New Ulm works to eliminate the problem by hiring temporary workers to do a thorough inspection of every residence

With any luck, by the end of the summer, illegal sump pump connections in homes will be a thing of the past in New Ulm, Minnesota.

That’s because the city has taken on an ambitious project to inspect every residence in the city for illegal connections. Although New Ulm has an ordinance against illegal sump pump hook-ups to the wastewater system, enforcing the rule has been a big challenge.

Dan O’Connor, the city’s wastewater treatment supervisor, solved that challenge by hiring temporary summer workers to go out and check every city residence for illegal connections.

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“We were thinking, let’s go out there and do this. Let’s check for illegal hook-ups,” he says. “It was a city ordinance but never enforced.”

The issue of illegal connections came to a head after a big rain event in 2013 that left some residents with flooded basements because the system backed up. Pipes were not able to handle the extra stormwater coming from illegal connections, O’Connor says.

“All municipalities deal with I&I issues. We addressed infiltration by carefully inspecting our infrastructure,” he says. “After that, it was onto inflow, looking at both sump pumps in residences and eventually roof leaders downtown.”

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Checking residences for illegal connections, however, is very labor intensive and O’Connor says the city couldn’t afford to pull people off their regular jobs.

“We decided to go ahead and hire summer help, which is a little cheaper, and they can just focus on this project and get it done,” he says, adding that the city of Mankato used a similar program about 10 years ago.

Last summer, three college students and a retiree were hired to take on the project. They worked 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — a nontraditional shift in order to catch more residents at home. This summer, two college students returned to finish the job.

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“Using temporary help is a good way to tackle a big project like this,” O’Connor says.

Training the temporary inspectors was not too difficult, he adds. The department used videos to show what legal and illegal sump pump connections look like.

Inspecting all the homes in a city of 13,000 can be overwhelming, so O’Connor came up with a plan that divided the city into 28 zones. The temporary workers go to a select area of homes on a certain day and first see if anyone is home. If they are, the inspector asks to come in to check the sump pump or sets up a time to come back. If no one is home, a door tag is left instructing homeowners to call and set up an appointment.

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“It’s similar to the system we use when new water meters are put in,” O’Connor says. “You catch some people at home and others you need to go back to later.”

The tag instructs the homeowner to call within 15 days to set up an appointment. If homeowners fail to have the inspection done, a $50 wastewater surcharge is added to their monthly utility bill. Only two homeowners so far out of more than 2,000 have refused the inspection. If homeowners don’t want a city worker in their home, they can also opt to hire a plumber to do the inspection.

If inspectors find illegal sump pump connections, homeowners have 60 days to fix it and have the home rechecked.

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“When people heard about the inspections, many were proactive and got any problems fixed,” O’Connor says.

An intensive public relations campaign about illegal sump pump connections and the problems they cause for homeowners and the city’s infrastructure was key to making the program a success, O’Connor says.

“We marketed this project as we’re trying to protect you and your neighbors by looking for illegal connections that can put a greater strain on the system,” he says. “Many people don’t even realize that what they have is not up to code.”

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