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TO HOOK UP YOUR UTILITIES:  (540) 375-3021|HOURS:  M-F 8am-5pm
E-MAIL:|LOCATION:  City Hall, 114 North Broad Street, Salem, VA 24153

Sewer Backups and Overflows

TO HOOK UP YOUR UTILITIES:  (540) 375-3021|HOURS:  M-F 8am-5pm
E-MAIL:|LOCATION:  City Hall, 114 North Broad Street, Salem, VA 24153

Backup vs. Overflow


A sanitary sewer backup happens when wastewater cannot exit the lateral and “backs up” into drain lines until it finds an exit. One example of a backup would be laundry suds coming up through a basement floor drain after a washing machine exceeds the capacity of a partially-clogged lateral. A sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) happens when wastewater is discharged into the environment. One example of an SSO would be wastewater coming up through a manhole. Salem occasionally experiences this kind of SSO during wet weather due to inflow and infiltration. As a result, Salem is under a Consent Order and has a corrective action plan.


What do I do if I have a backup?

If a backup occurs, shut off any running water. Take immediate action to seal sink, tub, and floor drains. Toilets can be plugged with wads of rags or a string mop. Additional weight may be needed to hold down drain plugs.

  • Use appropriate plug materials to protect fragile fixtures.
  • Protect yourself, other people, and pets from contact with the wastewater, which can contain harmful bacteria and chemicals.
  • If your basement has a sump pump, turn it off. Sump pumps are intended to pump clear water to a greenspace or storm drain.
  • Do not pour anything down the drain until the backup has receded. Chemical drain cleaners are not likely to help and can cause additional damage.
  • Backups will enter through the lowest drains first. It may be beneficial to leave a low bathtub drain open to contain the backup wastewater until floor drains and other fixtures are securely plugged.

Contact neighbors to help determine if the blockage is inside the building or on the sewer main. If the problem is affecting multiple buildings, immediately call the Salem Water Department at (540) 375-3029.

If the issue appears to be affecting one building, contacting a licensed plumber is recommended. The building owner is responsible for maintenance and repair of the sewer lateral on the owner’s private property, as well as cleanup.

Here are some of the actions you can take after a backup has occurred:

  • Do not flush toilets
  • Avoid direct contact with wastewater and wetted surfaces. Wear protective clothing such as rubber gloves, boots, and goggles. Sanitize skin and clothing after contact with wastewater.
  • Ventilate the area.
  • Contact your insurance company. Note that most homeowner’s insurance will not pay for damage unless specific sewer backup coverage has been added to the policy.
  • Assess and photograph the damage.
  • Clean up / mitigate further damage. Most homeowner’s insurance will not pay for mitigation. However, consider hiring a reputable clean up service. Cleanup may consist of wet vacuuming, mopping, solids removal, using appropriate disinfectant cleaners, steam cleaning, sanitizing ductwork, flushing plumbing fixtures, and removal of heavily-soiled permeable materials such as carpet or drywall. (Never mix bleach with ammonia; it creates a deadly gas!)
  • Check the area around your cleanout for additional solids requiring removal.
  • If your home has a septic system, call your local health department for advice about how to dispose of the water/sewage.

How can I prevent a backup?

Above: A sewer lateral pouring illicit FOG  into a sanitary manhole. The shiny white is new grease. The yellow areas are from the buildup of old grease.

  • The only items that should ever be washed down the sink or flushed down the toilet are natural, organic materials that would break apart easily in one’s hands.
  • Here are some examples of things that should not go in the sanitary sewer:
    • Never pour fats, oils, or grease (FOG) down the drain, even if they are liquid at room temperature.
    • Never flush wet wipes, diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons, paper towels, cardboard, or cloth. Even the wipes labeled “flushable” build up in pipes, causing blockages.
    • Use garbage disposals sparingly or not at all. If your disposal is used make sure you flush the sewer lines thoroughly.
    • Dispose of medicine, paint, pesticides, and other hazardous materials in accordance with Salem’s solid waste disposal policies.
  • Remove trees and woody plants from around the sewer lateral.
  • Reduce I & I.
  • Know if your home is located in the flood plain. Homes that are subject to flooding are also more likely to experience a backup.
  • Install a sewer backwater valve or backflow prevention valve.
    • If approved by the Director of the Water Department, the City will reimburse up to $750 towards installation of this valve. Contact the Water & Sewer Department (540) 375-3029 for more information.
    • The valve should be placed outside the home on the property owner’s lateral. The valve can optionally be placed in a home basement, however, this is much more expensive to install if concrete needs to be removed for the installation.
    • The valve requires maintenance by the owner for proper functionality.
    • It should be noted that installation of a sewer backwater valve does not guarantee a backup will not occur at your home.
  • Consider adding a sewer back-up rider to your homeowner insurance policy.

What can I do about overflows?

  • Help prevent overflows by doing the following:
  • If you see an overflow in progress, please contact us at (540) 375-3029.
  • If you see evidence of a past overflow, such as toilet paper and sanitary waste around a manhole or storm drain outfall, please contact us at (540) 375-3029 or use the report a problem form.