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  • Kyle Sheetz, City Administrator

Liquid Lessons

Updated: Jan 5


#2 Rules is Rules, ‘Falf’


When I began working for the water department in 2009, once again I had knowledge of how the world works that I was lacking. I recall when I owned my first house. It was a nice home, built in the 1950’s, and was a solid home. In the 3 years that we lived there, we put on a new roof and tidied up the place. The one issue that arose that I couldn’t DIY was that we had periodic sewer backups. After a number of service calls by the local plumber to root out the sewer, only $50 back then, we were advised that we should look into having someone dig our sewer to fix our issues. Broke as a joke and frustrated, we found a local guy who could do the work. Fun fact, his children had been students of mine at the local high school.


Our new contractor showed up with a backhoe and his son to do some grunt work. He contacted the local “city guy” to get the low down on our sewer. This city employee informed us that he really didn’t know where our sewer went. It turned out that a previous “city guy” had left the city feeling begrudged and had taken a bunch of city maps with him. One of those maps included the locations of the utilities on our street.


We lived on a nicely paved street, had large old trees in the yard, and had a concrete driveway. All of these things were selling points when we purchased the house. Now, in this particular situation, I wasn’t sure that we were considering these attributes to be positive. Oh, the “city guy” said, “For sure the sewer main is in the street and your sewer comes out of the house under the driveway. Maybe if you are lucky, it peaks out from under the concrete driveway over here and you could dig down to it without having to break up any of the driveway. On the other hand, it could be under the driveway the entire way to the street. Good luck.” Refreshing!


Long story, short, (not my usual way of telling it) the pipe ran under the driveway all the way to the street. Somehow, I don’t recall now, our “digger” discerned a likely area to dig under the driveway to find the pipe. Whew, I was happy when he was correct. The fix? Only remove one small section of driveway, dig to the pipe, assess the pipe material, cut out a small piece, install a couple of cleanouts for future access, and fill with rock. (By the way the pipe material turned out to be Orangeburg. Maybe we’ll talk about that someday.)


Hey, even blind hogs find an acorn once in a while. The main thing that I learned from this experience was that owning a house can be a pain in the keester. Specifically, owning the pipe carrying your waste to somewhere that you never have to see it again is one of those big pains. Finally, I learned that I owned the entire pipe from my house all the way to the point where it connects to the city sewer main. “Wow, I own this thing and someone’s actions from 50 years ago have put me in this situation?”


I realize that these posts need to stay short enough to keep the reader’s attention so I’ll save anything regarding water pipe ownership for a later post. Back to the topic.


In nearly all of the cities in the State of Iowa, the city ordinances are written so that the ownership of the sewer lateral, the pipe from the building to the city main, is placed upon the property owner. This can create mental hurdles for the property owner, especially if they are new to home ownership. Situations that involve fixing a pipe that is no longer on your property can be sticky and expensive. For instance, if the pipe crosses a neighbor’s yard, or worse yet, has a problem that is under a city street.


Of course, in any instance when there are utilities that are both publicly and privately owned, there has to be a line in the sand drawn somewhere. In the case of sewer, in the majority of communities and definitely in the City of Leon, the line in the sand is the connection of the sewer lateral to the sewer main.


I have included a simple illustration showing that line of demarcation. (By the way, sewer water is not green. I just like it.)



I will quickly list a few of the issues that happen when sewer issues end up getting close to the boundary of ownership between the city and the customer.


1. Anytime there is a pipe junction that is not completely sealed, tree roots will find their way into a sewer pipe. Many of the older homes in Leon have some older type of pipe that is nearly impossible to keep completely sealed. Sometimes a customer will believe that they have had a sewer line replaced with new pipe material, but the new material doesn’t go all the way to the sewer main. Remember, the previous homeowner didn’t want to pay a contractor to dig out into the street either. The contractor may have dug past the problem and found pipe that was in good condition to connect to the new pipe, but that was then and this is now. The condition of that older pipe has likely changed over time.


2. Speaking of pipe joints. The one at the sewer main is the deepest one on a customer’s line. It can be filled with tree roots that don’t block the city sewer main, or the pipe fitting underneath all of that dirt may have broken without affecting the city main. This sort of repair is costly and not enjoyable but must be completed to keep the waste flowing. If the city main is not obstructed or obviously broken, the customer has to hire someone to complete the work.


3. Sometimes the city and the customer both have broken pipes. Even in this case, there might not be any evidence that the city’s pipe has any issue until a contractor uncovers a damaged pipe. In instances like this, when the contractor cannot make a secure connection to the city main with the customer’s new pipe, the city will replace a section of main to ensure that the customer has a good connection.


4. In certain cases, the city’s pipe has a problem and excavation has to be performed in order to fix the problem. Then while doing the work, it is sometimes discovered that there is another problem with a customer's connection. The city generally performs this type of repair without any charge to the customer.


5. Finally, there are other unusual cases that exist around town. Maybe you and your neighbor share one connection to the city main. This is not up to current plumbing code. It may be how it was done in the past and may have continue in that state because of difficult circumstances. Perhaps the only way for a sewer line to flow from your house to a city main is to cross a neighbor’s property. This situation can create hard feelings. All parties involved should remember that everyone wants their toilet to flush.


I cannot list all of the unique situations that I have seen around town. I am sure that if I did, I would surely lose your attention. Hopefully, you have stuck with me this long and have learned a thing or two about sewers.



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