New homebuyers routinely inspect for pests and check the roof, but they almost never think about the condition of the pipes under the house. That has begun to change since January 2012, when an ordinance requiring buyers to replace private sewer laterals (the connection between private plumbing the public sewer) took effect in Oakland.
Buying a house is one of three events that trigger a requirement for the home’s private sewer lateral to be certified as sound, repaired or replaced. Other triggers are remodeling work of more than $100,000 or a request to change the size of the water meter. Once a sewer lateral has been replaced, the homeowner gets a certificate of compliance good for 20 years.
For homebuyers, the requirement can feel harsh: one more unexpected cost piled on at escrow.
“What the program is about is working together to protect SF Bay and to invest in our aging infrastructure,” said Andy Katz, President of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board of Directors. “The private sewer laterals are a literally connected part of the infrastructure.”
“In the story of civilization,” Oakland Public Information Officer Kristine Shaff observed, “the thing that saved most people’s lives was clean water and sewage pipes.” She added that, after years of neglect, there is currently a renewed emphasis on the importance of infrastructure. Shaff estimates that the 919 miles of sewer maintained by the City of Oakland are, on average, 60-70 years old.
Although EBMUD was the entity sued by the EPA over sewage discharges into San Francisco Bay, it is the owners of the leaky sewer connections, both private and municipal, who are responsible for fixing broken pipes. The City of Oakland has sewer replacement projects in progress or planned for several neighborhoods identified as vulnerable to stress in wet weather.
To comply with the EPA’s clean water mandate and to accelerate the pace of sewer lateral replacement, EBMUD is offering incentives to residents to fix their private sewer laterals without a triggering event. Rebates are offered to property owners adjacent to the city’s sewer main repair projects. “It’s more cost effective because the street is already open,” said Angela El-Telbany, Associate Civil Engineer and Regional Private Sewer Lateral Program Project Manager at EBMUD. “A property owner may realize some significant savings in the cost of the sewer lateral.”
EBMUD’s rebate program is in its pilot phase, according to Christopher Dinsmore, Associate Civil Engineer and EBMUD’s Private Sewer Lateral Rebate Program Project Manager. In most areas, the program offers rebates of up to $3,000, depending on the work needed and the total cost. If the cost is less than the rebate amount, homeowners may end up paying nothing for the repair.
Homes that meet one of the triggers – such as being sold – are not eligible for rebates.
In Case Study 4 of the pilot, which will ultimately include over 900 properties in Northwest Oakland, EBMUD has hired contractors to bring the private sewer lateral pipes into leak-free condition, at no cost to homeowners. “On the whole, it’s hard to complain about this program,” said Christopher Schardt, a property owner who took advantage of the offer. He praised EBMUD staff for making the whole process easy.
Participation in the rebate program “varies neighborhood by neighborhood. As low as 10% to upwards of 65-70%,” Dinsmore said. The pilot project aims to collect data on what incentives work best before a permanent plan is announced next year.
El-Telbany calls the private sewer laterals “the missing piece of the puzzle” for improving water treatment, noting that, although “sewer laterals are out of sight out of mind, it is infrastructure that needs to be maintained.” Dinsmore urged eligible homeowners to participate in the pilot program: “If it’s offered, take it. It’s a great offer.”
To find out more about the rebate program, visit http://www.eastbaypsl.com/eastbaypsl/rebate.html. Over 3,000 properties in Oakland will eventually qualify for one of the programs. To view maps of the project areas, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the number under each project.