When Friday’s powerful rainstorm hit Western New York, Matt and Stephanie Thomas noticed a peculiar odor emanating from their basement on Dupont Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.
“Our sump pump was running a lot more than we thought it should be,” said Stephanie Thomas, 26, who has owned the home south of Sheridan Drive with her husband since March 2011.
Roy’s Plumbing came out Monday morning and started digging. The young couple hoped it would be any easy fix, but the news only got worse.
“They found out it was more than clogged,” she said.
Their lateral sewer line extends all the way out past the middle of the street and drops at a 90-degree angle another 10 feet where it meets the main sewer line maintained by the town. Over time, the couple believes the ground shifted, cracking the vertical clay tile piping, which then filled with soil, causing the backup.
The Thomases’ problem is an increasingly common one as the region’s infrastructure ages. The City of Lackawanna, for example, has been dealing with sinkholes that left residents with repair bills in the thousands of dollars in some cases. The Town of Tonawanda is in the midst of major infrastructure updates, including the Parker-Fries project, which is only the first part of an anticipated decades-long, townwide sewer system update costing millions of dollars.
By Wednesday, Dupont Avenue was closed to through traffic, and a 16-foot-deep hole had been dug down to the main sewer line by an excavator parked between the sidewalk and road. A seven-foot-deep hole was dug in the Thomases’ small front yard to replace their lateral line with PVC pipe, leaving a large mound of dirt behind.
Now they’re on the hook for at least $13,500 they hadn’t anticipated. It’s money they had hoped to use as a down payment for a bigger house and to start a family. The couple feel any pipes beyond their property line is the town’s responsibility.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Stephanie Thomas, who works as a paralegal. “I just don’t feel like the part under the road that’s connecting down to the main is completely our responsibility.”
But the town sees it differently.
“The town’s perspective is that when a sewer is dug up and we find there’s problems with it, the homeowner is responsible for replacing it right to the saddle tap at the main,” said Carl Heimiller, the town’s supervising building inspector, who visited the site Tuesday.
That’s also true in Buffalo, where water supply line breaks are not uncommon and a water service line protection program is offered through a private company for a few dollars a month.
In the Thomases’ case, the Roy’s Plumbing crew also discovered that the sewer line from a home across the street ties into their line in an unusual configuration, Matt Thomas said.
The neighbors agreed to split the $7,000 cost of repairing that vertical portion of the line, he said. But that’s the line the Thomases contend should be covered by the town.
“It is not our fault the system was designed wrong, and we should not have to pay for their mistake,” Stephanie Thomas said.
Heimiller said it’s an “illegal connection” so the homeowners’ lines had to be separated. And it may not be unique to the Thomases’ home.
“I thought it was unusual but it appears that there might be more than that over there,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Thomases’ costs continue to add up. They’re hoping their homeowners insurance will cover some of the repairs.
“If that doesn’t work out, we talked about maybe taking out a home equity loan if we have to, or the plumbing guys have a payment plan so we’re going to try to work that out,” she said.
The crew will be back on Dupont Avenue today for a fourth day of work, which means another day the first-time homeowners are unable to use their laundry, bathroom or dishwasher.
“They really don’t want us pouring any liquids down the drain,” Stephanie Thomas said. “So it’s like camping basically in a tent.”