You probably don’t give a whole lot of thought to flushing your toilet. But where, exactly, does that sewer water go? Whenever you drain your sink, end your shower, hear the dishwasher cycle end, or notice the washing machine finishes spinning, the water used generally flows out into the local municipal sewer system.
Releasing wastewater directly into the environment would be harmful, dangerous, and just...gross. That’s why sewer systems and water treatment facilities are necessary, as they carry out the complex task of handling wastewater from homes, businesses, and industries and prepare it for safe and sanitary release back into the environment.
Water and Sewer System
Wastewater initially flows from a home or building’s plumbing system into a sewer main that flows into progressively larger pipes until it reaches a wastewater treatment plant. Treatment plants are often located in low-lying areas so that gravity can do its job to keep water flowing. Once treated, the water makes its way back into local waterways, ready for drinking water, irrigation, and all the fish and wildlife traveling down local rivers.
Unfortunately, all manmade systems, including sewage systems, can malfunction or break, leading to sewage backups and other unpleasant scenarios. Since almost every home and building has a sewer system, it’s worth understanding the basics of sewer line installation, the common problems associated with sewers, and the standard repairs that need to be made.
This article will highlight the water and sewer industry, from its initial construction stage to everyday maintenance and repairs when needed. We also highlight the personal protective equipment (PPE) required by workers to keep the sewer systems functioning.
Water and Sewer Industry
In neighborhoods and urban environments, a sewer system collects and transports wastewater to a wastewater treatment facility. However, before that can happen, someone has to design and construct the system itself. That task falls to the water and sewer construction industry, NAICS 237110. This coded number allows the government to classify all business activities within this sector, helping workers and suppliers better understand the industry. According to IBISWorld, the water and sewer industry produces over $45 billion in economic activity each year, with over 15,000 companies performing different work types within the network.
Water Treatment Plant
Here is a breakdown of where most water and sewer businesses are found:
- Water Mains and Infrastructure – 31%
- Sewer Line Construction – 23%
- Sewage and Water Treatment Plants – 21%
- Highway Construction – 7.6%
- Building Construction – 6.1%
Water Is Cleaned in Multiple Ways
Activities performed by companies across the different sectors include:
- Capping wells
- Sewage collection
- Constructing storm sewers
- Cleaning tanks and filters
- Water sampling
- Water well installation
Water Main Construction, the Top Sector Within the Industry
And, within every industry, it is the people who make it all possible. Constructing and maintaining sewer lines requires many different workers for municipal and residential systems. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports over 53,500 people finding employment in the U.S. in this sector.
Here are the top five occupations within the industry:
- Wastewater Plant Operators – 14,900
- Maintenance and Repair – 3,080
- Pipelayer and Plumbers – 1,600
- Construction Laborers – 1,300
- Mechanics – 1,200
There are 5,280 total construction jobs, encompassing all the construction trades involved in building sewer lines. Sewer systems require laborers to handle processes like excavation, transportation of sewer pipes, pipe connection, and other vital steps. Most of these construction-based activities occur during the initial installation of a sewer system.
Septic Tank System vs. Sewer
We spend much of this article highlighting the construction and installation of sewer lines because it focuses on the NAICS code mentioned above. However, it’s important to note that septic tank systems are in the same realm as sewer lines. They both are responsible for wastewater drainage and sanitation. However, sewer lines are maintained by governments, and septic tanks are privately owned systems that fall under NAICS 562991.
Emptying the Septic Tank
Don’t worry; if you’re a company or individual responsible for the maintenance, the personal protective equipment (PPE) mentioned below is still applicable.
A commercial sewer project starts with civil engineers and other planners sketching blueprints and devising a plan to install, maintain, or expand sewer pipes and other components. After the planning stage and the surveying of the land for elevation is complete, the next stage is similar across all construction projects. As we highlight in our Construction Phases article, stage 1 of most projects involves excavation and site preparation, including removing debris and leveling the area.
Using the elevation data from the survey, a trench is then dug with a precise slope: a 2 foot drop every 100 feet. This exact slope formula allows the many pipes and components of a sewer system to employ the help of gravity to move things along. After excavating the trenches and laying bedding, pipes are installed. Laterals, which are sewer pipes that connect a house or another building to the main sewer line, are installed by construction workers.
After sewer pipes are installed and joined one section at a time, inspection and backfilling of the trenches round out the project. The pipe system is then tested and checked for obstructions and other problems.
Sewer Line Problems
Sewer lines are, unfortunately, prone to various problems and malfunctions due to aging pipes and systems, improper use and treatment, and environmental changes. It’s why over 4,000 workers in this industry are either in maintenance or are mechanics.
Here’s a look at some common issues.
The main sewer line transports all wastewater from your house, including water from toilets, showers, sinks, and so on. If you flush your toilet and water appears in your bathtub or shower, you might have a clogged main sewer line. Such clogs are unlikely to be caused by minor blockages. They’re often caused by hair, grease, and other robust or inorganic materials that should never be put down the drains.
Backups commonly occur after periods of heavy rainfall as the water is trying to drain but drainage pipes are blocked with debris.
Sewage contains bacteria and other microorganisms that can cause infection. If your sewer lines are experiencing backups or clogging, you might want to consider calling a handyman to fix the problem, which we outline in our Handyman Services article.
Broken pipes and sewer lines present a potentially severe problem to any building. Slow-draining water, varying water levels in your toilet, odd smells or sounds, and excess water and mold in and around your house or property could indicate a breakage.
If there is any hint you’re dealing with a broken pipe, you’ll want it fixed quickly. Leaking water can lead to mold that grows and begins damaging the structure itself. How can you tell if there is a broken pipe? Outside of seeing water collecting somewhere, an infestation of cockroaches and other insects can indicate a broken pipe. They love sewage water!
Trees growing near underground sewer lines tend to send out feeder roots that search for nutrients. Sewer pipes are filled with water and organic material, which attracts these roots. Pipe seams and clay pipes are especially prone to tree root invasions that ultimately cause cracks, backups, and pipe damage.
Sewer problems stink! And, when that smell lingers, most people realize some form of repair is required.
Repairing sewer lines and drain pipes can be either a straightforward or complex task depending on the problem. Relining or replacement of cracked sewer pipes is common. Sewer line repair typically aims to mend cracks or holes in pipes. If damage is severe, replacement might be needed. Often, pipe leak tests involving video and hydraulic pressure testing are used to assess the damage and evaluate the overall strength of the infrastructure.
Pipe clogs can often be fixed without a professional plumber using just a plunger or manual drain snake. Problems with the main sewer line do require the pros to step in, however.
Modern repair methods sometimes prevent the need to dig up entire pipes or go through many steps to make simple repairs. For example, trenchless pipe lining involves installing an epoxy to create a new pipe inside an old one. Pipe bursting involves placing a new pipe into an old one and then breaking apart the old pipe, or “bursting” it, so that only the new pipe remains.
Sewer cleanouts provide access points to the main sewer line. They look like little capped pipes that typically stick out a few inches from the ground and are located in front or back yards or around a property’s perimeter.
Sewer cleanouts allow access to a home’s plumbing system without having to dig up ground or obstruct property. Properties might have as few as one cleanout or as many as ten access points to the sewer line. Cleanouts often have small plastic caps and may look like small manhole covers.
Cleanouts are often made of PVC (white plastic) piping and installed using a threaded plastic cap and molded nut. Depending on the nature of a drain or sewer line clog, the cleanout may have to be accessed to repair a pipe or clear an obstruction.
Protecting Sewer Workers
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed across virtually every industry segment, and water and sewer construction is no exception. NAICS 237110 ranked water and sewer construction #8 out of 21 construction sub-industries, with 3.3 injuries taking place for every 100 workers. And, for anyone who is a plumber, you’ve probably already read on our Construction industry page how your trade experiences the most injuries of all construction trades. Whether you’re a septic tank servicer, pipelayer, or construction laborer, PPE keeps a person shielded from the nasty substances found in sewer lines.
Here are examples of the safety gear workers should consider:
- Chemical-Resistant Gloves – Because of the harmful substances and biowaste that find their way down into sewer lines, it’s crucial to protect workers’ hands.
- Cut-Resistant Gloves and Sleeves – Workers in this industry experience the 5th most arm injuries of all construction contractors.
- Foot Protection – The last thing you want is to go into any area designed to move water and wet substances without wearing proper waterproof boots.
- Hi-Vis Safety Vest and T-Shirts – Our wicking styles keep workers seen when installing mains close to busy roads or during emergency repairs in low light.
- Rain Gear – Construction laborers and septic tank servicing workers can easily get caught in precarious outdoor weather.
- Safety Glasses and Safety Goggles – Blood-borne pathogens are potential hazards for sewage workers. Eye protection is essential in keeping infectious bacteria out of your eyes.
- Sealed Eyewear – Splashes and gases can find their way behind safety glasses, but an inner liner to seal the eyewear to the face will help keep any unwanted substances from coming in under the lens.
- Waterproof Gloves – Working with water, wastewater, pumps, and wet tools means waterproof protection is an absolute necessity.
- Welding Clothing – Metal pipes that need to be welded together mean appropriate clothing is a must.
Never forget that the job of PPE is to protect you from harm. If you sense that your gear has been compromised, throw it away and start new. Also, never wear soiled or dirty clothes or shoes from the job into your home at the end of the day, as you don’t want to infect areas of your own house.
How can a main sewer line clog be cleared?
- A main sewer line clog can be cleared by accessing the sewer cleanout or other access points leading to the central sewer system. From there, a drain snake may be able to clear the clog. However, knowing exactly where the clog is occurring and how to clear it may require a professional’s help.
How is air pumped through a vent sewer line from the inside?
- Some modern properties include a drain waste vent that helps to regulate the air pressure within pipes and ensure that sewer gases don’t flow into homes and properties. Problems with sewer gases and the drain waste vent should be addressed by a professional.
How deep are sewer lines?
- Sewer lines are installed at a certain depth below the ground to conform to code and prevent them from freezing or bursting with weather changes. Sewer line depths can vary from 12 or 30 inches to as deep as six feet. Typically, colder places install deeper sewer lines.
When is the city responsible for sewer lines?
- Usually, the homeowner or property owner is responsible for repairs and maintenance to sewer lines that run from a house to the main sewer line. Once the main sewer line clears your property and enters a municipal property, the city could be responsible for repairs.
How can chemicals unclog a sewer line?
- Chemical drain cleaners can unclog some drain blockages by targeting sludge buildup and grease. However, chemicals should always be used cautiously because they can damage or hurt plants, animals, and environmental surroundings. In some cases, biological products can use enzymes and microorganisms to clean sewer components and pipes without using toxic chemicals.
Sewer Safety Gear
As mentioned above, the hard-working people who install, repair, and maintain sewer lines make our lives cleaner and more hygienic. At MCR Safety, we make it possible for these people to perform their job and stay protected from the hazards they face. If you have any questions about the PPE we offer, don’t hesitate to contact us.
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For over 45 years, MCR Safety has proven to be a world leader in gloves, glasses, and garments. Whether it's on the shop floor, an oil rig, a construction site, or shooting outdoors, we are there to provide solutions to workplace (and recreational) hazards. It's all part of our commitment to protect people.
No matter your industry, we have the personal protective equipment you need.
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