|Crews at work at Cook's house.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. And in the downtown TC neighborhood, root masses are growing from street-side oaks and their woody brethren, invading and disabling residential sewer pipes. Just ask Bill Cook.
The TC man recently found that not only had roots invaded the pipe draining from his home to the city sewer system but also he was financially responsible for the maintenance and repair of that line.
To blame: a 16-foot long mass of tree roots – “like threads,” he tells The Ticker, “interwoven [like] a huge hairball of roots.” The old clay pipe collapsed during the root’s removal, necessitating an all-new pipe, the shutting down of Cass Street near his home for two days, and a $12,000 repair bill.
Joe Williams, owner of Williams and Bay Pumping, says what Cook experienced isn’t unusual. “Sewer lines are like the human body. The older they get, the weaker they get. Where they connect, joints start to decay, the integrity fails, you get cracks and holes – and roots are looking for water,” he says.
The majority of the sewer lines running below TC’s neighborhood’s are, like Cook’s, made of clay. “It’s got a strength, but it’s brittle,” Williams says. “Over time, the ground moves, those pipes can shift and separate a bit, just enough for a root to start in there.”
Tim Lodge, city engineer for Traverse City, said the prevalence of the clay pipes in the downtown Traverse City area isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster. There are many factors that can affect performance or stability of the sewer pipes, including the type of pipe, its level of corrosion, number of cracks, and the proximity and type of trees.
“Clay tiles may not [be affected] if there aren’t any trees close enough,” he says.
If there are … ? Hopefully it’s not willow tree.
“Willow trees thrive on water,” says Williams. “The roots grow from all trees, maple, oaks, but willow is one that really thrives on it.”
Both Lodge and Williams agree age is a key factor to any pipe’s integrity.
The city’s first wastewater treatment plant didn’t come into being until 1933; many of the pipes in the downtown area were laid before it.
“More and more, every year as it ages, I see more and more spots,” says Williams. But he adds that TC isn’t alone. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but probably for every $1 million of repair needed [in cities around the nation], municipalities are spending $100. It’s just so expensive to lay all that infrastructure.”
So who is responsible? Homeowners or the city? Lodge says the city’s ordinances spell out exactly who’s responsible for what along the lines. Essentially, any pipes connecting home plumbing to the main sewer lines are the responsibility of the homeowner.
Water/Wastewater Maintenance Superintendent Justin Roy says that from 2006 to 2011, the TC sewer department fielded an average of 74 calls per year.
“Eighty percent of those calls," he says, "were the homeowner’s responsibility."