Dana Tom had grown accustomed to the construction noises in front of his Hamilton Avenue home, sounds that lasted for 12 days last month as part of a 10-month city sewer sewer-main replacement project.
But the Palo Alto resident and Palo Alto Unified School District board member started asking questions when the city-funded private contractor approached his house and offered to replace his private sewer-lateral pipes without any prompting.
Such offers are common and permitted by the city, according to Debra Katz, communications manager at City of Palo Alto Utilities. But when to replace the laterals, and whether the homeowner or the city is responsible for paying, is where this sewer line gets blurry.
The key determinant is the property line, Katz said. The property line divides the city-owned sidewalk and street from the property owned by the homeowner, and is often marked by a cleanout point stamped with an "S."
Sewer laterals stretch from the large sewer main in the center of the street to the home sewer, according to the city utilities website. Homeowners must maintain the section of lateral pipe between the property line and the home sewer, including paying to fix or replace the pipes if necessary.
But sometimes the distinction between the homeowner-owned and city-owned sides of the sewer lateral is less clear, Katz said.
Occasionally, the city sewer main will be located on residential property or in an easement area, or a spot shared by the city and the homeowner. In these cases, the homeowner is responsible for the entire lateral up to the city sewer main.
In other instances, a sewer-lateral blockage can be located partially under a sidewalk. Here, the division of responsibility between the homeowner and city would be "situation-specific," Katz said.
"There are always exceptions and complications," she said.
No matter how complicated, frequent sewer problems are cause for homeowners to replace faulty pipes, not just maintain them, according to owner Max Weinbarth of Palo Alto Plumbing Heating & Air.
"Stoppages could create a flood in the house and damage the property," he said. "It could flood under the house and create sewer spills."
But costs can be substantial. Several estimates from Bay Area-based plumbers and Palo Alto residents placed most sewer-lateral replacement projects between $2,000 to $5,000-plus, depending on the scope of the project.
Weinbarth's most recent private sewer-lateral customer paid $4,500, or $100 a foot for 45 feet, to have the pipes cleared and two sewer cleanout points installed.
Prices of labor, parts, workers' compensation and other related materials also increase each year, he said, so waiting to replace sewer pipes could lead to a more expensive procedure in the future.
"The same sewer line five years ago might have cost $1,000 less," Weinbarth said.
But when lateral repair is necessary, city-funded private contractors are generally a "reasonable choice" that homeowners can take advantage of if desired, Katz said. (The City of Palo Alto does not endorse or encourage these offers, she clarified.)
Hamilton Avenue resident Charles Munger took advantage of the offer from K.J. Woods. His home, like some others on his block, is an older structure that still uses clay sewer pipes installed prior to World War II.
"We had had trouble with (sewer)lines inside the house and had replaced them to a point," Munger said. But with the rest of the old lateral still intact, he wondered if the large tree recently removed from his yard had damaged the pipe with its thick roots.
With the offer to scope and replace the pipes, "we thought, 'Why not?'" he said.
Tom, after much research, also chose to have his pipes examined by K.J. Woods. He will decide whether to replace his pipes after seeing the results.
"It was reassuring that the firm isn't just after unnecessary work," he said.
But homeowners who are concerned about the condition of their pipes need not schedule sewer checkups if no clogs have occurred, Weisbarth said.
"If you''re not having a problem, ... there''s plenty of things you can spend money on," he said. "Go on a vacation to Maui."
In fact, all Palo Alto residents will learn the condition of their private sewer laterals very soon via free citywide inspections. The Palo Alto Utilities gas-safety initiative, launched in April, plans to send miniature video cameras through every sewer pipe in Palo Alto.
The project intends to find crossbores, or intersections between sewer lines and gas lines. If left unnoticed, intersecting gas lines could be damaged by certain machinery used to alleviate clogged sewer pipes. This can lead to dangerous gas leaks.
Video camera inspections reveal all pipe blockages whether crossbores or clogs, Weisbarth said.
Residential inspections began on July 19 and will continue through December 2012. For more information, visit City of Palo Alto Utilities.
In any sewer emergencies, call the City of Palo Alto Utilities sewer crisis hotline at 650-496-6995.