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Homebuyers advised to get video of sewer lines beforehand

by: Merry MacKinnon, Maintenance workers from Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (B.E.S.) repaired a sewer line in Woodstock after tree roots intruded into the pipe. Video inspections often reveal such problems.

It may not pay to have your mind in the gutter, but it doesn't hurt to put a camera in your sewer!

Several months ago, as part of the sale of a house in Woodstock, an excavating company was hired to do a pre-mortgage video sewer inspection. Snaking through the pipe, the camera picked up images of roots from a large Catalpa tree in the parking strip poking into the sewer pipe.

When roots break into sewer lines, among other problems, they can cause a sewage backup into the home. So, as part of the sales agreement with the buyer, this particular Woodstock homeowner arranged to repair a section of the line running from the house to the parking strip.

More and more such inspections are occurring, according to Chris Rugloski of Ted McBee Boring and Excavating, Inc. 'It's pretty common, especially inside Portland, because a lot of these sewers are antique, and in a decaying state,' Rugloski explained. 'More realtors are wise to this, and are advising their clients to have the inspections.'

In front of the Woodstock house in question, roots had also intruded into the sewer pipe section from the parking strip out to the middle of the street, the part of a sewer line for which Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services has responsibility.

So, recently, five workers from the city spent a day on the street by that house in Woodstock, replacing the old terra cotta sewer line with new polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe.

'Anytime I see terra cotta, I usually think of the 1920s,' said Jeff Jewett, Environmental Services Utility Worker, as he peered into the trench the workers had dug.

A lot of the Woodstock neighborhood, and elsewhere in Inner Southeast Portland, has terra cotta sewer pipes, Jewett said, adding, 'Terra cotta may not seem so enduring, but the material actually is durable over time. The main problems occur when the clay fractures, and when the concrete that is used as mortar for the pipe joints deteriorates.

'Terra cotta holds up well,' Jewett said. 'It's the joints that usually fail.'

When a crack appears or joints fail, if a tree is nearby, its moisture-seeking roots eventually push their way through the opening. Then, when city maintenance workers or a private contractor sends a camera through the pipes, they often see roots at the Y-head or lateral joints.

'Roots mean joints are open, and then the household system backs up,' Jewett said. 'That happens quite a bit.'

Another problem with sewer lines occurs when the pipes are made out of concrete, a common practice in Southeast neighborhoods developed in the '60s, Jewett said. 'Those newer communities used concrete, and concrete is terrible,' Jewett remarked. 'It gets brittle.'

Meanwhile, at the house in Woodstock, the pipe was replaced, the trench was filled, and the workers went home - their job completed by 5 pm. 'Everything went very smoothly,' assured Utility Crew Leader Kevin Kimble.