If you see smoke rising from the ground in your neighborhood, there’s no need to panic.
Unless you’re currently living in a cheesy horror film, it’s just the city smoke-testing its sewer system for breaks and deficiencies.
Smoke-testing is something the city has done occasionally for years, said Joey Jaco, the city’s utilities and engineering director. But you can expect to see it more frequently over the next five to 10 years, he said.
A consent decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the city to follow a timeline of improvements to its sewer system that has regularly leaked wastewater into nearby waterways. The city will spend about $750 million over the next decade to upgrade the sewer system.
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The smoke-testing is part of a larger sewer assessment project being done by independent contractor Hydrostructures, which is costing the city about $2.3 million, Jaco said.
Smoke-testing works by introducing smoke to a manhole and forcing it down the sewer system. It will escape from the system at any point where there is an open break in the line, such as in some yards, stream banks, storm drains, manhole lids and roof vents. That will allow the city to pinpoint areas that need repair.
The smoke, white or gray in color, is non-toxic, non-staining, non-flammable and has a slight odor.
Homeowners and businesses in areas being smoke-tested at any given time will be notified by community meetings or fliers, Jaco said.
Areas currently undergoing sewer evaluation include Olympia, the Lyon Street Community, Waverly, Lower Waverly, the MLK neighborhood, Melrose Heights, Hollywood-Rose Hill, Wales Garden, University Hill, Shandon, Old Shandon, Forest Hills and the Benedict-Allen-Palmetto Richland area. Parts of those areas – just a few streets at a time – have been and will be smoke-tested periodically over about a year’s time, Jaco said.
To prevent smoke from entering your home or building – and to prevent sewer gases from doing the same at any time – the city advises owners to pour a gallon of water into sinks, tubs and floor drains that are not frequently used. The water will fill up what’s known as the “P-trap,” a curved portion of the pipe where water creates a seal that keeps gases from passing through.
For more information about the smoke testing process, see this fact sheet from the Department of Utilities and Engineering, or call (803) 545‐3300.