yard instead of the sewer. You can save money on your water bill and help our sewers at the same time.
Rain barrels are easy to install on most homes, and typically cost about $100 at your local hardware store. Or, to get a free barrel and installation kit, go to one of the annual rain barrel workshops offered by the Lehigh County Authority, where you can also learn how to add the rain barrel to your home. Contact LCA to be put on a waiting list and they’ll let you know about the next workshop.