Retired steel cutter John Fravel held a flashlight up to the new pipes in the crawlspace of his Harrisonburg home on Chicago Avenue.
“It was real bad,” he said, laying on his side, the beam of light from the flashlight piercing the darkness and illuminating the dust and dirt particles in the air.
For years, he has dealt with sewage backing up into his home when Harrisonburg city workers clear the pipes outside his house.
“It goes over the top of the commode and into the shower,” Fravel, 67, said while standing in the bathroom of his home Saturday.
In one incident, he was at home sick from work when he heard a noise. He looked in the bathroom and saw sewage bursting out of his toilet.
“It was going like Yellowstone Park,” he said.
Fravel ran out in his boxer shorts to tell the city maintenance crews to stop their work.
“I’ve been battling this for 12 years,” he said. “I’m tired of it. Somebody’s going to get hurt. I’m losing it with the city of Harrisonburg.”
His neighbor, Kevin Phengsitthy, a 68-year-old janitor, also has had sewage back up into his home multiple times over the years while crews were cleaning the lines outside the home he bought in 1999.
“Dirty water hits the ceiling,” Phengsitthy said standing in one of his home’s bathrooms Saturday.
Fravel said he was quoted $1,400 in toilet repairs caused by one backup, and the liquid from backups has also damaged his floors and vents. He has had to buy a new toilet and replace the pipe in his crawlspace, and has struggled to pay his homeowner’s insurance. Another of his toilets, the wallpaper, linoleum and drywall are in need of replacing, he said.
The city clears the sewage pipes outside Fravel and Phengsitthy’s family homes once every two months because of grease being poured down the drains from an unknown source, according to Michael Parks, city spokesperson.
“We know there is unpermitted grease being disposed of in that sewer along that line,” Parks said.
He said the city is working with its insurance provider to get money to compensate Fravel and Phengsitthy.
“This is a situation that has been occurring for some time now, as far as I am aware,” Parks said. “We have had backups in this area in 2014, 2016, 2018 and then again this year.”
He said if the city didn’t clear the lines, backups much worse than the ones that already occur would happen.
Parks said the city cleans 19 other lines as frequently as the line outside the Chicago Avenue homes, but the situation on Chicago is worse than the other areas. He also said the city receives between 40 to 50 additional calls a year for pipe clearing in other areas than the ones that need regular clearing.
“Grease gets inside the sewer pipes,” Parks said. “It lines the inside of the lines and makes it harder for what’s supposed to be in those lines to pass.”
The city is looking at a redesign for the sewer outside Fravel and Phengsitthy’s homes as a “preventative measure,” according to Parks.
He said the redesign would take six to nine months, and the city would likely need easements after the design to complete the project.
But as long as someone is pouring grease down the drain, it will cause issues in the pipes that need to be cleaned, according to Parks.
“One thing we are going to be doing is a public education campaign in this area to make sure all these homeowners know they should not be pouring grease down the drain, because it is causing an issue and impacting their neighbors,” he said.
“We hope to get a solution for the residents so they don’t have to worry about it anymore, and we appreciate their patience and this is a serious concern we are taking seriously,” Parks said.
Fravel said he is on the verge of suing the city and is looking to get a lawyer early next year. Phengsitthy said he wants the problem addressed and fair compensation from the city, but does not want to take legal action.
For Fravel, the sewage issue also exacerbates his frustration with growing costs in the city, such as the real estate property tax.
“I work hard. I’m retired and I got to pay my taxes out of my social security,” he said.
He has invested in his Harrisonburg home over the 31 years he’s lived there to improve its value, but is now at the end of the rope.
“I have remodeled the kitchen, a lot of stuff, and all I can think about now is just getting the hell out of Harrisonburg because I hate it that goddamn bad,” Fravel said.