— Jason W (J☀️ YL) (@J2XL) May 13, 2016
During a busy night a Nacho Borracho, the Capitol Hill bar’s plumbing was having a tough time keeping up with the margarita drinking crowd. When the problem persisted the following night, owner Rachel Marshall knew something was up.
The culprit turned out to be the roots of a Broadway tree that had obstructed the building’s sewer pipe connecting to a city sewer main. To fix it, a plumber had to cut up the sidewalk and replace part of the pipe. The bill came to a whopping $35,000, according to Marshall. Luckily for her, the building’s property owner picked up the tab. “It was an awfully good piece of news,” she said.
While the cost of Nacho Borracho’s repair was unusually high, similar sewer repairs are becoming increasingly common around Capitol Hill. As buildings age, so do the original pipes that connect homes and commercial properties to the city’s sewer system. Eventually these so-called side sewer lines crack or even worse, become blocked causing raw sewage to spill out in all the wrong places. Fixing the lines can be costly and a massive inconvenience.
In recent years, plumbers have been increasingly busy fixing side sewer lines around Capitol Hill. According to city permit data, there were 114 side sewer permits issued around Capitol Hill in 2011. In 2015, side sewer activity more than doubled to 241 issued permits. It’s a citywide trend in a Seattle that turns 163 this May 23rd.
There have been nearly 70 side sewer construction permits issued on and around Capitol Hill this year. Many of those projects are for residential properties, but a handful of commercial properties are in the mix. Recently, emergency side sewer work was done at the Broadway Place building, which includes the Rite Aid and Nacho Borracho.
“Side sewers in older Capitol Hill homes are always a concern,” said Windermere real estate broker George Beasley, who focuses on Capitol Hill properties. Property owners own their side sewers all the way to the sewer main, meaning they are also responsible for fixing and replacing them.
Most of the pipes getting fixed or repaired today are clay or concrete, which typically last 70 to 100 years. PVC or another high density plastic pipes are usually brought in for replacements.
Michael Keane of Best Plumbing, which has done recent side sewer pipe jobs around Capitol Hill, said average repairs cost anywhere from $2,500 – $7,000. However, projects can skyrocket to over $25,000 if a contractor needs to work in the street or in the public right of way. Most repairs can be done through a process known as pipe-bursting where a new pipe is fed through the old pipe, significantly reducing the amount of digging. Occasionally, plumbers have to go the old fashioned (and potentially dangerous) route of digging a trench.
It’s difficult to predict what neighborhoods or blocks may need sewer work. Tree roots and Seattle’s changing sediment landscape can have a big affect on pipe longevity, even block to block, Keane said.
Capitol Hill’s ultra competitive housing market is also putting more homebuyers in a riskier position when it comes to sewer problems. “If there is not functional flow to the sewer main, repairs will be necessary and most likely put back on the seller,” Beasley said. “But, if the home is priced very competitively, there may be buyers willing to take on this issue.”
The city keeps nearly all of its original sewer documentation on original side sewer cards that have been scanned and are searchable online. Some offer interesting glimpses into Capitol Hill’s past.