Sewer FAQs

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What do I do if my sanitary sewer is backing up?

First, immediately stop all water use as backups are typically caused by a blockage in the plumbing within your home or business. Turn off washing machines, dishwashers, showers and anything that uses water.

Second, contact Environmental Utilities by calling 403.529.8176 during business hours or the 24 hour emergency line at 403.502.8042. If the problem is after business hours (between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.) you have the option to either call a local plumber or drain cleaner at your own expense, or wait until business hours for the City field operators to attend. Note that a callout field operator will attend after business hours to check that the sanitary sewer main is flowing; however will not attend inside your home or business until business hours resume.

What will the dispatched crew do to stop the sewer backup?

The crew will check to see whether the sanitary sewer main outside is flowing properly. If there is a blockage in the main, a crew will remove the blockage in the sanitary sewer main. If the sewer main is flowing properly, the crew will attend inside the home or business using a manual hand reel to attempt to clear the blockage in the service line. With this being a courtesy service, there is the possibility that the crew will recommend that you contact a local plumber or drain cleaner. The callout operator will not attend inside the home or business after-hours.

What causes blockages to occur?

Blockages can occur for two reasons. The first is the accumulation of material inside the pipe. Draining improper substances through the sewer, such as kitchen fats, oils and greases (FOG), food, sand, clay or mud, can cause a build-up and blockage in otherwise properly constructed sewers. However, the proper operation of a sewer lateral requires that the line be constructed "on grade", that is with a consistent slope. High or low areas along a line will cause small amounts of greases, soap scum and other material to accumulate, eventually causing a blockage. A clean-out provides the homeowner or sewer drain contractor an access point for sewer line maintenance.

The second cause of blockages is the presence of sand or roots entering the line through a break or other damage to the line. Tree roots will seek out sources of water, such as sewer lines, and will enter even the smallest cracks in the line. Roots will inevitably clog a sewer line. Larger cracks will not only allow roots to enter but will cause sand and dirt to enter the line, blocking the flow. As dirt flows into the line, a small "sink hole" or depression appears in the ground above the break. These sink holes almost always indicate a problem with a sanitary sewer line or a storm drain, and therefore should be investigated or reported.

Refer to the General Sanitary Sewer Information page for a full list of items that should not be drained into the sewer.

Where does FOG (fats, oils and grease) come from that gets into the sanitary sewer system?

Mostly from cooking oils and fats, condiments, meats and meat by-products that are disposed of down the kitchen drains.

What can I do to help reduce FOG?

  • Pour fats, oils and greases into a can or empty jar, cool and discard it into the garbage instead of pouring it down the drain.
  • Use garbage disposals sparingly. This will only grind by-products into smaller chunks that will still get stuck in the lines.
  • Scrape plates into the garbage instead of the garbage disposal.
  • Dry wipe greasy pans before washing them

What can I flush down the toilet?

Human waste and toilet paper only!

A number of liquids are flushed down the toilets that upset the chemistry of our wastewater treatment plant and can cause volatile conditions in our sewers. A few examples are medications, chemicals, oils, paints, paint thinners, antifreeze, batteries and gasoline. There are many materials that cause blockages like grease, diapers, cat litter, dental floss, feminine hygiene products etc. that also should not be flushed down the toilet.

The Wastewater Treatment Plant takes pride in protecting our receiving water. We as a community need to be conscious about what we are washing down our sinks and flushing down our toilets so that we can continue to live in a safe, clean environment.

What is my responsibility as a home or business owner?

It is the home or business owner’s responsibility to maintain the sewer lateral from the home or business to the property line. The city is responsible for maintaining the sewer lateral from the sewer main to property line as well as the sanitary sewer mains themselves.

What do I do if I think City trees are the reason for sewer backup?

Depending on where the root infiltration is located, it is the home or business owner’s responsibility to maintain the sewer lateral on private property. Some drain cleaners or plumbers can auger the roots out of the sewer line. Also, root herbicide can be purchased at a hardware store and administered to remove the roots from within the sewer line while not harming the tree. Sewer Utility staff is responsible for the sewer lateral and sanitary sewer main on public property.

If you have an inquiry about the tree itself, contact the Parks and Recreation Department at 403.529.8333.

What is a sewer lateral?

A sewer lateral is a sewer pipe that connects your home or business to the sanitary sewer main in the road.

How can my sewer lateral be accessed?

Your sewer lateral can be accessed through your clean-out. A clean-out is typically found in your basement where the lateral exits your home or business. Generally, a clean-out has a threaded cap that is 4 – 6 inches in diameter.

What causes sewer odours inside the house or business?

Sewage has a natural tendency to produce odours and all sewers have some odours. The plumbing system in your home is designed to prevent these odours from entering the house. If you are experiencing sewer odours indoors, it is likely that the vapor trap (referred to as the P-Trap) has dried out.

What is the purpose of P-Traps?

Every water fixture in your house has a P-trap. This "U" shaped pipe is clearly visible under sinks, and is present in some form on all lines draining to the sewage system. The "U" shape holds water, creating a seal and preventing gases from backing up from the sewer into the house through the drain.

What is the purpose of the roof vent?

All houses have plumbing vents that extend through the roof. These vents allow air to flow both in and out of the house plumbing system, helping water to flow through the pipes. Working in combination with the P-traps, gases from the sewer system are vented safely through the roof.

What should I do if I smell sewer odour but don’t see sewer backup?

When sewer gases are present inside the home, it is usually due to one or more P-traps becoming dried out. The water in a P-trap will evaporate if the fixture is not used for an extended period. Seldom used bathrooms or utility sinks are commonly the source of sewer odours. The simple solution to this problem is to periodically run a small amount of water (one or two cups) into the drain refilling the trap.

Where does the water leaving the Wastewater Treatment Plant go?

The water discharged from the Wastewater Treatment Plant is referred to as effluent. The City of Medicine Hat’s wastewater effluent is discharged into the South Saskatchewan River.

If I flush a fish down the toilet, will it make it to the river?

Not to upset any children that hope that their deceased pet will make it to the South Saskatchewan River, but we do have to say no. The fish will travel through many pipes, pumps and screens eventually ending up in the biosolids removed from the Wastewater Treatment Plant. The biosolids are then taken up to the Waste Management Facility and turned into compost.

Who do I call about storm sewer problems?

The City's Municipal Works Department maintains the storm sewer system. Storm sewers can be identified as the large grates in streets and near curbs. To report a storm sewer problem please contact the Municipal Works Department at 403.529.8177.