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Officials: Tempe plagued with deteriorating sewage pipes

A recent pipe rupture that spilled around 8 million gallons of water and closed the U.S. 60 freeway put Tempe’s water infrastructure back in the news.

Checking water main lines is now a priority for Tempe officials since the incident, but Tempe residents should be turning their attention to a different type of water infrastructure: sewage pipes.

Thousands of the Tempe homes could have critically-deteriorated sewage pipes underneath them, according to a map provided by the city. An expert said the problem could affect as many as “nine out of 10” homes in the area.

The pipes could cause massive sewage backups, repair bills and headaches for homeowners if they aren’t signed up for a program looking to minimize the pain on residents’ wallets and correct past mistakes, 12 News reported.

The pipes, called Orangeburg Pipe, are made out of paper with an inner coating of tar. They were used to connect homes to the city’s public sewer between 1940 and 1970.

The average lifespan for Orangeburg Pipe is around 50 years, but they’re known to fail in as little as 10 years. The vast majority of the pipes should be critically deteriorated today even by the most relaxed of estimates.

“You have two different things that can happen,” said Samuel Ariaratnam, professor and construction engineering program chair at ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering & the Built Environment.

“You could have a crack, where you have sewage leaking out on your property, or you could have a collapsed pipe, where you would see (sewage) backups.”

Tempe has no idea where the piping is because previous city officials didn’t keep records of where the pipes were installed, the city’s website said.

Plumbing professionals have seen how widespread the pipe problem is firsthand.

“The city of Tempe is plagued with Orangeburg ... it’s almost like the whole city was built with it,” said Mason Cruz, master drain cleaner and sewer line repair specialist at Roto-Rooter.

“Nine out of 10 homes that we go to in the city of Tempe have Orangeburg Pipe under them ... I can’t count how many times we’ve had blown out sections or ovaled-out pipes from that Orangeburg.”

Cruz said while Tempe’s program has help for homeowners to change the Orangeburg pipe out, he’s seen the pipe throughout the Valley.

“Phoenix, Sun City — You’ll find it in like older areas of Chandler, Gilbert, things like that,” Cruz said.

12 News contacted various municipalities throughout the Valley to see if officials were aware if Orangeburg pipe is in their city.

Glendale’s Building Official, Djordje Pavlovic said the pipe was used in the city until 1982 and isn’t allowed to be used in construction now.

Municipalities like Scottsdale and Goodyear said there’s very limited use in their cities.

Avondale officials told 12 News that crews have come across it during the replacement of the sewer service in the older, historical part of their city. Adding it appears it was used in a similar manner to in Tempe, to connect a home to the main sewer line.

Crews in Phoenix have also come across some sections of Orangeburg pipe in the areas the city takes care of and have replaced it when they come across it as well.

Spokespersons for both the City of Mesa and City of Peoria said they don’t appear to have the pipe in their lines.

Typically, residents have to pay for their own pipe repairs, regardless of whether the repairs are based on a systemic lack of long-term infrastructure planning or not.

Ariaratnam says this is the wrong approach when it comes to Orangeburg.

“The best approach would be for the neighborhood or city to help coordinate this with a replacement program,” Ariaratnam said. “That’s the best approach if you want to get rid of as much Orangeburg as you can.”

The good news is that Tempe officials are doing just that.

A recently created “SLWA” program, ran in partnership with Tempe and Service Line Warranties of America, covers residential repairs up to $8,500 for service line repairs, including Orangeburg pipe.

The program is open to Tempe homeowners and costs $9.88 a month for the first year and $10.98 a month after the first year, according to the city’s webpage.

“SLWA plan holders have access to a repair hotline that is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and repairs are performed by local, licensed and insured contractors that SLWA has identified in the area,” the webpage said.

“Tempeans can learn more about these optional plans by visiting RepairsTempe.com or calling toll-free 1-844-257-8795.”

The SLWA program started on Feb. 1, 2022 and was an update to Tempe’s previous program called “SLiPP.”

Cruz, who’s been contracted through the city numerous times, said residents shouldn’t be afraid in taking advantage of the program since it’s a massive step in the right direction to fixing the pipe problem.

“It’s a really great program for the homeowners of Tempe, for sure,” Cruz said. “Some people take advantage of it, some don’t think it’s real, but ... they’re trying to undo the things they did wrong many years ago.”

Vaughan Jones is the weekend reporter for KJZZ, and a graduate of ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism, with a minor in music. As a Phoenix native, Jones’s dream is to serve his community by covering important stories in the metropolitan area.He spent two years as music director at Blaze Radio, ASU’s student-run radio station. His passion for radio stems from joining Blaze his freshman year as a DJ.When he is not working, Jones can be found writing music with his band, playing video games with his friends, or watching his favorite Phoenix-area sports teams.