More people at home, more clogs in sewer system
Few things have been more spoofed and splashed over social media than the toilet paper shortage caused by panicked shoppers. Kent County and municipal officials say that could be causing much bigger problems in the community.
Colby Harrington, superintendent of wastewater facilities for Kent County Public Works, oversees the treatment plant and the rest of the county’s sewer system. With more people staying at home, he said blockages are more common.
“In the last two months we’ve absolutely seen an uptick in the maintenance needed in our pump stations and lift stations due to the presence of disposable wipes, rags and debris,” he said. “Due to the toilet paper shortages in the department stores and supermarkets, people are using everything they can find. That stuff ends up causing issues for us down the stream.”
More people are flushing wipes that are advertised as biodegradable but don’t break up as well as toilet paper. Others may be cleaning their houses with disinfectant wipes and tossing them in the toilet. The wipes can get caught in the pipes near a person’s home or cling to equipment later in the system, leading to a backup or spill.
Kent County and Dover officials agreed that people should avoid flushing any product that is not toilet paper. “There are no other products that us as a treatment facility consider a good product to dispose of through the wastewater system,” Harrington said.
In Dover, it’s especially important to avoid flushing anything but toilet paper because the city relies on 45 pump stations to move the sewage across mostly flat terrain.
“If these pump stations start to fail, then the sewage has nowhere to go than back up into people’s houses,” said Jason Lyon, assistant public works director in Dover.
While Lyon said Dover has only had a few clogs caused by disposable wipes so far, he agreed with Kent County Public Works Director Diana Golt who said she worries about the long-term consequences.
“A clog is a moving target,” Golt said. “The problems [are] being created today, and we might not see it for a week or a month.”
Depending on where the clog happens, it can cause maintenance problems along with environmental and health concerns.
At a time when many public works departments don’t have a full staff working, some employees are working longer hours and putting themselves at risk to unclog pipes or fix damaged equipment. The repairs are often costly and can require road closures, Harrington said.
Ultimately, debris stuck in the system can cause an overflow at someone’s home or somewhere else. This wastewater can damage the environment if it goes into ponds or streams, and cause health problems if people come into contact with it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 can live in untreated wastewater. While the CDC says there is no evidence that wastewater can get someone sick, Harrington and Lyon agreed that the risk makes it even more important to prevent overflow in people’s homes.
“If [wastewater] does enter someone’s house, then we would have to evacuate those people and put them up in a hotel, and then we’d have to clean the area to make sure it’s free of any of the waste,” Lyon said. While he added that this is a normal procedure to keep people safe, he said there is a greater level of concern due to the virus.
Beware of FOG
The problems aren’t just in the bathroom either. With more people cooking at home, city and county officials said they are seeing more problems with people dumping fats, oils and greases, called FOG, down the drain.
Even if you run hot water through the drain, cooking oil, for example, will eventually harden and stick to the pipes or other parts of the sewer system. “It’s kind of like a beaver making a dam in a river,” Lyon said.
If it solidifies later in the system, it can gum up the equipment. Different from wipes and rags, Harrington said FOG is more difficult to separate from the flow, and it builds up into big chunks over time. “That grease can become as hard as concrete,” he said.
Their advice? Let all cooking fats, oils and greases harden and scrape them into the trash. Another reminder: motor oils should never end up down storm drains or wastewater pipes.
Many of the sewage systems and what’s pumped from private septic systems in Kent County and beyond end up in the treatment plant in Milford, Golt said. That interconnectedness makes it even more important to watch what you flush or drain.