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sewer main repair


  #1  
Old 12-06-01, 05:36 AM
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Angry sewer main repair

This old (1917) house has 4" terra cotta pipe from the trap to the city sewer line. In the past week I've already spent over $800 getting it repeatedly snaked and putting a camera into the line. THere are still huge roots in the line despite being snaked with a 1 5/8" snake with an arrowhead and a cutting spiral. Now I'm faced with having to repair a break in the line, which looks to be about 27 feet out from the house, apparently between the sidewalk and curb. The camera guy wouldn't put the camera any further out, so it's a mystery to me what goes beyond that. I've contacted six or seven water main contractors and have narrowed the list down to three "finalists."

These contractors all disaagree on what has to be done to fix the problem. Some say I have to replace the entire line on both sides of the break, all the way down (17 feet) to the sewer below the street. Some say a 5- or 10-foot repair into the street would be enough. One says I need 6" heavy duty cast-iron pipe in the entire line. Another says 4" pipe is better because it makes the water flow faster, that 6" pipe would actually slow down the water flow and promote more blockages. One says "service grade" cast iron is just fine. Another says I need heavy duty, even if it's 4," or the tree roots will break in again. The estimates vary from $3000 to $12,000. Weirdly, no one seems to want to look at the videotape from the camera job, which cost me $267.

There is only thing they all agree on - each one says the other two are crooks who will rip me off, do lousy work, etc. Collectively, their own odds are 2 to 1 that I'm going to get ripped off no matter who I choose.

Though the process involved three City agencies (DEP,
Buildings, and Transportation for work in the street), the City doesn't have any pamphlet, help line, or web site to help the homeowner through the process. The whole process seems set up to keep the owner in the dark. For example, there is something called a "sewer card" with information on installation, the type of riser from the sewer, what it's made of, how long it is, when it was built and repaired, etc But the City only gives this information out to a contractor - not to the homeowner! The City says they're responsible for the riser from the sewer to my line. But the contractors laugh at the idea they should bill the City for work they do on the riser. No way they're going to wait for the City to pay them - they insist that I have to pay for any riser repairs, and two of them are pushing me to replace the entire thing, at $1000/foot, even though they have evidence that it needs repair.

Where can I get general information about sewer lines, some basic diagram, standards, etc. that would make help me to make informed decisions? What kind of paperwork should I insist on having? I suppose I need to be there when the work is done - I've been told that the contractors will often subsitute lower-grade pipe for what's been promised. How am I supposed to know the the difference between heavy duty and service weight pipe when I've never seen either of them? I've been surfing the web and this is the closest I've found to a forum on such matters.
Help!
 
  #2  
Old 12-06-01, 06:05 AM
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I'm not a pro plumber, and I'm not familiar with Staten Island requirements, but here is my two cents (just general info).
A 4" line should be adequate for single-family residential.
Snaking will not clear roots. A plumber's snake will just punch right through them. The only way to clear roots is to "roto-rooter" (cut) them out, and it will only last until the roots grow back, maybe two years or so.
A clay (terra cotta) or cast iron line is made up of sections, which eventually allow hair-like roots to get back into the lines at the connections.
A PVC (white plastic) or ABS (black plastic) line is permanently glued at all connections, and unless it breaks, roots can never penetrate it.
Are plastic drainlines allowed there?
If your drainline was installed in 1917, you probably would be better off in the long run to replace it all to the riser.
The least that you need to do is to repair the break and "roto-rooter" the line out.
I think that I would get references from the contractors and check them out.
Can you get any help with the City departments from your local government reps office?
Good Luck!
Mike
 
  #3  
Old 12-06-01, 06:22 AM
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[SIZE=3]Always get references and call them and inquire about the work they have done for others.[/SIZE]
 
  #4  
Old 12-06-01, 07:41 AM
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The contractors say PVC is not allowed, only cast iron. The DEP's Chief of Permits and Contracts says 6" cast iron is the standard code now, but they allow violations of their own code all the time! Someone from the Sewer department told me they give permits to contractors to repair lines with the same stuff that used to be there, even if it's off code.

The second "snake" the guy used was what they call an Electric Eel, a huge machine with 10-ft sections that snap together and feed into the line automatically without being pushed. First he used an arrowhead, which as you said at least punched a hole through. When he came back, he used cutting wheel, at least 3" wide. But it wasn't a closed wheel, it was a slight spiral, and it apparently managed to spiral its way right past a huge root that's still there. I cannot understand why the guy would use a spiral instead of a closed circle, he ought to know it would do that. He made three trips out here and I thought by the third time he'd want to get it right. Interestingly, he wrote "large root, no guarantee" on the invoice. The owner pointed that out, that he's supposed to write that. Of course they didn't mention it at the beginning - when I called them I told them it was a root. The owner says there's nothing he can do and he wishes my experience had been better - but he's keeping the $300 and the root is still there. Anyone who's reading this, take note: Even having a big machine, thick cable, and a 3" cutting spiral does NOT mean you're going to get the roots out. The root that's in my pipe is at least 1 1/2" thick, and it's almost all the way across the pipe.

Good idea, contacting my City Council rep. I'm probably going to write an article about this if not a book.
 
  #5  
Old 12-06-01, 08:36 AM
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I think that I would either go with the least expensive bid to correct the immediate problem, or go all the way (if you and your family intend to keep this home for a long time) and replace it all (with 6" cast iron) up to modern code.
Get and check references. Check with the BBB. Ask your friends and neighbors, etc.
Be on hand or have a trusted, knowledgeable friend on hand while the job is being done. Have the contractor show you the actual material that he will be using before it is installed, and make sure that it IS installed.
Doesn't the City issue a permit in advance, and then inspect the job before it is buried to make sure that it is up to code?
Good Luck!
Mike
 
  #6  
Old 12-06-01, 02:47 PM
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I don't know where to start here to help you out.

Roots and no guarantee are common practice. When you have just a normal blockage, plumbers will normally guarantee the workmanship for days, weeks, or months, depending on company policy. When you have a root problem, removing the roots will open the drain, but also may allow dirt to wash into the drain line through the opening where the roots were.

As to material being placed in the ground. What was said earilier is good advice. Ask to be shown what will be used and then when work is being done, video tape the process at different stages for later reference and be assured, the same material first shown will be place in the ground.

It is a common practice for city departmnents to grant variances from city code for different work. All you can do is have your contractor ask for one and he/she will be told yes or no. Not a big deal but can save big bucks. It helps to have a councilman aware of what your problem is..hint, hint.

Go with references, cheapest is not always best, nor is most expensive. Cast Iron last a long, long time. PVC/ABS will last a very long time also. Trenching cost is the same. Pipe cost will be the difference due to labor of installation.

Be sure to ask you bidders about shoring. Ask them what type they use. If they look at you in a puzzled look, run away from them. If they talk a bout hydraulic shoring, you have reputable company. Shoring stops the walls of the trench from collapsing and burying the worker. Anytime a trench is over 4 feet deep, provisions must be made.

Ask questions, check references, and check for licenses....

Keep us advised of whats happening, we will help you were we can.
 
  #7  
Old 12-06-01, 03:26 PM
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Thanks very much for the support and suggestions. Videotaping the process is another great idea. I managed today to find the right number for the "Sewer Department" and got someone to look up the records and fax them to me. She sent a block and lot map and a card showing what's apparently the last permit - with no other information than the address, the date (1932) and the signature of the guy who did the work - nothing at all about what the repair was, and nothing about the riser or whether it's concrete, iron, or clay. One contractor says they have to go Borough Hall and search through the records in the back until they find "the records."
They also have to have the street marked up for "Code 53" - the presence of lines for water electric, gas, phone, etc .

When I called them they all said that all the permits etc could be done in two days, but it's been four or five so far and nobody has anything. By some miracle, the line hasn't backed up into the basement again yet - maybe the camera loosened the blockage -and I'm just hoping for this all to be over.
 
  #8  
Old 12-07-01, 05:12 PM
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update

On closer inspection the data I got from the City Sewer Dept turned out to be six pages which included a lot of the data I was asking for - elevation maps, spurs, and H.C.'s (home connections?) There are two sewer lines - apparently what now appears to be a storm drain below the sidewalk was the old sewer line. It is connected to the new sewer down the hill at the end of the block. I located the manholes for both sewers and was able to place my lot accurately. But a lot of the markings were weird heroglypics to me, so I went to Borough Hall to see the originals and try to get an explanation, after having faxed the six pages to the top three "finalist" contractors.


I learned a lot at the Sewer Dept. E.g. there were yellow marks on the original maps for the spurs, and they didn't show up on the fax. Also I learned that H.C. on the elevation chart stands for House Connection. And that the back side of the 1932 sewer repair card was supposed to have a sketch of the repair work, but since it was so old, they didn't have the actual card, just a xerox of the front. I also found four "Tap" cards for the water main showing repairs in 1928, 1936, 1946, and finally 1974, when 60 ft of 1" copper pipe was installed. So much for the supposed x-ray vision of the guy who said "I notice you have lead pipe in your water main - for another $1500 we'll replace that with copper, it's the same ditch anyway."

This guy is the front "inspector" for the one company that is is almost univerally recommended head and shoulders over the others. I don't doubt they do excellent work, but Mr. X-Ray Vision is way more snake-oil salesman than knowledgable inspector. He looks like Anthony Quinn, and could probably sell snow to the Eskimos. The combination of him out front and what's apparently quality work no doubt accounts for their reputation. But that doesn't mean that they're honest about their pricing, and I really felt like the guy was trying to pull the wool over my eyes. The first thing out of his mouth this time was "You really wasted your time getting those documents from Borough Hall. They don't mean anything anyway."

He made it sound like it should all be meaningless to me, like I should take everything he tells me on faith and stop trying to understand anything, becuse I couldn't possibly do that. He didn't want to discuss the spurs or risers or any of that stuff. He just kept trying to convince me how deep the sewer line is, how much (expensive) digging would be needed, and the need to replace the entire line, not just repair part of it. He said he wouldn't take the job unless they could replace the entire terra-cotta line from the house to wherever it ended.

When I pointed to the H.C. line on the elevation chart, showing what looked exactly like risers going up at least halfway to the surface, he didn't want to hear it. Instead he pointed to a figure on the chart - "181.5" - and said, "See, your pipe is 18 ft deep there. That's the depth." I pointed out that it was 181.5, not 18.15, and clearly referred to the distance from the last manhole, and that it was . He said, "No, no, it's 18 feet, 1.5 inches. I've read enough of these charts to know." I'm sorry, but that makes no sense at all - it's as clear as day that those markings are cumulative distances along the street from one manhole to the next, marking the location of spurs/ risers/ house connections.

I really wonder how much of this company's glowing reputation is built on this kind of strong-arming, and how much unneccessary work they pad on their jobs. Four or five other outfits have all recommended them intensely. For recommendations, they point first to the electric and gas companies - they apparently do all that work. But I don't trust the guy.

He finally said he would bring over the owner and let him talk to me. I'm hoping the owner will be more straigtforward and knowledgable. If he tries to con me as well. , I'm not gong to let them do the work no matter how well they're recommended. I'm not going to be kept in the dark.

The worst part of this is that the Sewer Dept guys said it's possible that the because it's so old, the line may be connected to the old sewer, not the new one. The contractor wants to start digging from the house and follow the line out. If it leads to the old trap, he would insist on plugging it and then excavating a new line to the new sewer instead, "per code," at no doubt a huge increase in cost to me. But as I mentioned before, it's apparently fine with the DEP to repair old lines to the state they were in before. They're certainly not demanding that all the old lines get torn up and swtiched to the new sewer line.

The thing that bugs me is that if had enough money, I wouldn't give a damn what it cost. I'd just want the best job. But I don't, I'm poor, and it looks like a very bleak Christmas. And something is telling me that acting so Wary, trying to get everything so clearly understood, isn't doing me any good with these guys. It probably comes off as frantically over-rational and distrustful - too much head, not enough heart. This is Staten Island, after all, and the model for doing business is "The Godfather" even outside the contracting business. Maybe it would be better to show a lot of humility and respect, be very careful not to offend them, maybe even throw myself on their mercy on behalf of my three adopted kids who need Christmas presents.

Maybe I can combine both approaches. Wow, my wheels are spinning.

Terminology:
What does "V.P." mean in sewer language, as in "15" V.P." along a frontage line? or "6" V.P. sewer" along a sewer line?
What does the "+85.0" mean in "M.H. 53 + 85.0"?
Or the "+16.5" in "MH 52 + 16.5"?
What does "CB" Sewer mean?
The elevation map shows vertical lines coming up from the sewer toward the street level. THese are marked H.C. which I'm told means House Connection. Is that the same as a riser?

If I have to pay the contractor for riser repair or installation, I'd like to get a separate bill so I can bill the City in return. I bet I can get paid in under four years, too. The contractor should do that, right?
 
  #9  
Old 12-08-01, 11:16 AM
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A little history about sewers....In many old sewer systems, sewers were usually built by enclosing a stream or drainage area that allowed the surface water to mix with the sewage and everything either went to a river or whatever was considered the discharge. The government started to impose clean water laws that required a minimal clean water discharge and plants where built to treat sewage. More laws, and city's found themselves treating massive amounts of sewage due to the construction of the sewers and many city's had to build seperate sewers for drainage and then a sewer for sewage. This is why you have 2 sewers in front of your house.

Terminology:

What does the "+85.0" mean in "M.H. 53 + 85.0"?
Or the "+16.5" in "MH 52 + 16.5"?

Manhole 53 + 85.0" (add 85.0" to the base elevation) There should be a benchmark elevation somewhere on the plan or ask the Sewer Department what the base elevation is.
To me, it looks like there is a hill between the two manholes.

What does "V.P." mean in sewer language, as in "15" V.P." along a frontage line? or "6" V.P. sewer" along a sewer line?

Vitified Pipe in sizes 15 inch and 6 inch. It's a clay pipe that is is heavy, lasts a very long time, but has a tendency to break when settling and letting in, you guessed it, roots!

What does "CB" Sewer mean?

Probably a catch basin. If this is tied in the 15" line then it is. A catch basin collects water from the street and dumps it in the sewer.

You are right about the H.C.

One last thing, almost forgot. You need to check this out with your local code people. There are very specific codes about placing a water line in the same trench as the sewer line. If your sewer inspector is so specific about the sewer, he should be just as concerned about the water line. Where I live, 2 seperate trenches are required in several cities.

Hope this helps...I know your bummed out about the sewer mess your in and Xmas coming up doesn't help. I have never had a "good" time of the year to tell someone that they have to spend several hundred to thousands of dollars for a sewer replacement.
 
  #10  
Old 12-10-01, 04:30 AM
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still waiting

Thanks again to everyone who's commented. I wish I could get as clear answers from the contractors here. The guy never showed up with the owner Saturday, and my whole family is getting very sick of not having a working sewer. I've become aware of a new factor - where does my emergency rank in the company's list of priority jobs? There was apparently a huge water main break in another neighborhood, and all the contractors are very busy with City work.

On the elevation maps, there are several vertical lines ising from the main sewer to different heights below the surface. Most go almost all the way to the top, others a little less than half way, and some about 3/4" up. They are all marked H.C. at the top of the line. Are these "risers?" Can I assume the varying heights of the lines fairly acurately represent the actual height? Do they go straight up vertical, or could they angle down? Does the H.C. refer to the riser itself or the point of connection to the line from the house?

On the birds-eye-view map, the "spurs" are marked with short angled lines on either side of the sewer line, like a V. I'm not sure exactly what "spur" refers to, the line from the house, the connection, the riser, or some combination of those. The V mark doesn't mean the lines actually connect at those angles, does it?? It looks like the cumulative length markings I mentioned before refer to those spurs.

I put the two maps together in my mind and figure that the spur connects at the top of the riser. Which would mean we don't have to dig down 17 feet to the sewer itself. Also the street and sidewalk are four or five feet lower elevation than the house, so that the main digging would be at the house end of the line.

In a case like this where there are two sewer lines, what's the standard procedure for knowing where to dig? The guy said they're only responsible for one square of sidewalk, that's all they need to dig up. How do they know which one to dig up?
What we really need is some kind of seismograph device that would show everything underground clearly on a screen, roots, lines, stones, everything, like sonar on a fishing boat.
 
 

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