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Increasing sewer problems can be a nasty nuisance for older Capitol Hill buildings

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.

Seattle Public Utilities keeps a list of registered side sewer contractors here. You can also check out SPU’s very Blues Clues-esque “Side Sewer Saga” for more information.

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10 thoughts on “Increasing sewer problems can be a nasty nuisance for older Capitol Hill buildings

  1. If your contractor is digging a trench in the street to fix your side sewer, I suggest confirming that your side sewer is truly being connected to the main sewer line rather than to a “45” stub that extends from the main sewer.

    I had Best Plumbing do this work 10 years ago and recently had to have another trench dug in the street by Fischer Plumbing because the 45 had become blocked and my pipe was displaced from it. I would recommend Fischer Plumbing as a good company to use for small to large plumbing jobs.

    • I concur about Fischer Plumbing, they are good. The previous “do it yourself” genius owner of my house connected the new basement bathroom not to the sewer but the yard’s French drain. Those are only meant to divert surface water. Fischer Plumbing did a great job fixing it, but it involved a big trenching of the yard. I would definitely recommend them, especially for the tricky jobs.

  2. That is funny, I too have had an indoor fixture (kitchen sink) connected to an outdoor drain, resulting in a foul smelling swamp under my deck. This was done by an actual plumbing company whose name I don’t remember. They were a sub for a contractor doing a kitchen remodel, who was out of business by the time this was discovered.

  3. To point out the obvious, that price tag smells really fishy. I had similar work done plus a clean-out access point installed for a fraction of that price.

  4. I had to fix a sewer in a 1910 building on Capitol Hill. The lnie was OK until the city insisted on giving us trees in the sidewalk. After 12 years, the roots found a small gap at a joint between the pipes, roots got in and you know the rest.

    I did a lot of investigating, then I hired a plumbing/sewer company. Then the real leanrning began:
    1. NEVER hire a plumbing company to do sewer work. Hire a sewer company to to perform sewer work. Some companies, like the one I hired, have a division that does just sewers. Plumbers generally charge 30-50% more for doing the same work, and they are happy to do it for you. Make sure they run their own sewer camera down the line to look for pipe condition, roots, and Wyes (that is, “Y”s, where two pipes come together, sometimes from a neighboring building.) Sewer companies have to dig down at the location of any wyes, as they can not do pipe lining or pipe bursting through a wye. Ask me how I know: The company we hired screwed up and lined through a wye, sealing off one side.
    2. If your sewer pipe break is in the street, the home/building owner is responsible for repairing the street on top of the repair in addition to the pipe repair itself.. Seattle is unique in requiring this, few other cities/municipalities do. Seattle gets piecemeal street improvement in this way, borne on the backs of individual property owners.The sewer repair company’s camera needs to be run all the way to the city’s main in the middle of the street. If the break is right at the main, there is a small chance that the city might ‘own’ the break, and fix it and the street above at their expense. This is a rarity, and they will try to get out of it.
    3. Digging in the area of a sidewalk will require a sidewalk closure permit, and a busy sidewalk will require that a traffic plan be filed. More $.
    4. Do not make the final payment until you know everything is right. With that last payment (usually 50% to 30%) goes any leverage you have to be sure they make things right.

    • One vital thing is to have the sewer inspected before you buy. That way you at least know about the $10k you will spend When you have to dig a 10ft deep pit in three places. Basements add to the complexity

  5. My name is Walt , I run (A+ Sewer Technologies), We are on the Seattle Registered Side Sewer Contractor list. We have completed many sewer rehabilitation projects on Capitol Hill. I would like to clarify a few things. There are several trenchless sewer rehabilitation techniques, Pipe bursting and Cure In Place Pipe (CIPP) are the most common. Pipe bursting requires a access to the pipe at both ends so a new pipe can be pulled through, this process does require digging up every wye and installing a new connections since this process breaks up the old pipe. With CIPP the wyes can be reinstated with a robotic cutter and in some cases the CIPP liner can be installed through an existing cleanout so there is no digging required. For more information please visit our website

    • Am told In place can still collapse? Also mr contractor can and did screw up with said robot which couldn’t cut the y back in. Voila, another $3k 10 ft deep trench.

      If you have suspicions I would start getting bids before it all fails – they have you once you can’t flush..

      • If CIPP is install correctly it should never (50-80 years)collapse once it is installed, an experienced contractor should be able to do an evaluation and determine the right solution.
        If you have a contract that states that the contractor will reinstate a service connection with the use of a cutter by contract he should not be able to charge you to dig up his screw up. I guess I’m old school, we have a contract to perform a job for a price, we do not jack up the price on the back end if there is an issue we caused, we fix it.

  6. When it comes to camera inspections strongly recommend them before you buy, Even if you are buying a newer house, almost every lot in the city is on a lot that has had the infrastructure (sewer pipe) in place for years, contractors put all new plumbing inside the house but connect to the old sewer pipe. Because of this issue the City has recently made it a requirement that the Builder rehabilitate or install a new line to the city main. As always Buyer beware. The camera inspection should cost about $200, you should receive a video of the inspection and a report identifying any issues. Make sure you know what you will receive when you make an appointment.