Chattanooga homeowners on hook for cost of replacing sewer lines

Chattanooga homeowners on hook for cost of replacing sewer lines

April 25th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

BY THE NUMBERS

Chattanooga permits last quarter

• 2,173: All work - building, plumbing, gas, land disturbance, etc.

• 484: Residential building permits

• 112: Wewer replacement plumbing permits

Source: Chattanooga Land Development office

A few weeks ago, real estate agent Linda Moore thought she had sold a quaint fixer-upper home in historic St. Elmo.

The buyers were enchanted, making plans for a purchase and remodel rolled into one mortgage. But when the estimate for the remodel edged above 30 percent of the home's appraised value, a Chattanooga requirement for a plumbing inspection kicked in.

When that happened, Moore's sale, along with the buyers' plans, went right down the drain - specifically, the sewer drain.

A 1-year-old city code - aimed at keeping raw sewage out of the Tennessee River - would have forced the buyers to replace an antiquated clay sewer pipe, pushing up the home's remodeling estimate by about $10,000.

"It was a deal breaker," said Moore, who works for Prudential RealtyCenter. "And in an economy where lenders are being so strict, this is just one more hurdle for buyers to face."

Under the new city code, all clay sewer pipe - and cast iron pipe, too, if the city plumbing inspector says it's too deteriorated - must be replaced or relined when remodeling costs increase a home's value by 30 percent or more.

It's part of what the city estimates could be a $200 million effort over the next decade to get a handle on stormwater overflows and sewage spills by upgrading infrastructure.

Under the gun from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department for leaks and spills, Chattanooga in 2009 tripled its residential stormwater fee from $3 to $9.60 a month and increased fees for businesses, as well. The fee pays for upkeep of the city's network of sewer and stormwater lines.

This year, the EPA fined Chattanooga $384,500 for past stormwater runoff and raw sewage spills to the Tennessee River. More sanctions may be coming, according to officials.

CRUMBLING CLAY, RUSTING IRON

Chattanooga was founded on the banks of the Tennessee River in the early 1800s. Decades-old clay and iron pipes in its first suburbs - St. Elmo, North Chattanooga, Tiftonia, Missionary Ridge and even Brainerd - leak raw sewage out and let stormwater in.

In heavy rains, the burden is too much for the pipes and Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant. According to state records, about 510 million gallons of untreated sewage have spilled into the Tennessee River and nearby streams and streets in the past five years.

The city last year passed a resolution requiring old and porous sewage pipes like those in St. Elmo to be replaced, one remodel at a time.

"Some of the cast iron is so old and dilapidated and thin - and we determine that with a camera - that we make [homeowners and contractors] replace them, also," said Gary Hilbert, Chattanooga's director of land development.

One might think of the new cost to bring the old pipes up to code as the price of living with quaintness while ensuring future sustainability.

After a five-year economic slump, city officials say the number of building permits is up. Hilbert said the city issued 484 building permits last quarter, including 112 sewer replacement plumbing permits.

Moore, who worries it will make the housing market tougher, said she is spreading the word about the new rule to other real estate agents.

For plumbers such as Allen Green, the rule already has meant an increase in business. Green recently was awarded a contract with the city to replace the clay pipes in low-income neighborhoods for homeowners who qualify for city assistance.

CATCHING UP

Steve Leach, administrator of public works, said the city's new code is designed to help a 100-plus-year-old city stay current with its needs.

To accomplish that, Hilbert and plumbing inspector Gary Sivley are assessing home-to-sewer connections in every way possible. One of those ways is with remodeling opportunities when homeowners often bring other things in their homes up to code.

To test cast iron pipe, plumbing contractors must "jet" the pipe - called a lateral - from the house to the main sewer line under the street. They use a machine that is akin to a sandblaster, but it uses water rather than sand.

Often the treatment breaks the line.

"If it does destroy the pipe, then the pipe was no good anyway. It was too thin to be viable as a sewer line," Sivley said.

If the cast iron pipe fails, it must be replaced with plastic pipe. If it passes, it must be lined with a fiberglass sleeve.

Either fix has a stiff cost to the homeowner or buyer - usually $5,000 to $10,000 - depending on the distance from the home to the main sewer connection.

EXTENDING THE REACH

In some cases, the pipe upgrades also can apply to homes not on the market or being remodeled.

City sewer workers in routine maintenance force smoke through sewer lines to check for breaks. If smoke comes up out of broken pipes into yards or homes, the lines must be replaced.

If the smoke surfaces in the street, the city foots the bill. If it surfaces in a yard or home, the owner pays.

Hilbert and Sivley said the city has a program, funded in part with state and federal money, to pay for owner-replacements in low-income areas if the homeowners cannot pay.

"We know this is a historical city," Sivley said. "We have historic sewers, also."

Earlier this month, Allen Green's work crew pulled clay pipe out of the front yard of a house on Duncan Avenue between downtown Chattanooga and East Chattanooga to replace it with newer, plastic pipe.

Green watched as a crewman moved dirt back over the replaced line.

"If the [old] pipe leaks, it not only lets sewage out, it lets rainwater in. And then Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant gets overloaded and spills to the river," he said. "That's our drinking water, and we're doing this to protect our drinking water."