1. News
  2. /
  3. St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg to homeowners: Fix your broken sewer pipes

The city is considering an ordinance that would require property owners repair or replace broken sewer lines if the city discovers a problem. City officials are working on a rebate program to help with costs.
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

Click here to read this story in Spanish

ST. PETERSBURG — Recovering from the sewage crisis has taken the city years and cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, officials say, it’s time for property owners to do their part.

The City Council is considering an ordinance that would force property owners to repair or replace broken sewer lines — the ones that connect homes or businesses to the street — if the city discovers a problem with them. Those pipes are private property.

The ordinance doesn’t yet have a lot of teeth, and though replacing the pipes could cost a homeowner thousands, city officials say it won’t force many property owners to incur major costs, at least any time soon. They hope to eventually establish a rebate program to encourage property owners to willingly inspect and repair their sewer lines.

“This provides an opportunity for us to team up with the private property owners to solve this problem together,” said St. Petersburg Water Resources Director John Palenchar.

But, he said, it stops short of requiring inspections across the board.

“So rather than put an unfunded mandate on homeowners, we’re trying to work on a funding mechanism,” he said.

Passing an ordinance that addresses private sewer laterals — the lines are called laterals because they run sideways from the street to structures — by June 2020 is a requirement of the consent order the city signed with the state after the 2015-16 sewage crisis. The city released up to a billion gallons of sewage, of which up to 200 million gallons made it to Tampa Bay.


Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

No criminal charges in St. Pete's 1 billion gallon sewage crisis (Oct. 27, 2017)

Utility bills will rise for St. Pete residents — and keep rising (Nov. 9, 2017)

St. Pete says discharge never reached the bay. Its own report says otherwise. (April 20, 2018)

St. Petersburg has spilled 2 million gallons of wastewater in the last three months (Dec. 7, 2018)

Down the hatch: St. Petersburg has sent more than 21 million gallons of improperly treated sewage into the aquifer since 2018 (Aug. 20, 2019)

The crisis followed the closure of the sewage treatment plant at Albert Whitted Airport, reducing the system’s capacity. But the spills also coincided with heavy rains, which flowed into the sewage system through cracked and leaky pipes. The city estimates between 30 and 80 percent of that stormwater inundation comes through private lines.

Palenchar said the city fixes its own pipes, prioritizing neighborhoods that have a big difference in sewage flows between wet and dry weather, which indicates groundwater infiltration. There are 887 miles of public sewer mains in the city. But even a rehabbed city network wouldn’t fix the problem, as there is likely about that much private piping in the city, too. A conservative estimate of 50 feet of private sewer lines multiplied by 82,000 utility customers is about 777 miles.

That’s why the city is considering this ordinance, which officials stressed is meant only to be a first step toward modernizing the private lines.

Here’s how the ordinance, if passed in its current form, would work: Starting Jan. 1, 2021, if city workers notice a problem with a private sewer pipe, property owners would have six months — plus a 60-day extension the property owner could apply for — to have the damage inspected and, if necessary, repaired or replaced.

If a property owner fails to act, city workers could refer the property to the Code Enforcement Board, which can assess fines.

But defective pipes are tough to find. The primary way the city checks for failed private lines is through smoke testing, Palenchar said, which is when workers pump smoke into the system in a particular neighborhood. If smoke is rising from the ground, it could mean there’s a pipe breach.

The city is broken into 148 “basins," or areas for smoke testing, and workers have tested about one-fifth of the basins. The plan is to complete the smoke testing across the city by the end of 2023.

But smoke isn’t a very effective way to identify problems that might persist feet underground — smoke will reveal problems in something like 1 percent of homes or less, Palenchar said.

There are several different kinds of pipes, each with their own problems. Cast iron pipes, from the early to mid 20th century, are sturdy, but they can develop a coating of rust on the inside that reduces the pipe’s diameter, leading to clogs. The rust can be scoured off with a tool that shoots pressurized water, said Joe Denick, co-owner of Pinellas Park plumbing company Clog Kings, which does work all over the Tampa Bay area.

Orangeburg pipes — which are basically paper coated in tar and were popular from the 1950s until the 1970s, when almost 60 percent of St. Petersburg’s housing stock was built — can disintegrate, leaving a property owner with little choice other than replacement. Sometimes a crushed Orangeburg pipe can be relined, Denick said, but that process can be more expensive per foot than digging up the pipes and replacing them. In instances where the alternative is going under a concrete slab, it may be the only choice.

Denick said replacing old pipes with new PVC lines that don’t rust or disintegrate costs about $55 to $75 per foot, meaning 50 feet is at least $2,750.

There would be a slightly more stringent requirement for buildings with Orangeburg pipes, which generally last two to three decades. The new ordinance would require the entire length of a damaged Orangeburg pipe to be inspected by camera because, city officials said, if there is one breach in an Orangeburg pipe, there are likely more.

Ideally, according to Palenchar, the city will have a rebate program in place soon to encourage property owners to get their pipes inspected, and if necessary, repaired.

Officials are developing a pilot program in Maximo Moorings and Greater Pinellas Point, whereby the city will have a plumber inspect sewer lines and property owners may be able to take advantage of funding and low-interest loans for the repairs. Once enough lines have been repaired, city water officials will compare the sewage flows during rainstorms to see if the fixes prevented inundation from ground water.

If the study reveals the fixes helped, the city could open up the rebate program to more property owners.

“The expectation is that we should see a more significant reduction,” Palenchar said.

Property owners in those two pilot neighborhoods who are interested in the program can visit to sign up for an inspection.

Home inspector Christine Shelton, who co-owns Shelton Home Inspections with her husband, said she started recommending several months ago that clients get their sewer lines inspected. For a 1,500 square-foot home, she said, it costs between $250 and $350.

“It’s just something we’ve said we can’t ignore anymore," she said. “Our city is old. Our construction is old.”

First reading of the ordinance will occur at the Oct. 17 City Council meeting. Second reading and the public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Nov. 7.


  1. Mark Edward Allen, 60, was sentenced in federal court on Friday to 5 years in prison and three years of supervised release. Allen was arrested in June and charged with leaving an explosive device on the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System campus May 29. [Pinelllas County Sheriff's Office]
    Mark Edward Allen, 60, was sentenced to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty to VA bomb scare
  2. Kerry Kriseman, right, beside husband Mayor Rick Kriseman. Kerry Kriseman announced Friday she has cancer. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
    Kerry Kriseman announced the news Friday on Facebook. She said the prognosis is good.
  3. Blake Faine is charged with DUI manslaughter. His booking photo on that charge was not available Friday afternoon. This is a booking photo from a 2018 arrest. [Pinellas County Jail]
    A 71-year-old woman, Dorothy Wertz, was killed in the crash on Tuesday night.
  4. Florida Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, joins other environmentalists at the Sierra Club Friday to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to dedicate at least $300 million to land conservation. [Caitlin Johnston]
    A bill in the Senate proposes dedicating $100 million to conservation efforts, but activists want the state to spend triple that amount.
  5. Tech Data CEO Rich Hume (left) shares a moment with his predecessor, Bob Dutkowsky, during a send-off celebration for Dutkowsky on June 7, 2018 at the company's 
 headquarters in Largo. At the time, Tech Data had already received the first in what would become a series of purchase offers from New York-based private equity giant Apollo Global Management. Along the way, Dutkowsky would play a key role in negotiations with Apollo. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times (2018)
    Apollo Global Management has been trying to buy Tech Data for a year and a half. Along the way, four other companies were interested, too. Two made offers.
  6. Traffic backing up on southbound Interstate 275 on the Howard Frankland Bridge Thursday evening after the Florida Highway Patrol said a fatal crash took place hours earlier. [Florida Department of Transportation]
    The collision of two pickups left traffic snarled for hours.
  7. Pinellas County Commission chairwoman Karen Seel said a Tampa economic development group's recent decision to put "Tampa Bay" into its name "does great harm to the progress we have made on regional collaboration."
    But in Tampa, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit, government-supported economic development group is giving no sign of backing off the new name.
  8. Yankee pitcher CC Sabathia, who played 19 seasons before injuries ended his career this fall, greets children attending the Yankees holiday concert at the Straz Center in Tampa on Thursday. Sabathia was joined by his wife Amber, right. [New York Yankees]
    Long-time host and retired news anchor John Wilson passed the torch this year to a new emcee, his son Mark Wilson.
  9. Council member Ed Montanari, left, was elected St. Petersburg City Council chair for 2020. Council member Gina Driscoll was voted vice-chair. [Times (2019)]
    The chairman guides the council through meetings and generally speak last on issues.
  10. St. Petersburg officials are looking for residents to volunteer on city boards and committees.
    Residents interested in volunteering on boards should email