New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue



Trouble Down Below

There are management nightmares, and then there are - well, try this one for size. It's two days before Thanksgiving, and a first-floor shareholder complains about a smell of raw sewage. You call your regular plumber, and he can't find the problem. In fact, his snake goes down the drains fully 50 feet, and he can't find a blockage. The smell gets worse. Now you know what you have: a break in a sewer pipe. And it's not going to be fixed without a major street excavation to the tune of at least $100,000.

That's the scenario that confronted Robert D'Amico, building manager of Mark Greenberg Real Estate at the 930-unit Georgetown Mews cooperative in Kew Gardens, Queens, last year. But D'Amico was not caught completely off guard. A year before, a water main break had occurred under Jewell Avenue, which divides the 58-acre property. When the water main broke, D'Amico called in Alex Figliolia, a Brooklyn plumber whose firm has been in the business for three generations.

Figliolia pulled permits and plans, and found that a quarter of Georgetown's 37 sewer and water mains dated from before 1951. He began a program of preventive maintenance, cleaning the sewer lines with high-pressure water jets and running a tiny video camera mounted on a snaking cable through the pipes to where they connected with the city's water and sewer lines. Consequently, when the sewer pipe broke on November 25, D'Amico had a videotape of the affected line, showing crumbling and corrosion in the pipe. It was a pipe that Georgetown's board had slated for replacement - and would have reached in just a few more months.

But on the 25th of November, with the sewage backup posing an immediate health hazard and the possibility of imminent fines from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, if it was not immediately fixed. Georgetown Mews had to act fast.

"Figliolia started on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the work was done by Monday. It cost us $168,000," D'Amico says. "The cost was so high because it was an emergency job, requiring overtime pay, and had to proceed without pause. You really don't have much of a choice, but it helps tremendously if you have a board that understands the situation and wants to work with you. After about an hour of phone calls, I had the okay to go ahead. We couldn't put it off one day. And, after the job was done in the street, we had to go into the basement, shovel everything out, and disinfect. We did that in-house, with our own staff."

Georgetown Mews treasurer Lynn Petty says that, after the first water main break back in 2002, the board knew it was facing a cost of "between $800,000 and $900,000" for the replacement of aging sewer lines - at a time when shareholders were already smarting from a 6.5 percent maintenance increase. So Georgetown decided on a more gradual plan, digging up the lines and replacing them on a gradual schedule, hoping everything held up in the meantime. The replacement schedule was guided by the videotape images of the inside of each pipe. "It's a stinky job," she says, "but someone's got to do it."

Why They Break

The sewer line that broke on November 25 at Georgetown happened to be the fourth most damaged, according to Figliolia's videotape survey, and, thus, was the fourth line slated for replacement. Robert Bellini, president of Varsity Plumbing and Heating in Flushing, Queens, a major New York City contractor, says sewer pipes "break for a number of reasons: either you have an inferior support and hanger system from day one, or the support system has rotted away. When that happens, over the years, you've got pipe that is supposed to be suspended by something, but isn't - it's being held up only by its joints, and it will eventually snap off, or sag and break. The pipe itself will, by itself, rot through after 50 or 60 years, depending on what it's made of, and depending on the height of the water table, whether the piping is completely or partially submerged, and whether it's been installed in acidic soil.

"Most of the time," Bellini explains, "a break will manifest as a sewer backup, usually into the lowest fixture. There will be backups where the subsurface drain is. If you're fortunate, it will only affect a boiler room or laundry room drain. Another possibility, when you have a break in the line, is that the waste and paper will actually wind up going into the ground. Then you're creating your own cesspool underneath your building. The water will then leach and seep into the ground, and the waste and paper lie there, and you will have a bad sewer odor in the common areas. The leak will eventually undermine the building: there will be sinking and cracking of floors, because the soil is eroded away and there's no earth to support the floors."

The city of New York maintains its own water and waste piping system, which is widely considered one of the best in the world. Built as the third major urban system in the United States, after Chicago and Boston, it comprises 7,000 miles of sewer and water lines. Each private building is responsible for all of its own internal piping, and all of the piping that extends within the envelope of the foundation, and out to the end of the property line.

The building is also responsible for what is called a "main sewer line connection" that extends from within five feet of the building's foundation wall out to the "spur connection," which is the connecting fitting between the city's sewer line and the building's sewer line.

Prior to 1968, when a new plumbing code took effect, sewer lines were made of heavy cast iron, as were the joints. That made the old joints extra heavy. One pipe simply slipped into the next, and they were caulked with a material called oakum and then sealed with lead. Today, sewer pipes are lighter at the joints, and have mechanical couplings of rubber and stainless steel.

Sewer lines - unlike water mains, which carry enough pressure to reach up to the seventh floor of an apartment building - are not pressurized. They rely on gravity to carry the wastewater and sewage down to the city's huge network of drains and basins. Wastewater from street and sidewalk runoff, as well as other sources such as roof gutters, pours into the city's storm drains, while sewage enters a different network of pipes. Take a look at the manholes on a residential street, and you'll see that some are labeled "storm," and others "sanitary." Water coming into the storm drains also enters through catch basins, which fill up quickly with street refuse.

Both the city's Department of Environmental Protection and private contractors suck up the gunk in these basins, functioning as the belowground equivalent of the Department of Sanitation's fleet of garbage trucks. The difference is that the garbage trapped in the catch basins is wet, heavy, and stinking and must be hauled away to designated landfills. Catch basins are the responsibility of cooperatives and condominiums only if they are located on the property and, then, they must be cleaned out regularly, or refuse will start backing up into the street.

Whose Problem?

Water finds its way around obstacles in mysterious ways. Just as it can be difficult trying to figure out from where a roof leak is actually coming, so can tracing sewer leaks be puzzling, frustrating, and expensive. That was the case at the Allegro, a 120-unit, 26-story condominium at 62 West 62nd Street on Manhattan's West Side. In mid-2003, property manager Neil Wishnia of Maxwell-Kates was confounded by water coming into his building's basement sewer pit. The pit houses the internal sewer line which then extends past the foundation line and into the street, where it joins with the city sewer system. But the pit was filling with water. More mysteriously, it was coming in intermittently. It eventually took $40,000 in plumbing bills to discover the source of the excess water.

"We figured we had a plumbing leak coming off one of our water mains, but our plumber couldn't find it," Wishnia says. "We decided to subcontract to a plumber who snaked a camera into the sewer line, but he couldn't find the leak either." The city's Department of Environmental Protection believed the leak was the Allegro's problem. "They said they wanted to be convinced in order to come in and do work, so we had our plumber dig below the street," he recalls.

Finally, after going through several plumbers, the Allegro determined that the leak was in fact coming from a broken 12-inch city sewer pipe some distance into the street. "The city didn't want to admit it at first, but they finally did, and now they have been repairing it, excavating and cordoning off the street." The Allegro is taking its plumbing receipts to Comptroller William Thompson's office, filing a notice of claim to recoup its costs.

The board was informed of the entire situation throughout, Wishnia says. "We would discuss this problem at every board meeting and provide an update. Nothing was damaged [by the excess water] because we were able to control it by continuing to make occasional repairs. At times, it seemed like a never-ending saga.

"We were the unwitting victims of this leak," Wishnia adds. "It actually was sewage, but the water coming into the building was crystal clear, and that's why we first thought it was a building-related problem."

Grease Is the Word

The heavier a sewer line is, the more pressure it places on its supports and joints, overloading the hanger system that was originally put in place to hold the pipes. What weighs down a sewer line comes from the kitchen. "Let's say you have a 100-family building," Bellini says. "You have 100 kitchens. Grease will get into the lines, and then it will coat the inner walls of the piping. That not only reduces the flow of water and waste, but it also adds tremendous weight, which puts tremendous stress on the joints connecting the pipes and the hangers holding them up."

He likens grease in a sewer line to Vaseline, which stands up to an inserted pencil but then closes back up around the hole once you remove it. Of the various ways to clean accumulated grease from a sewer line, Bellini recommends a high-pressure water jet, brought down into the line via a hose. That jet sprays out in a 360-degree arc, which he says is more effective than running a cable with a cleaning blade through the line. That's because the blade will clear only the bottom half of the line, leaving a grease coating above. The more grease in a line, the less the effective diameter of the pipe, the less water flow, and the more chance of an obstruction.

Bellini is something of an evangelist for the tiny video camera which has revolutionized his profession, starting about ten years ago. "The video gives customers peace of mind," he says. "You can see the pipe before the problem begins, so you can justify doing the water jetting [as a preventive measure]. You can see breaks, collapses, and separations between seams. We never could do that before; we had to guess based on experience."

But, equally important, on the more sophisticated cameras there is an electronic transmitter that allows a plumber to use a handheld receiver above ground that can zero in on the beacon and pinpoint the exact depth of the pipe and the exact location of the break or corrosion. Bellini and many other contractors use a device called the NaviTrack line locator, manufactured by the Ridge Tool Company of Ohio. Videotaping a sewer line will cost anywhere from $350 to $700, if the contractor wants to precisely pinpoint the location of any potential or actual trouble.

"If they don't use this tool, anybody who has a chronic sewer backup will be sending good money after bad," says Bellini. "You need to go ahead to try to find out exactly what the problem is and make a recommendation for a complete repair. A good technician will describe exactly what you are seeing on the videotape as you progress through the line. Then, after the water jet goes through, you can see exactly what the water jet did."

Jay Blau, who sells the Ridgid NaviTrack system for the Ridge Tool Company, says making a videotape of the problem and pinpointing the location for a precise dig makes a lot more sense than ripping up a lawn with a backhoe. It's a hard to argue with him on that point.

Greening the Underground

Most co-op and condo owners have an immediate response to a clogged drain: they break out a chemical cleaner. Not such a good idea, say industry pros. They point out that a rudimentary ecosystem is at work in our sewers which bears comparison to the flora that thrive in our own intestinal tracts. Bugs are down there, chewing away at the grease - and contractors say they need encouragement to make their jobs easier. One item that helps is the kitchen waste grinder which purees cooking waste before it goes down the drain.

"That promotes friendly bacteria in the sewers," explains Bellini. "That's what you want, because it eats up organic waste, including grease and paper. The people who use chemicals like Drano don't realize they are solving an immediate problem but causing a bigger one because they kill the bacteria that live in the lines. Chemicals - caustics and acids - kill the bacteria, and you're relying on chemicals from then on.

"People use anti-bacterial soaps," he continues. "Everything is constantly killing the bacteria that are supposed to be there. Sometimes they need a shot in the arm; one of the big ones we use is called Bio-Clean. You just mix it with water and the bacteria stick to the sides of the pipes. They'll live there and munch away on all the waste and paper."

Bio-Clean, which is offered online and by many plumbing supply houses, is easy enough to use. You just flush it down the drains with warm (not hot) water, and give the bacteria time to establish themselves before running high volumes of water through the system.

Co-op and condo boards would be well advised to consult with their plumbing contractors and warn tenants and shareholders to use environmentally friendly cleaning agents for routine jobs. That, in turn, will help to keep the sewer system "healthy" and reduces the chances for major problems down the line.

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