Sewers: maintaining a critical infrastructure

Graphic depiction of sewer system, both private and public, in Shaker Heights

Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about sewers. Sure, we know they’re there somewhere. But the system is mostly out of sight, out of mind. Right? 

The City’s Public Works Department on the other hand, spends a lot of time thinking about – and working on – the City’s sewers. Over the past five years, the City has spent more than $13 million maintaining and repairing this critical infrastructure. In 2014, a “50-year” rainstorm hit Shaker Heights, causing widespread flooding, in part because the City’s decades old sewer system was overwhelmed by the volume of water produced by the storm. It was clear that the sewer system was in need of attention.

“Most systems are designed to last for 50 years,” explains Patricia Speese, the City’s director of public works. “Our sewers are 100 years old in some areas.” 

Sewers 101 

Shaker Heights, like all modern American cities, has two systems: the sanitary sewer system and the storm sewer system. The sanitary sewer handles waste water from inside your home: from dish water to bath water and everything in between. There are 110 miles of public sanitary sewer in Shaker Heights, which are maintained by the City.

After waste water leaves your home and enters the public sanitary sewer (see illustration), it flows – thanks to gravity – to either the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant in Cuyahoga Heights or the Easterly Wastewater Treatment Plant in Cleveland. These plants are two of three owned and operated by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. Here, waste water is treated and then discharged to Lake Erie. 

Read After the Flood from the summer 2022 issue of Shaker Life Magazine to learn more about the Lomond-Lynnfield Sanitary Sewer Overflow project that starts in 2023.

Watch the narrated slideshow Let's Talk Sewers by Director of Public Works Patti Speese. Video screen of Let’s Talk Sewers video

The storm sewer handles water outside your home, mostly rain and snow melt runoff from your roof and driveway. This system is designed to carefully transport storm water into area streams and rivers, including the Doan Brook, where it, too, eventually ends up in Lake Erie. 

There are also approximately 110 miles of public storm sewers in Shaker Heights. Storm water enters this system from drains on City streets, as well as from gutter downspouts and drains on private property. The maintenance of the public storm sewer system is also the responsibility of the City. 

The Homeowner’s Role

With more than 50 percent of the City’s sewer pipes on private, mostly residential, property, homeowners play a key role in helping to maintain the system. 

A typical Shaker home has two “service laterals,” which are small sewer pipes – generally six inches in diameter – that connect to the public sewer lines. One service lateral connects to the sanitary sewer and the other to the storm sewer. 

Shaker property owners are responsible for maintaining their service laterals up to the “test tee, AND INCLUDING THE TEST TEE” which is the point at which the private sewer meets the public sewer. The City maintains the laterals from the test tee to the main sewer in the street

Unless they’ve been replaced, a typical Shaker home has service laterals made of clay pipe, which are easily penetrated by tree roots. The City recommends homeowners clean their laterals every three to five years. If roots are present, laterals should be cleaned annually. A certified plumber can inspect a home’s laterals for proper water flow and complete any maintenance or repairs. 

Ongoing Work 

In the months following the 2014 storm, the City undertook a comprehensive review of the system, then developed a program to “restore and maintain what we have,” explains Speese, who says that replacing the system entirely would cost more than $600 million. 

This includes a stepped-up cleaning schedule. Catch basins – the drains in the street – are now cleaned on a five-year rotating basis (the City has approximately 3,500 of them); main lines are also cleaned on a similar five-year cycle. 

But it also includes a proactive repair program. “We’re making repairs as part of our street paving program,” says Speese. When a street is slated for paving, crews first clean the sewer lines, then inspect and repair them as necessary. 

Lastly, several larger sewer projects will help add capacity to the system, while also extending its life. This includes two SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) projects – funded in a 50/50 partnership with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District – as well as using new technology to line older pipes to give them a “longer structural life,” explains Speese. 

Still, there’s plenty of work to do before our sewer system is fully ready for its next 100 years. “We’re working hard to get to the point where the system is stable,” she adds. “But once we’ve achieved that, our system will always require care and attention, whether it’s routine maintenance or fixing pipes when they break.” 

Originally published in Shaker Life Magazine, Fall 2019.