Cate Rowe was doing yardwork when something in the ground came a-bubblin’ up, and it sure wasn’t Texas tea.
“I pulled out a weed that made the entire brickwork in the backyard collapse in on itself, and I just had standing water underneath a layer of bricks,” she recalled.
That was Rowe’s introduction to the sewer party line. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone, even though your home could be affected. If you do know, it’s probably because you shelled out thousands of dollars for a fix, or, perhaps, have gone to war with a neighbor.
In Rowe’s case, the sewer party line actually helped promote neighborhood unity, but it still cost thousands of dollars to fix.
Sewer party lines are shared lines hooking two or more homes to sewer mains. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century builders dug single trenches to contain sewer, gas and water lines. They plied to “no rhyme or reason,” although are most common in the row homes of Allison Hill and Midtown, said Harrisburg Codes Enforcement Director David Patton.
Sewer party lines are “problematic,” he said. “The lion’s share of party lines go out the back and collect from home to home to home and go out an alley or street. Anywhere we see common walkways that go into the back, you always have to be suspect.”
Rowe loves her circa-1861 row home in lower Midtown, the one with the gasp-worthy curving staircase.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said, “but it’s home.”
She bought the house in December 2015, blissfully unaware of the sewer lines shared with the conjoined homes on the block and with the 2nd Street-facing converted apartments to the rear. The problem manifested itself when a backup created pressure that pushed her home’s connection off the party line. While an adjoining neighbor got raw sewage in his basement, Rowe was getting backup pushed from other houses into her backyard.
“Great tomatoes last summer, but disgusting,” she joked.
Capital Region Water was “fantastic in getting me information,” but as many have discovered to their consternation, the sewer hookups known as laterals are the homeowner’s responsibility.
“They are private lines built by private entities, and they’ve been private ever since,” explained CRW Community Outreach Manager Andrew Bliss.
The city can declare a house uninhabitable due to raw sewage infiltration and, in those cases, try to force replacement of a party line with individual laterals.
“But there’s really not a lot we can do because they’re considered private,” said Patton. “It’s based on the owners coming together to figure it out.”
CRW helped Rowe find her “sewer card”—“like old-school, hand-drawn cards,” Bliss said—in the Harrisburg City Codes office, available for some homes where known sewer work has been conducted.
“Once we get that information, it’s pretty much up to the customer, if they’re on a party line, to work with their neighbors to resolve the issue,” said Bliss. “As you can expect, it can be very tough, especially if you have neighbors that aren’t willing to cooperate, or if the house is vacant.”
In an ideal world, neighbors cooperate and share costs.
Rowe paid for her repairs. A neighbor hired the same plumber to install an access point in his yard, allowing easy access to flush or scope a line. When a problem threatened this summer, all agreed to split the cost of a flushing, but the blockage cleared on its own.
In fact, Rowe said that the problem, however unpleasant and unwelcome, actually drew her and her immediate neighbors closer together. Dealing with the sewer party line has kept them attuned to their common interests, she said.
“The four of us on this block, we have great communication,” she said. “There’s no issue.”
That doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly.
One landlord to the rear “was swearing to me up and down that there was no problem,” Rowe said. But she knew that a neighboring apartment house was having problems, and she believes that tenants are reluctant to report problems. If someone doesn’t want to pitch in $20 to help pay for a line cleaning, she knows there’s nothing she can do.
“That’s part of living in the city,” she said. “You deal with the neighbors.”
In some cases, neighbors don’t cooperate, refusing to share costs or take responsibility, said several sources.
“I’ve seen people move because they didn’t want to deal with it anymore,” said Brian Wizzard of Wizzard Drain Cleaning, based in Lower Paxton Township.
He is Rowe’s plumber, “kind of on call,” she said.
Some neighbors simply can’t afford the drill-clean via auger or the high-pressure “sewer jet” needed to clear a line, Wizzard said.
“I try to do it as price-friendly as I can, because there’s a lot of people in the city who just can’t afford to do a lot of things,” he said.
Property owners with sewer mains running in front of their homes can reroute their lateral lines.
“But it’s not always that easy,” said Bliss. “If you don’t have a sewer main in front of your house, it’s more expensive to run it to the main.”
How expensive? Repairs can cost $5,000 to $10,000, and direct-line construction can be “in that ballpark but slightly more,” depending on the variables, said Bliss.
Patton noted that switching lines to the front also requires rerouting the interior plumbing, adding to the cost. And, making the process even more fun, augers meant to clean party lines often can’t navigate the curving, whole-house traps in many old-home basements.
Wizzard doesn’t know of any insurance company willing to cover party lines. If one neighbor treats the plumbing responsibly but the family next door is “flushing diapers and all kinds of crazy stuff, the insurance will be paying to fix somebody else’s problem,” he said.
Rowe spent nearly $3,000 to reconnect her line and basically evacuated her home for a week.
“I was lucky,” she said. “Three thousand dollars didn’t break me, but for a lot of people, it does. You can’t live in your home. You can’t use the water. You can’t shower. You can’t wash dishes. You can’t do laundry. It is a fundamental need. I can only imagine there are a number of neighborhoods where this is going unchecked, and it’s waiting to be a real emergency.”
Rowe sees a public health matter deserving city education efforts about potential problems and warning signs. She would also like to see “some sort of subsidy for people to get off the party line.”
“The infrastructure is old,” she said. “It’s not reliable. It’s unpleasant.”
The “two worst enemies” of sewer party lines are so-called “flushable” wipes—they’re not really flushable—and tampons, Wizzard said.
“Most people just don’t know they shouldn’t do it,” he said. “They do it anyway, and they find out once it causes a problem, and then it’s too late.”
Bliss also pointed an accusatory finger at grease poured into drains, trapping foreign objects as it cools. Rowe grew up with well water, so she’s “never been reckless” about flushing forbidden objects, she said.
“Everyone is guilty of flushing something that shouldn’t go down there at some point in their lives,” she said “If you have someone who doesn’t know, how are they going to know any better?”
If the party line is working well, “life goes on,” Patton said. But a sure sign of trouble is a backed-up washing machine, suddenly incapable of pumping out large amounts of water in a short time.
Homeowners can find that sewer party lines are “a little bit of a pain, but there’s a lot of them out there,” said Wizzard.
“You have to hope you have a decent neighbor, and you don’t have somebody causing you major, major grief, that’s all,” he said.
In that, blessed with good neighbors, Rowe was lucky indeed.