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Across Ontario, communities are experiencing more severe weather, especially intense rainfalls. They are putting extreme stress on our sewer systems, leading to an increase of sewer backup-related incidents in Canada. A sewer backup and the resulting water damage is the number one insurance claim in Canada, and costs vary widely. With that in mind, let’s look at what causes a sewer backup, how to prevent it, early warning signs, and why a sewer backup endorsement added to your home policy can save you money.

What is Sewer Backup (SBU)?

Sewer backup, also referred to as SBU, happens when wastewater flows back into your home from city/municipal sewer lines. Sudden downpours, melting snow, or heavy rain falls can overburden sewers and stormwater infrastructure. This can lead to water damage caused by sewage backup into your basement. It can be a serious problem, given the fact that you get a lot of water mixed with dirt and bacteria flowing back into your home. Dealing with a sewer backup can quickly become a costly undertaking because it requires professional training and equipment to correct.

Causes of sewer backup

The causes of sewer line backups are more specific than those that cause general water damage. In most cases, they are directly related to weather events or if you live in low-lying areas or valleys. Here are five main causes to these incidents:

  1. Tree roots: Tree roots can grow into your pipes and cause holes and blockages. They can also wrap around your sewer line and crush the pipes.
  2. Sump pump malfunction: Excessive water in a short period of time can cause it to stop working correctly. Poor maintenance can also cause your sump pump to malfunction.
  3. Weather: Heavy rainfall, sudden downpours, and even a fast winter thaw can bring more water into the sewer than it can handle, causing it to back up into your home.
  4. Obstructions: Sewer lines can become clogged, just like your drains. When they do, the sewage needs to go somewhere, and it’s usually into your home.
  5. Sewer lines: As homes age, they tend to experience collapsed lines. Over time, older cast iron and clay pipes will break down, creating backup issues.

Should you be concerned?

Sewage backups are among one of the worst plumbing problems because of the risk that they present to homeowners and residents. Sewage can spread illness, disease, and even cause death. The National Resources Defense Council reports that nearly 2 million cases of illnesses are caused by sewage contamination each year. Here are a few of the most common substances that are found in sewage:

  • Contaminants (gasoline, oil, road salts, household detergents and cleaners)
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Pesticides
  • Residuals from pharmaceutical drugs
  • Fungi and protozoan

Coming into contact with some of these contaminants can make you ill and send you to the emergency room. Having sewage back up in your home is a risk, and you’ll need to call a plumber immediately.

Signs you may be at risk for sewer backup 

You should call a licensed plumber if you see any of the following:

  • Basement toilet backing up
  • Sewage backup in bathtub
  • Sewage backing up in basement drain
  • Toilet won’t flush after rain and plunging doesn’t help
  • Foul smell from drains
  • If your toilet or sink “bubbles” more than once
  • Back to back toilet clogs
  • Several plumbing fixtures drain slowly (or are clogged)
  • The washing machine doesn’t drain or backs up into the toilet or bathtub

What is sewer backup coverage?

Sewer backup coverage or ‘endorsement’ is an extension to your regular home, tenant or condo insurance policy. Claims that involve sewage are not included in a standard home insurance policy. When you add a sewer backup endorsement to your policy, it will pay to repair damage to your home and contents from sewer backup, minus the deductible you select on your policy. Many insurance companies impose special limits or conditions upon their policies, to reduce the amount they need to pay with incidents of SBU. Intact Insurance, for example, requires a $2,000 deductible onto any sewer backup claim you might have, regardless of the deductible on the rest of your policy. The best way to know what conditions are placed on your policy is to ask your isure broker, who will know the specifics regarding your insurance company.

What is covered with sewage backup coverage?

 Your policy will cover you if the damage is caused by one of the following:

  • Backup or discharge from a sewer, septic tank, or storm drain
  • Incidental damage from sewer backups, including the cost of cleaning or replacing walls, flooring, and furniture
  • Overflow from a sump pump, or other related equipment

Should I get sewer backup coverage?

Sewer backup coverage is useful if you live in low-lying areas, especially if your area has combined storm and sanitary sewers. Before purchasing sewer backup insurance, you should consider:

  • Neighbourhood density relative to the size of your sewer line
  • Frequency of severe weather in your neighbourhood, and how often sewer backups have been reported
  • Your neighbourhood is older and has an aging sewer system
  • You have a lot of trees and shrubs, whose roots may cause blockages in sewer lines
  • The pipeline system carries both sewage and stormwater
  • You live in a valley or other low-lying region

For more information about your coverage options, speak with one of our isure representatives to see if your home falls into one or more of these categories.

What is the cost of sewer backup coverage?

If you live in an area that is prone to flooding, then the costs of adding an endorsement or rider for SBU more than outweighs the cost of cleanup. Repair and clean-up costs can easily add up to $10,000 or more.

The average cost of adding sewer backup coverage to your insurance policy can be anywhere between $150-$300 per year. However, it depends on where you live. In an area with a high frequency of claims (such as Black Creek and Eglinton in Toronto), the yearly cost can be as high as $700. If you don’t have a sewer backup valve or backflow preventer installed, you should add sewer backup insurance to your home insurance quotes to help cover the costs of a flooded basement.

Preventing water damage to your home

Taking steps to prevent sewer backups can reduce the odds of dealing with a basement full of sewage water. Here are some preventative measures you can take:

Prevention in the home

  • Maintaining your drains can prevent clogs
  • Avoid putting anything other than toilet paper in the toilet
  • Avoid pouring potentially harmful substances down the drain, such as grease or coffee grinds
  • Get your sump pump serviced every few years to make sure clogs are not developing and it is running efficiently
  • Address plumbing issues right away
  • Use garbage disposal correctly – run water before and after use to wash food waste away

Prevention outside your home

  • Choose a home on high ground and take note of whether your property will have large trees whose roots can cause plumbing issues
  • Ensure downspouts are at least three feet away from your house, ideally six feet
  • Use grass or flowerbeds instead of concrete when landscaping
  • Consider rain barrels
  • Ensure your downspouts and weeping tiles are not connected to the city main drain

Install a backwater valve

A backwater valve (sometimes called a backflow or sewer backup valve) is a valve you can install on your sewer line and is designed to allow water or sewage to only flow out of your house. Anytime there is a sudden heavy rainfall, the city sewer lines can become overwhelmed, causing water or sewage to flow back towards your home. If there is a sewer system backup, and you have a backwater valve in place, sewage will not be able to flow back into your house.

Tip: Check for subsidy programs through your city. Here is Toronto’s program that offers $3,400 for a backwater valve and a sump pump.

Install a sump pump

A sump pump sucks water in and shoots it out into the soil below the basement. Check them regularly, as they typically last only 10-15 years.

Check your sewer drains

For about $99, you can inspect your drains with a professional plumber using a camera. The plumber can also “snake” your drain to clear them out and look for holes or obstructions, like tree roots.

In conclusion

A flood of sewage into your basement is dangerous to your health and costly to repair. Prevention is the best strategy. Talk to one of our knowledgeable isure brokers to explore your insurance needs and determine if sewer backup coverage is right for you. This inexpensive policy can make a huge financial difference when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of a sewer backup in your home.

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