Illegal sump pumps a sticky problem for Northern Utah cities

Friday , February 17, 2017 - 5:30 AM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Ken Rentmeister has been in the plumbing business for 23 years. And in all that time, he’s never seen a run on sump pumps like this.

“It’s been wild,” the owner of Ken Rentmeister Plumbing said. “We’re only a two-man crew, but in the last week and a half, we’ve stuck in 18 sump pumps. And that doesn’t even count the 30 or 40 other calls we got that I had to refer to somebody else because we just couldn’t get to them.”

So then, how does this compare to the typical demand he sees for sump pump installations?

“Over the last 10 years?” Rentmeister said. “Maybe three. This has just been insane.”

RELATED: Weather, illegal sump pumps to blame for northwestern Weber sewer overflow

Sump pumps are often used in homes that are prone to basement flooding. A hole is dug in the house’s foundation, and a sump pump installed. When groundwater seeps into the hole, the pump carries the water away from the house and out into the yard, gutter or storm drain, preventing the basement from flooding.

With all the flooding in the past week in Northern Utah, illegal sump pumps are being blamed for raw sewage bubbling up through the sewer line and into dozens of Northern Utah homes.

RELATED: Amid widespread flooding concerns, Farr West folks wrestle with backed up sewage

David Espinoza, the public works director for North Ogden City, said it’s not that sump pumps are illegal, but rather where the groundwater they pump is going.

“It has everything to do with where you’re discharging it,” Espinoza said.

When residents install sump pumps, they’re tempted to hook up the pump to the sewer line in their homes, according to Espinoza.

“They’re seeing the sewer cleanout right there, and it’s very accessible,” he said. “So they’re tying these drain lines into the sewer cleanouts, and that’s illegal. You can’t put those storm drain lines into our sewer.”

The additional groundwater pumped into the sewer system overtaxes those sewer pipes and sends sewage spilling into homes in low-lying areas.

“What’s happening is Central Weber (Sewer Improvement District) can take every bit of legal flow, but when we put all this flood water into the system, they can’t take it anymore and it causes those kinds of backups,” Espinoza said. 

He says it’s “at the bottom of the hill” where they’re seeing the most problems with this. The end of the sewer line at the lowest point fills up first, which is why so many houses out west are dealing with sewer backups.

“We get kind of lucky because we’re on a hill, but we understand it’s our problem as well,” Espinoza said.

Farr West Mayor Z. Lee Dickemore says that between the general flooding and the toilets overflowing, it’s been a long week for residents of his city. They’ve suffered much of the brunt of the overburdened Central Weber sewer system.

Dickemore did say that the people of his city have been pulling together, and that they’ve been reasonably understanding.

“People who’ve had issues have been really pleasant,” he said. “Of course they’re upset, but they have been really good to us in the city.”

Dickemore echoes the sentiment that discharging sump pumps into the sewer system is illegal. But he also admits it’s something that’s incredibly difficult to police.

“We can’t knock on doors and ask to see their sewer hookup,” he said. “It’s kind of on the honor system.”

Dickemore said he’s currently got the city attorney looking into what the city might be able to do about enforcement.

“I think we’ve done as much as we can to educate people,” Dickemore said. “Hopefully, it’s sinking in. … We need to police our own homes, making sure we’re taking care to do things the way we should.”

Espinoza says that’s the talk right now in his city as well — what can be done to curb illegal sump pumps. He said the city has gotten a few calls from residents asking if they do have an illegally connected sump pump, what’s the penalty, and how much time do they have to disconnect it.

That part’s a bit murky.

Jay Palmer, public works director for Pleasant View City, says he knows people connect sump pumps illegally, but there’s not much that can be done.

“It’s pretty hard,” he said. “We can’t go into somebody’s house, so it’s extremely hard to enforce. There’s never been any enforcement that I know of.”

North Ogden is wrestling with that problem as well.

“In our code it says you can’t do that, but we need to get together to determine what is the punishment for this,” he said. “A lot of these homeowners don’t even know — if they didn’t put it in themselves, they have no idea where their sump pump is draining.”

Mike Bachman, owner of Mike Bachman Plumbing, says the issue of how to dissipate water from one’s property has long been a sticky problem.

“Where else are you going to pump it,” Bachman asks. “If you pump it outside, it just comes back in. They used to let us run it to the curb, but some cities don’t allow that anymore.”

Bachman recalls a similar situation three or four years ago out in Roy. There was a heavy, wet snowfall, followed by warm temperatures and rain.

“There was water coming out of people’s toilets back then, too,” he said. “I think I even had more calls then than now.”

Rentmeister says he frequently gets customers asking him to hook their sump pumps to the sewer line. His answer?

“No way,” he said. “My license is worth way more than whatever you’re trying to pay me for the job.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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