Sanitary Sewer System Smoke Testing Program

The City of Berkeley started conducting smoke testing of the sanitary sewer system in summer 2011, which will continue during summer months over a 10-year period. This year testing will begin in mid-August, and residents of areas to be tested will receive notices prior to testing.

Smoke testing identifies locations where there are defects or improper connections in the sewer system, and is the industry standard and an efficient, cost effective way to locate and identify leaks and the source of storm water infiltration problems in the sanitary sewer system. The smoke manufactured specifically for testing is EPA endorsed, and is a non-toxic, non-staining substance that is generally considered to be harmless to humans, pets, food, and material items. The specific product has been used successfully for over 30 years throughout the United States.

Smoke Testing Requirement & Importance

The smoke testing is required by EPA Administrative and Stipulated Orders that affect Berkeley and other “satellite agencies” that comprise the EBMUD wastewater collection system. These seven agencies have jointly contracted with E2 Consulting Engineers, Inc. to conduct the smoke testing for each of the agencies under a unified program responding to the EPA requirements. E2 has provided engineering and environmental consulting services since 1988, and their team has successfully completed numerous smoke testing and condition assessment projects throughout the Bay Area.

Testing is important because each year millions of gallons of excess water infiltrate sanitary sewers and can overload the system, pump stations and treatment plants. The sanitary sewer system is designed for wastewater only from homes and businesses to flow to the EBMUD treatment plant. The storm water drainage system is a separate network of pipes channeling storm water runoff into creeks and waterways, and into the Bay. The infiltration of storm water in any amount into the sanitary sewer system can cause and contribute to the overflow of untreated wastewater during storm events and potentially result in environmental and property damage.

Links to Smoke Testing Map & Information (PDF files)

  • 2014 Berkeley Smoke Testing Areas O + P Map
  • Superior® Classic Smoke for Sanitary Sewer Testing, Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    1. Why is smoke testing being done? Smoke testing is the industry standard and an efficient, cost effective way to locate and identify leaks and the source of storm water infiltration problems in the sanitary sewer system. The specific product has been used successfully for over 30 years throughout the United States. The smoke manufactured specifically for testing is EPA endorsed, and is a non-toxic, non-staining substance that is generally considered to be harmless to humans, pets, food, and material items. 

    2. Why is smoke testing important? Testing is important because each year, millions of gallons of storm water infiltrates sanitary sewers and can overload the system, pump stations and treatment plant. The sanitary sewer system is designed for only wastewater from homes and businesses to flow to the EBMUD treatment plant. The storm water drainage system is a separate network of pipes channeling storm water into creeks and waterways and directly into the Bay. The infiltration of storm water in any amount into the sanitary sewer system can cause and contribute to the overflow of untreated wastewater during storm events and potentially results in environmental and property damage.  

    3. How the smoke testing is conducted? The smoke testing process involves isolating manageable sections of the sewer system and then blowing smoke through that section of the sewer system. If there are any defects in the main sewer pipes or private sewer laterals serving individual homes, or if there are illegal storm drain cross connections, the smoke will rise to the surface and reveal these problems. E2 will carefully document their findings and assist the City in notifying, if necessary, individual property owners as to the results.  

    4. When will the testing begin and how long will the project take? The schedule calls for E2 to begin testing in Berkeley the week of August 15th. 2 weeks prior to this, E2 will hand deliver the 1st notices to those areas that will be tested in the intial week, and on Monday, August 15th, a 2nd notice will be hand delivered in those areas, as identified on the maps. This will continue for each area until all areas to be tested in 2011 are completed. The current schedule shows Berkeley will be tested from August 15th through September 30th this year. The schedules for subsequent years will be posted on this website each year.

    5. As a homeowner, what do I need to do to prepare for smoke testing in my area? Water can evaporate from the drain traps of unused plumbing fixtures. Therefore, the day prior to any testing, property owners should pour water down all drains of plumbing fixtures that are not regularly used. This will ensure that the P-traps are full to prevent smoke from entering the house through their sewage drainage system within the structure. Prap refers to the shape of the drain pipe which holds water preventing air, odors and smoke from entering the residence.
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    6. Is the smoke harmful? What should I do if smoke comes out of a plumbing fixture in my house? Although the product is generally considered to have no adverse health effects, individuals with pre-existing conditions, such as emphysema or other heart/lung problems should take special precautions to either vacate the area during the test period, or if not possible, keep doors and windows open so that if, on the rare occasion, smoke does enter, it will dissipate rapidly. If you see “smoke” in your home, open windows for ventilation, and then tell the crew chief doing the smoke testing in your area or call Jeff Blum of E2 Consulting Engineers at 510-774-9223.

    7. Do I need to be home during smoke testing? There is no need to be at home, but it may be helpful in the event that areas need to be ventilated.

    8. How long are the smoke tests? The actual test on each home will take about 10-15 minutes. While testing, smoke may be seen around manhole covers, storm drains, roof vents and areas of defects. Smoke will not enter the interior of a home or business if all the plumbing is installed properly and is in good repair

    9. What about pets? The smoke is not harmful to pets. The smoke used is a non-toxic substance that is harmless to humans, pets, food, and material items. If smoke does enter the building, it will clear in a few minutes with proper ventilation.

    10. What do I do if smoke does enter my building? If smoke does enter the interior of homes, windows and doors should be opened as it will usually clear in 15-20 minutes. If residents are present during the testing, they should inform a testing crew member if smoke has entered the home.

    11. Can smoke clog the sewer? There is no way smoke can stop up a sewer. The smoke is made up of a vaporous substance similar to fog.

    12. What happens if you find a bad sewer or lack of traps in a building? The City will determine what steps are necessary to remedy any problems.

    13. Are Police and Fire aware of the smoke testing? City of Berkeley Police and Fire Departments have been notified, along with the City's Customer Service Center with information on the locations and dates of areas to be tested. The contractor will update Police and Fire on a daily basis with the locations for each smoke testing period.

    14. What happens after the test results are analyzed? After all the data is collected and organized, the Public Works staff will begin notifying property owners if there appears to be a problem with either their sewer lateral, possible storm drain cross connections, or sewer leaks inside the structure. Staff will work with each property owner to help them understand the issues and further, to make recommendations as to how these problems might be resolved. Simultaneously, if there are detected problems within our sewer system, the city will endeavor to have these repaired in a timely manner.

    15. Who do I contact for more information and/or a problem? If you have any problems or concerns, contact:

    • Jeff Blum of E2 Consulting Engineers at 510-774-9223, or
    • Call the City of Berkeley Customer Service at 311 or (510) 981-2489.