No one attending last month’s public meeting at Lawton Elementary looked happy to be there. Nor were they happy about the prospect of holes being dug in their basement and front yard. “My wife and I have lived in our house 30 years and never had a drop of water in the basement,” one man said. “Do I really need this?”
“This” is a citywide program to disconnect the footing drains in all houses from the sanitary sewer system. And the answer to his question is “yes” – because the city mandates it.
Much like the sidewalk replacement program, the effort to disconnect footing drains will span several years. But unlike the sidewalk replacement, which homeowners must pay for, the city is reimbursing costs of the drain disconnect – at least for now.
The program started in 2001 as a way to deal with chronic sewer backups in basements of some residential neighborhoods, caused during storms when stormwater would flood that sewer system. In older homes, footing drains – which are designed to divert ground water away from a house’s foundation – were often connected to the sanitary sewer system. With heavy rains, the system didn’t have the capacity to handle the additional rainwater. Sewage would back up into basements through floor drains. It wasn’t pretty
In 2000 and early 2001, a task force looked at several ways to address the problem, including expanding the capacity of the sewer system. The task force’s final recommendation – proposing a citywide footing drain disconnect – was based on cost (it would cost less to reimburse homeowners than to install larger sewer pipes or expand the wastewater treatment plant) and root cause (if the footing drains weren’t disconnected, the same phenomenon would continue). The disconnect applies to homes built before 1982 – that’s when city code changed to prohibit builders from connecting footing drains to the sanitary sewer system.
The program initially targeted five neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side, where basement backups were most acute: Bromley, Dartmoor, Glen Leven, Morehead and Orchard Hills. Within that area, over 1,300 homes have completed the disconnect – an estimated 1,600 remain to be done.
And then, of course, there’s the rest of the city.
Anne Warrow, project manager with the city of Ann Arbor, said the city has designated funds to reimburse homeowners for the disconnect work – up to $4,100 per household, which includes installing a sump pump. But it’s difficult to predict the future, she said. “That may change.”
Getting that reimbursement means following steps outlined at two public forums held last month and led by CDM Michigan Inc., a consulting firm hired by the city to manage this project. Justin Woods, an environmental scientist and project manager in the firm’s Ann Arbor office, said their role is to interact with homeowners and contractors who do the actual disconnect work.
The process works like this: Homeowners are notified by mail that they need to disconnect their home’s footing drain. (If you haven’t received a notice, they haven’t started work in your neighborhood.) Homeowners are asked to schedule a pre-inspection with CDM to determine what type of work needs to be done, such as where the sump pump should be located. The homeowner is responsible for getting a contractor – there are five contractors that are approved by the city to do this work. The contractor comes out and gives an estimate – if that estimate is higher than $4,100, the city requires getting a second estimate, and will approve the lower of the two amounts, even if it’s higher than $4,100.
When the city approves the estimate, the homeowner schedules the work with the contractor. The work itself usually takes three days, said Karen Duff, a CDM environmental engineer. When it’s finished, someone from CDM will do a final walkthrough.
If you get a notice and don’t respond, CDM will send you a reminder, then after two months they’ll send you another notice saying you have 90 days to complete the work. “As long as you’re working the program, we’ll work with you,” Woods said. But if you don’t respond, he said, you’ll start getting a $100 penalty each month, which will show up on your water bill. Plus, you’ll no longer be eligible for reimbursement from the city.
At a March 5 public forum, attended by about 50 people, many of the questions covered technical issues:
- How often does the sump pump run, and how much will it add to the electric bill? Woods: It’s variable, depending on how much ground water is being pumped. The electricity used is minimal, and also varies according to how often the pump runs. It could be as little as $1 extra a year.
- Has the city done before and after studies about radon levels when the sump pumps are installed? Warrow: No studies like that have been done, but the sump pumps authorized for purchase are all radon sealed.
- Is a back-up sump pump required? Woods: No, but if you lose power during a storm and you don’t have a battery-powered back-up sump pump, the water flowing into the sump won’t get pumped and could overflow into the basement. It depends, Warrow added – some homeowners say their primary sump pump never runs, so they probably don’t have much ground water flowing in and wouldn’t need a back-up. (This comment prompted murmurs among residents along the lines of “If the sump pump never runs, why did they have to install it in the first place?”)
- What kind of lawn damage will this cause, and who pays for that? Woods: The contractor is responsible for cleaning up and making sure there’s as little disturbance as possible. Worst case scenario would likely be a trench 1.5 feet wide by 3 feet deep, from the house to the connecting pipe by the street. “Contractors aren’t going to go to the flower store,” he said, “but they’ll work with you.”
- What about older basements that have asbestos tile? Woods: The contractors vetted by the city are all trained in handling asbestos.
One man said that a lot of people in the neighborhood had just replaced their sidewalks – would they now be torn up? Woods said that contractors go underneath the sidewalk to connect the pipe from the house to the city’s green curb-drain pipe. It shouldn’t have an impact on the sidewalk, he said.
Another man questioned why there were only two Ann Arbor contractors – Perimeter LLC and Hutzel Plumbing – on the list of five approved by the city. (The other three – RDC Residential Services, Landscape Construction and Bidigare Contractors – are all based in Plymouth.) Warrow said the contractors had to go through a strict qualification process, and Woods noted that “they all do good work.” The resident wasn’t satisfied: “My point is that I live in Ann Arbor, I pay taxes in Ann Arbor, and I would like to see a contractor in Ann Arbor get the money.”
To get an idea of what the footing drain disconnect looks like, we dropped by a house on Churchill, just south of Scio Church Road, where the work was being done by Richard Connors of RDC Residential Services. He and Bob Heligman were well along in the process when we arrived: In one corner of the basement, Heligman was using a jackhammer to break up the concrete floor where the sump pump would be installed. Rob Vedder, the electrician hired for this project, was installing a new electrical circuit, which is required for the sump pump.
Connors himself was on his knees, digging a hole from where the footing drain was connected to the sanitary sewer system. After disconnecting it, he would use an auger to drill a 5-inch diameter hole from that spot over to the sump pump – they’d push a pipe through that hole, which would allow ground water to flow from the footing drain to the sump pump.
Detailed descriptions of this process can be found on the city’s website page on footing drain disconntection. What follows is a photographic documentation of some of that process from The Chronicle’s onsite visit.