A backhoe driving through a small alleyway to dig up a sewer line at a Baltimore City rowhome

Repairing Sewer Lines in Small Row Home Yards

A Brief Introduction to Baltimore City’s Row Home Sewers

Baltimore is a city full of beautiful and vibrant row home neighborhoods. In Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, and Charles Village, there are magnificent townhomes with rich architectural details. Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Canton show off our city’s maritime history. In “newer” neighborhoods like Hampden, Remington, and Rodgers Forge, you’ll find tight-knit communities that thrive because of the row home culture. These neighborhoods are all distinctly different but share a common problem – access to repair the sewer lines in their narrow row home yards.

The age and layout of these row homes produce idiosyncrasies that appear when a repair is needed on their sewer lines. This idea is never more true than when a sewer line running through a backyard develops problems. It is common to find sewer lines throughout Baltimore’s backyards. Every one of them requires some work at some point. If you are facing this kind of problem with your home, you are not alone! This article gives an overview of how sewer lines in row home backyards are diagnosed and repaired.

What makes repairing sewers in row home yards difficult?

Sewer replacement and repair work in Baltimore city’s backyards requires tight access and hard work. Fences, garages, alleyways, and parking pads frequently crowd these spaces. Of course, these structures are merely on top of the real problem.

Accessing underground utilities

Most plumbing utilities, such as sewer and water pipes, are three or more feet deep. Digging down to the problem requires piling up a considerable amount of dirt somewhere in the yard during the project.  Heavy excavating equipment is necessary for the project to be done quickly and efficiently. Although seemingly a smaller job, repairing and replacing sewer lines in a row home yard can quickly become an involved project. Keeping such a repair on time and within a reasonable budget requires a thoughtful approach.

Here you can see the backhoe squeezing through the tight Baltimore alleyway

The benefits of old row home sewers

However, it isn’t all bad news. Some parts of the city have a sewer line feature that favors repair work.  That feature is the original cast iron pipe. As you may know from our sewer line repair page, cast iron pipe usually remains trouble-free even many decades after its original installation. It is common in the oldest parts of Baltimore to have cast iron pipe extend a significant way past the foundation and into the yard.

This is especially true throughout Baltimore’s older row home and townhouse neighborhoods that predate the existence of the city sewers! Because of their age, these neighborhoods’ rear yards still have the remnants of their original septic systems installed in the late 1800s. While none of these systems are still in use today, the original cast iron piping from the home to the area of the septic system near the property edge remains. This pipe is what utility contractors in the early 1900s tied onto when they started abandoning the old septic systems and bringing new sewer lines through Baltimore’s alleyways.

The Sewer Inspection Process For Row Homes

Unfortunately, the information in the article above does not apply to every job. Onsite conditions must be verified and discovered by performing a sewer camera inspection and locate if at all possible. The sample job referenced below is no different. This particular job was a backyard sewer line that a previous plumber had been unable to drain clean and had proposed a complete replacement. Our customer brought us in to provide a second opinion.

The Camera Inspection

During our initial camera inspection, we were able to push our camera almost to the rear edge of the property. However, we were not able to see much along the way.  A drain clean by the previous plumber was unable to provide more than temporary relief to the sewer backup. Because of this, the sewer line was still full of water, and a visual inspection of the problem was not possible. However, being able to push the camera that far inside the pipe smoothly was some indication that a significant portion of the sewer was in usable condition. While not guaranteeing a lack of problems, if a sewer camera can push through a pipe, there is a good chance that water and sewage can flow through it as well.

Finding a cleanout

Our next step was to search for a hidden exterior cleanout.  If we could find one, we could use our drain cleaning equipment closer to the problem. Being closer would increase the effectiveness of drain cleaning and possibly eliminate the problem without excavation. Even on older original sewer lines, it is not unusual to find an exterior sewer cleanout near the property’s edge. Since the problem area of the sewer was under a brick walkway, it would not be surprising to find that the cleanout had been lowered, or buried to make room for the walkway.

Over many years of repairing sewers, we have found that original cleanouts have a higher chance of root intrusion and other issues.

This probability comes from the location of cleanouts at transitions in the sewer line.  This transition could be between materials, such as from cast iron to terracotta. It could also be a transition in workmanship or quality, such as when the home builder’s plumber connected his pipe to the municipal sewer main and lateral piping.

These facts made this sewer a strong candidate for a small repair.  As such, we proposed an approximately 10-foot long repair with a new cleanout.  This is our standard option in this sort of situation.  Confining our work to a small area, allows us to minimize property disturbance as well as maximize the long-term improvement of the problem for our customers.

Repairing A Row Home Sewer in Baltimore City

The day of the repair required scheduling around street sweepers and alley trash collection — an issue unique to city projects. Thankfully, this narrow window between city services aligned with clear weather, and we were able to proceed with our plan and our work.        

As we excavated down to the location of the problem, we began pulling out the remains of the original septic system. Through this debris, we discovered a terracotta clay to cast iron pipe transition almost directly at the point we could not push our camera past. Roots from a nearby tree completely clogged this point as well as the next several sections of the terracotta pipe. This root blockage completely prevented the sewer line from draining and flowing.

Relieving the pressure on the backed up sewer line

Installing the new row home sewer

Thankfully we were able to find an open and usable pipe past this section of compromised piping directly at the property edge. After flow testing and inspecting both the cast iron pipe from the house and the municipal sewer leaving the property, we installed a new PVC pipe and cleanout between these two points. This new cleanout allows Baltimore City to maintain its section of sewer line between the property edge and the connection to the sewer main.

Since we tarped the rear yard before beginning any work cleanup was very straightforward. We were able to backfill, clean up, and complete the entire project within one day with very minimal disturbance to the rear yard. The majority of the brick walkway even managed to escape in one piece.

With the right investigation, planning, and equipment, every Baltimore sewer repair is possible. We always do our best to carefully balance the needs of your job while minimally disturbing your property.

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