San Francisco Plumbing Nightmare
May 19, 2010 7:56 PM   Subscribe

San Francisco Plumbing Nightmare

I live on the ground floor (in the back of the garage, slightly below street level) of a three floor building in San Francisco. I have been having extensive and recurring plumbing issues, which involve either the toilet backing up, or the garbage disposal backing up into the shower. This happens about once a month, one time it was four times in one month. The landlord just calls a plumber to clear out the sewer pipe, but never takes any diagnostic action. I have been told everything from "You use too much toilet paper" to "Everyone in SF has this problem." The landlord claims it never happened before I moved in. But I know it's not my fault, because I just got home from a week out of town and the toilet is backed up again. Can anyone give me ideas of what the problem might be so I can give my landlord some suggestions?
posted by twiggy32 to Home & Garden (14 answers total)
No real plumbing expertise here, but just make sure you are not flushing kleenex or paper towels--those suckers will clog a toilet in no time flat.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:59 PM on May 19, 2010

I'm certainly no plumber, but when this happened at my house, yes, we had the plumber unclog the pipes a couple of times, and then it just became clear that a certain part of the piping had to be replaced. Over the years a lot of "gunk" had accumulated inside, and that narrowed the pipe, and that led to frequent clogs and back-ups. Ultimately it was way cheaper for us to have the guy spend 2 or 3 hours replacing that section than for him to keep coming out and charging us a smaller fee multiple times.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2010

Yeah most likely, knowing the age of many SF buildings, your pipes are old and likely either pretty permanently clogged or broken, grown through with roots etc. Which is pretty common in SF but not really an acceptable excuse.

Replacing is a very expensive proposition, so they try to get by with snaking etc, they probably need to run one of those camera thingies down the pipe to see where its effed.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:08 PM on May 19, 2010

Two thoughts: I've heard that this happens if tree roots are blocking the pipe from the house to the main line in the center of the street. And SF has combined storm/sewer pipes, so might it have something to do with the rain filling the pipes with stormwater? (I doubt it; I think the more likely scenario is sewage coming out of the storm drain, and was it even rainy this weekend?)
posted by salvia at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2010

Response by poster: Just a clarification, nothing at all goes down the toilet except for toilet paper and the obvious. No kleenex, no paper towels, no lady stuff. I have also cut down on the amount of toilet paper as much as possible.
posted by twiggy32 at 8:28 PM on May 19, 2010

As a SF resident without a bathtub full of sewage I'm pretty sure this doesn't happen to everyone.
posted by foodgeek at 9:11 PM on May 19, 2010

I believe in a rental unit in SF you can call DBI and make a request for an inspector to come and assess the situation.
posted by gubenuj at 9:33 PM on May 19, 2010

I live in SF and the landlord is giving you the runaround.

California Civil Code Sections 1941 and 1942 define a landlord's responsibilities for repairs. Civil Code Section 1941.1 requires landlords to provide the following:

* Effective waterproofing and weather protection of the roof and outside walls; unbroken doors and windows.
* Plumbing, electricity and gas facilities in good working order.
* A reasonable amount of hot and cold running water, and a sewage disposal system.
* Adequate and safe heating facilities.
* Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment which conforms with the applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.
* Floors, stairways and railings maintained in good repair.
* An adequate number of containers for garbage and rubbish.
* Buildings and grounds which are free of rubbish, garbage, rodents and other pests.

Read this. Luckily, SF is a pretty tenant-friendly organization and there are many resources available to you. MeMail me if you'd like any more specific advice/referrals.
posted by granted at 9:51 PM on May 19, 2010

tenant-friendly organization town
posted by granted at 9:52 PM on May 19, 2010


There's some good stuff above; I write separately only to say that the SF Tenants' Union may have good information or advice.
posted by tellumo at 10:23 PM on May 19, 2010

I'd bet the problem is that sewage from the rest of the three story building is backing up into your sewer lines (not necessarily coming out of your drains, however).

You say your are at the back of the building, so essentially all of the other sewage flows past the point where your sewer line enters the main pipe; if enough people are putting stuff down the drain at once, it could totally fill the pipe to a certain height, and the sewage would back up to that height in your drain pipes, leaving a deposit at he high water mark, so to speak, which then clogs things up.

Your apartment is probably not high enough above the main sewer pipe to build up enough pressure when your lines are full to force the waste which has backed up into your lines back into the main pipe.

Was your apartment there when the building was built, or did they add it on later?
posted by jamjam at 10:26 PM on May 19, 2010

We're certainly far from organized.
posted by ooga_booga at 10:27 PM on May 19, 2010

jamjam: I'd bet the problem is that sewage from the rest of the three story building is backing up into your sewer lines (not necessarily coming out of your drains, however).

I echo this sentiment. The people in the lower floors of my building in Brooklyn occasionally have backup issues, and it's from the system as a whole. We periodically have someone come and snake the line from the basement out to the sewer, which is where the clogs tend to collect. The key is that is has to happen regularly (we do quarterly, I believe), not just when there's a problem.
posted by mkultra at 8:41 AM on May 20, 2010

I am in SF and we had the same problem. Is there a tree outside your building, or nearby? A tree's roots had grown around our sewage pipes in the street and fractured them, so we had raw sewage coming up through the overflow pipes downstairs. We fixed the pipes, but were warned that the tree would keep growing and it might happen again in a few years. Sigh.

If you need a recommendation for a good plumber, MeMail me.
posted by vickyverky at 11:36 AM on May 20, 2010

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