A drawing of a pink bike, weight lifting equipment, and boxes floating in brown water

My basement flooded with sewage. Don’t let yours

Municipal sewage backups and their effect on your home

Here’s a gross riddle for you –  What’s worse than having your house flood with sewage?  Having your house flood with other peoples’ sewage.  The “incident” as we’ve fondly been calling it, happened to us last Friday morning.  I hope it never happens to you.

I was working in my office on our second floor when I heard water gushing in our basement.  A sound like this isn’t out of the ordinary in our charming little kit home from 1919. I figured that the sump pump was discharging and ignored it.  The sound of surging liquid didn’t stop though. I poked my head down the basement stairs and saw our very white cat standing at the edge of a spreading pool of black tarry goo that was erupting out of our basement toilet.

Sewage flooding into a plumber’s basement is Alanis Morissette level irony.  I get it. While I was grabbing the tools out of the shed that Sam would need to stop the poop hemorrhage, our sump pump was funneling the sewage into our yard.  If our lawn was this wet and rank, I knew that inside, the basement was going to be a disaster. Our tools, bikes, storage bins, futon, and exercise equipment were all sunk 4 inches deep in human excrement.

Once Sam arrived home, he was able to get the flooding under control.  After removing the toilet, he plugged our sewer and stopped the immediate backup.  Then he called Baltimore County Sewer Maintenance for help.

For the average homeowner in this situation, there’s the question of “where is this backup coming from?” Thankfully my family does this day in and day out for work. We knew the problem wasn’t on our property. When we rehabbed our house, Sam installed completely new plumbing including the sewer line.  He also regularly cleans and maintains all of our drains. When this backup began, we weren’t even running any water in the house. It made no sense for our meticulously maintained plumbing to have any problems.  Of all the houses in our neighborhood, why would a sewer backup happen to us?

Through a quick process of deduction and investigation, we figured out why.  Our backup was coming from the neighborhood’s sewer main. Judging by the sewage in our basement, it seemed that someone had sent shop towels down their sewer line which clogged the sewer main.  With the sewer main blocked and having nowhere to drain to, the entire street’s sewage backed up into the first house down the line…ours.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but after squeegeeing sewage across my basement floor, carrying all of our dripping belongings across the house and out into the yard, and bleaching the place to high heaven, I was tired.  Dumping endless shop vacs of gunk, spraying the walls with a garden hose, and misting mold preventer on every square inch of the place was not how I was planning on kicking off my weekend. But it never is, right? Who plans for, or is happy about a plumbing emergency?

As I was mopping up the floor I thought of how much worse of a mess this could have been if our basement was finished. What if we had a tenant in a basement apartment like some of our neighbors?  What if I still stored my wedding dress or our irreplaceable photo albums down there?

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it was a gross day.  But it could have been worse. Insurance might help us repair the damage, but it won’t reimburse us for our time, our stress, or whatever family heirlooms that may have been boxed up down there.

My husband works on plumbing and sewers each day.  He sees the damage they cause when they aren’t maintained.  This was a new experience for me though, and if I could pass on any wisdom to you, it would be this:

When sewer problems occur, it puts a hold on pretty much everything else in your life.  The whole experience is not easy to deal with. The smell. The cleanup. The fear of other people’s germs spreading around your house.  The inability to use your own toilet, shower, or sink. It’s a pretty big deal. However, it is important to note that fluke accidents like this can happen in anyone’s home.  Here are a few preventative steps you can do to lessen the potential of a sewage disaster like ours:

  • Annual Drain Cleaning – Like us, all homeowners are entitled to one free drain clean a year.  This drain clean maintains your property’s connection to the sewer main. This service is provided by Baltimore City and County if you have an exterior cleanout near your property edge.  Even if you have a recently replaced sewer line as we do, it’s a good idea to maintain your section of the sewer main.
  • Protect What’s Important to You – Make sure you protect your irreplaceable valuables. Keep boxes up and off of your basement floor.  Know what you are storing and keep it organized. Above all else, keep your home’s plumbing running optimally.  Schedule a yearly annual inspection to be sure your pipes are free of damage, and at the first sign of a backup or slow drain, get an expert to come check out the issue!

You can’t schedule an emergency, but you can schedule preventing one!


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