If you compare the frustrations of a flooded basement with those of a backed-up sewer, the sewer would probably win—by a nose!
Backups can occur for various reasons: pipe blockages, damaged sewer lines (especially in old homes), tree roots breaking into pipes…the list goes on.
Dealing with a backed-up sewer is not a pleasant task, given the stench and the matter that is potentially hazardous to your health. Sewage is comprised of both organic and inorganic matter, a mixture of water, human waste, mineral salts and garbage that can leak into the home when there is a problem with the underground plumbing designated to carry wastewater away.
The organic matter in raw sewage can emit odorous gases and contain pathogens that are dangerous to human health. If your sewer backs up into the basement—or elsewhere—it needs to be cleaned up immediately.
Once you realize that there is a water backup, check all of your sinks, toilets and wastewater pipes to determine if and where there are any blockages. Clear the blockage if you can; if you can’t, call a plumber. Try not to use your sinks or toilets until the blockage is cleared. A blockage in the main sewer line could lead to water backing up into your tub or your basement.
Never enter your basement when there is standing water present until the power is shut off—electrocution can be the result when electricity and water mix. If you need to shut off the power yourself and can do so safely, take precautions:
Open some windows in the flooded area to allow fresh air into the rooms and fumes to escape. You can also add a bit of bleach to any standing water to provide some disinfection. Be sure to keep children and pets away from the affected area.
In addition, document the damage by taking photos with your cellphone or camera. Your home insurance may cover a water backup, and you want to be able to illustrate the initial impact and the resulting damage. Don’t forget to call your insurance agent to report the problem.
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Once the blockage has been cleared and/or the pipes repaired, the waters should recede and allow for cleanup. It’s a thankless task that you may choose to leave to professionals, but you can certainly tackle it yourself. When dealing with untreated sewage, it’s wise to wear protection over your mouth, nose, and eyes. A surgical mask and safety glasses will do. After cleaning, wash the clothes you are wearing and shower or bathe to prevent any harm to your body.
As you clean, start from the top and work your way down, hosing off furniture and walls to remove any clinging dirt. Wash all surfaces, including floors, with warm or hot water and a low suds detergent.
To sanitize these surfaces, mix four parts water, one part chlorine bleach and a small amount of non-ammonia dishwashing liquid to clean all surfaces. Never use ammonia with chlorine bleach—the mixture produces toxic fumes. Rinse thoroughly and repeat as needed. Be carful not to track the dirt into unaffected areas of the house.
After sewage invades your home, you’ll wonder about which of your belongings it’s safe to keep and which should be thrown away.
As you evaluate, consider how porous the surfaces or items are and what their permeance factor (the rate at which a surface allows moisture to spread into it) might be. The more porous, the higher the permeance factor and the more necessary it is to discard the item so it doesn’t contaminate your home.
Items that shouldn’t be kept include carpet pads, carpets, cardboard boxes, books, mattresses, laminate flooring, unpainted drywall and cloth upholstery. Clothing and toys should be discarded unless they are cleaned and disinfected.
Semi-porous materials can generally be salvaged if you treat them immediately. These include cabinets, vinyl upholstery and wall coverings and painted drywall.
As for non-porous materials, they can almost always be saved, depending on how long they have been soaked by raw sewage. If the sewage is present for a while, there’s a greater chance that black mould could grow. Take care of these materials within a few hours of the damage, or they won’t be salvageable. The list of these materials includes tile, concrete, Formica and linoleum.
Naturally, preventing this disaster from ever occurring again will be top of mind. Prevention can be as easy as installing a backwater valve or sewer backup valve. This is installed on your sewer line and is designed to prevent sewage flow from entering your house. Although no one wants to deal with a water backup and the subsequent cleanup, if it happens, it’s important to take the necessary steps to restore your home to its former glory.
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