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Mind your sanitary laterals

It’s a potentially significant cost that most homeowners don’t think about.

But if your rainy day fund doesn’t factor in possible maintenance to your sanitary sewer line, you could find yourself flush with a hefty home expense.

Many homeowners don’t realize they own – and are responsible for – their sanitary laterals, the underground pipes that take wastewater from their toilets and sinks to the city-operated sanitary main under the street. Property owners also are responsible for the connections to the sanitary main.

While some sanitary laterals must be cleaned regularly to work properly, others go problem-free for decades. John Klostermann, street and sewer maintenance supervisor for the city of Dubuque’s Public Works Department, says the city receives about 120 calls for service to sanitary laterals each year.

“The wide majority of these calls we respond to end up being the responsibility of the homeowner,” Klostermann says. “The biggest thing we see is plugged lines.”

The good news is there are measures you can take to better protect your sanitary laterals – and your pocketbook:

  • Flush responsibly: Human waste and toilet paper are the only things that should be flushed. “We’re starting to see a lot of other things show up in the sanitary sewers – things that are flushable but not biodegradable, like baby wipes,” Klostermann says. “They do flush, but if you have even a slight defect in your line, that wipe can get caught and cause more debris to build up over time.”
  • Don’t pour grease down the drain: Grease will stick to pipes, which can cause backups. Instead, put food waste in a compost bin or in the garbage.
  • Be proactive: If your line has had problems before, consider putting it on a cleaning schedule once or twice a year to prevent future clogs. “You might have a defect that’s not bad enough to repair, but can be managed with routine maintenance,” Klostermann says.
  • Review your homeowner’s coverage: Homeowner’s policies don’t cover the blockage removal or repairs to sanitary laterals, but many insurance carriers offer an endorsement for backup of water/sewer, says Dave Keil, an insurance agent at Dupaco Insurance Services in Dyersville, Iowa. The endorsement covers damage to the basement from a line backup – up to the policy’s limit, which is typically $5,000. “More and more homeowners prefer that they have this endorsement on their policy,” Keil says.

If you have a backup, first contact your city’s public works department. There is no cost for the service call.