Wipes, paper towels clogging sewer lines
Don’t touch your face. Don’t stand within six feet of other humans. Don’t make unnecessary trips via car or airplane.
And also this: Don’t flush those sanitary wipes, or paper towels or napkins, down the toilet.
The age of coronavirus is the age of prohibitions, but this last one, water system officials and local plumbers say, is a biggie. With much of the known world gripped by a toilet paper shortage, people are using many things other than TP to do their dirty work. That’s fine, as long as you throw the soiled material in the trash. Flushing it can lead to clogs, and potentially toxic overflows, at homes, at wastewater treatment facilities and in the miles of sewer pipes that connect the two.
The California State Water Sources Control Board currently reports 14 “wipes-related SSOs” — short for sanitary sewer overflows — in March, out of 136 total SSOs. Both statewide numbers are likely to grow, as local agencies have 60 days to report sewage overflows.
It should be noted, though, that the ratio of cases involving wipes is much higher than in recent years: 10.3 percent in March 2020, vs. 3.1 percent in March 2019, 2.5 percent in 2018 and less than 1 percent in 2017.
Closer to home, the City of Lakeport on Tuesday posted a social-media photo of a huge, dripping clump gumming up a piece of equipment at its wastewater treatment plant. Clearly visible in the tangle were blue latex gloves. “PLEASE STOP USING THE PUBLIC SEWER SYSTEM AS A GARBAGE CAN!!” the city tweeted.
So far, Sonoma County and its cities seem to have avoided the major sewage backups that have plagued other communities in the past month. Joe Schiavone, the City of Santa Rosa’s Deputy Director of Water and Sewer Operations, credits an aggressive city maintenance schedule and active public outreach.
When Sonoma County issued its stay-at-home order, Schiavone’s office made efforts to remind customers what is and isn’t appropriate for the drain.
The city’s overflow tallies, however, don’t include “laterals,” the sections of pipe between your house and the nearest city water main, or septic systems. Some plumbers say those home-based segments have needed extra attention since the county instructed residents to shelter at midnight on March 18.
“I had to give my baby-wipe lecture a little more the last few weeks,” said Greg Fremault, owner of Redwood Sewer and Drain in Santa Rosa.
Another owner-operator, Alan Bauermeister of Valley of the Moon Plumbing in Sonoma, said he tries to use a drain camera on all jobs to determine what’s causing a blockage. It’s usually plant roots that have sneaked into the line. Toilet paper breaks down so quickly that even intruding roots tend not to slow it down. The same is not true of alcohol wipes or cloth or even paper towels. They don’t decompose easily.
“Think about the paper towel commercials, like Bounty,” said Roman Scanagatta of Roman’s Plumbing in Petaluma. “You can use ’em, completely saturate ’em, wring ’em out and use ’em again. I have had to replace complete sections of waste line because I couldn’t get the paper towels out. Same with wipes.”
In many cases, Bauermeister insists, the homeowner knew better.
“The other day, I had one — I even have a picture, because it was a landlord-tenant situation,” he said. “I asked this woman if she was flushing wipes. She said no. Then I pull out a huge wad of Handi Wipes.”