When is The City Responsible for Sewer Lines?
March 4, 2020

house sewer line installation

Who holds responsibility for your sewer line is dependent on the state, town, or village you live in. In NYC, the rules differ from what most other cities do. For NYC residence, property owner is responsible for the sewer line starting at the building and ending in the roadway where the city sewer is located. This catches most people by surprise as they can’t imagine that they would be responsible for piping located below the city streets.

However, the city is responsible for the sewer line if the city sewer is broken or backed up. The city sewer includes the pipe that is running parallel to your house, up, and down the street. In some cases where the city sewer is broken, you may never know how far your property is from the actual break. A broken city sewer would most likely backup into the manhole located in the roadway. If this is the case, the property owner can notify the town or city who will then work on a resolution as needed.

If it turns out that the city sewer is backed up, the town or city will assume responsibility and clear the city sewer line. In some cases, a broken or backed up city sewer may result in a backup into your house sewer line. This is often determined by hiring a sewer cleaner. A sewer cleaning professional will be able to determine if your sewer line is working properly and is hitting no obstructions—yet there is sewage sitting in your pipe that cannot be cleared.

Harris Water Main and Sewer contractor working on a house sewer installation

How to Determine Who Is Responsible for a Backup

The most common signs a homeowner has sewer issues includes experiencing sewage backed up in their sewer trap or experiencing a foul odor. If a homeowner suspects there is a problem, the first step is to contact an experienced drain cleaner. The professional cleaner will begin by investigating the situation—often utilizing a sewer snake. If the snake is hitting any form of an obstruction it is most likely an issue with the buildings sewer line which now needs to be honed in on before a suggested method of restoration is suggested.

Hopefully the sewer line has a small blockage that can be cleared with a standard sewer snake. This avoids more severe measures such as a water jet or excavation to repair the broken pipe. Luckily for homeowners, there is no shortage of sewer line replacement companies in the event that the pipe is broken and requires a repair.

If the sewer cleaner continues with his snaking and does not discover any issues with the homeowners sewer line, it is time to start seeking feedback from your local sewer department. They should be quick to send out a city employee to begin the investigation process. The process begins by lifting a manhole in the street for a visual observation. If the manhole is backed up, the sewer department will attempt to clear the city sewer and any blockages. If it turns out that there is a break or crack in the pipe causing the backup, they must schedule a city service crew to perform a roadway excavation to repair the pipe. The process is the same as if the homeowner would hire a private water main and sewer contractor, everything from shoring, digging with a backhoe, inspections etc. The only difference is that the city would be working on the city main and not the property owner’s sewer line.

If the city sewer connection point to the private sewer line is broken, the property owner is responsible for repairing the section of pipe—which is known as the spur. This may come as a surprise since most cities install the spur connection when laying the city sewer, which holds little relation to when a home is built.

City Sewer Violations

The city will issue a property owner a violation if they determine that their sewer line is broken, which may cause safety issues. The city often becomes aware of a broken house sewer when there is a sinkhole forming in the sidewalk or roadway. In this case, they will request access to the homeowners property and perform their owner investigation. They will attempt to utilize a sewer camera inside the pipe, which should identify the exact problem as long as there isn’t sewage sitting in the pipe. If there is sewage, the camera isn’t able to get a clear picture. They will attempt another method to locate the source of the issue.

Another common issue is if the neighboring building starts to receive sewage through the foundation wall. They will first begin their owner investigation process—as it is more likely to assume it is their sewer problem until the report checks out. If you are friendly with the neighbor, they should allow you to camera the line for investigation purposes. If not, you are required to notify the city sewer department who will require the owner to provide access for their video inspection.

If it is determined that the neighboring sewer line is broken, they will be issued with a violation to repair the pipe in a time sensitive manner.

sewer line excavation in NYC

Storm Water Backups

If you are experiencing sewer backups after a heavy rainfall it tends to be a larger problem because the property owner may not have any control over the exact cause. For example, the city sewer may not be large enough to handle the volume of water—resulting in the backup inside the property.

In some cases, you can install a check valve on the sewer line to prevent storm water backups, but this may not work if your house has roof liter lines that exit through your main sewer line.

The permanent resolution would be for the city to increase the size of the sewer. This tends to be a challenge for the homeowner because it is a major project that requires months of planning on the city side. In most cases, the city is working from a sewer maintenance schedule that had been established years prior.

The other resolution would be for the city sewer department to install the pipes at a greater depth than the existing pipes. Burying the pipes deeper underground would make it more challenging for storm water to backup.