Public Works

What To Do If You Experience a Sewer Backup
If unsure of the cause of the sewer backup, call the City immediately at 319-286-5815.  City staff responds to reported sewer backups 24/7.

City staff will investigate the public sewer main for blockages.  If a blockage is found in the public sewer main, the blockage will be removed as quickly as possible.  If no blockage is found in the public sewer main, the property owner will be informed that the public main is functioning and to contact a private plumbing contractor to investigate the property’s plumbing.

Of the calls received by the City each year about 10% are found to be caused by a blockage in the public main.  The remaining backups are due to blockages within the private property plumbing or building sewer (sewer line that connects the property to the public main).

When Is the City Liable?
Sewer backups caused by a blockage in the public sewer main are considered to be utility interruptions.   The interruptions and the subsequent claims for damages to private property can be quite frustrating for residents.  This frustration stems from a variety of sources including how uncommon it is for someone to experience a large backup, the extent of damage that can occur because of a backup, and the likelihood that the cause of the backup is due to a fault with the private plumbing or an act-of-nature.  In an attempt to avoid some of these problems please be aware of the following:

The City is not automatically liable for resulting property damage or cleanup expenses. The City is only liable for damages if the backup was caused by the City’s negligence.

Many homeowner’s insurance policies specifically exclude damage resulting from sewer backups unless the homeowner requests this coverage. For additional information on sewer backup coverage, please contact your insurance provider.

Iowa courts have made it clear the City does not and cannot guarantee public sewers will never back up. Any resident or business that uses public sewers may discharge waste that could clog the system. For example, large amounts of grease from restaurants and disposable diapers are two common discharges that cause clogs. The City Code does prohibit these materials from being discharged into the public sewer, though without invasive enforcement there is no way the City can absolutely prevent these discharges from happening.

In Cedar Rapids tree root intrusion is the leading cause of public and private sewer blockages.  Tree roots cause blockages by growing into and obstructing the lines or the gaps that the tree roots create as they breach a sewer can cause extraordinary amounts of rainfall to enter the sewer and overload the pipe.

There are four basic questions the courts look at in deciding this issue. The City may be liable if the answer to all four of the following questions is “yes.”

  1. Was there a defect in the City’s sewer mainline?
  2. Did the City know, or should the City have known, about the defect?
  3. Did the City fail to correct the defect within a reasonable time after learning of it?
  4. Did that failure by the City cause damages?

Common Sewer Backup Problems
90% or more of the sewer problems reported to the City annually involve some type of private plumbing malfunction. Most often tree roots are the culprit. If tree roots are a reoccurring problem, the homeowner must have the roots removed on a routine basis. The best fix for tree roots is to have the building sewer replaced by a reputable contractor utilizing new materials and installation methods. Contrary to intuition, cutting down the trees in your yard will not alleviate this problem as the roots will continue to grow.

Now That a Sewer Backup Has Occurred, Who Will Clean Up and Pay For The Mess In My Basement?
Other than asking for facts concerning the extent of the backup in your basement, sewer maintenance staff are not authorized to enter a private residence or provide assistance to the homeowner beyond ensuring the city main is clear.

Damage Claims Against the City
As with all damage claims, if a person feels the City is responsible for any damages or expenses incurred as a result of a sewer backup, they must file a written claim with the City’s Risk Manager at 319-286-5125. In some cases, it may take several days before a person can fully itemize all damages and for this reason, they are advised to at least call Risk Manager at 319-286-5125 to report any pending claims. Once the Risk Manager’s office receives a formal claim, it will be investigated. Before disposing of items it is advised that you take photos as proof of the damage and loss of the item.

Please be advised that the filing of a claim does not necessarily mean your damages will be paid by the City. This will depend on the individual case and whether or not the results of the investigation determine the City has acted negligently.

Sewer backups can be a very unpleasant experience for all parties involved. The purpose of the above information is to assist homeowners in doing what has to be done as quickly as possible and to minimize property damage. At the same time, it is our hope to avoid any misunderstandings when our Sewer maintenance staff respond to your emergency call.

How to prevent sanitary sewer backup
If you have experienced backups from your building sewer, you might consider the installation of backup devices, which may be installed by a qualified plumbing company or contractor. They can assist you in the best methods and products. The City has a Sanitary Sewer Backup Prevention Device Reimbursement Program to help reduce costs when installing these devices. More information on that program is available here.

Do not plant trees and shrubs over the private building sewer. The roots of trees, particularly Silver Maple and Willow trees will seek out the joints of the sanitary sewer and eventually clog the pipe.

Do not put large amounts of vegetable waste, such as pea pods and tomato skins, through the garbage disposal at one time. Even though these materials will go through the garbage disposal, they may clog the private building sewer. This also applies to large amounts of grease and paint, which will build up in the building sewer over a period of time eventually causing a blockage. Keep lint traps in the sinks, which drain washing machines in place. It is easier to clean out the lint traps than it is to clean out the building sewer.

If the building sewer serves a commercial establishment in which a grease trap is required, the grease trap should be cleaned periodically to prevent the solids from bypassing into the building sewer.

If you smell sewer gas, check to see if all sewer traps are filled with water and check to see if the cap on the sewer cleanout is on tight. If the gas smell persists, call your plumber and have your system checked.

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