Wipes, Paper Towels Threaten to Clog Sewer Systems Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

Utilities are issuing warnings to the public about what can and cannot be flushed down the toilet, and some contractors are responding to an increased number of wipes-related clogs

Wipes, Paper Towels Threaten to Clog Sewer Systems Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

Roto-Rooter has developed a COVID-19 resources page for its website to help customers deal with minor plumbing issues. It includes short how-to videos for things like properly plunging a toilet or un-jamming a garbage disposal.

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with items like disinfectant wipes and paper towels in high use and demand, utilities are seeing an influx of such items in their wastewater systems and are reminding people not to flush those items down the toilet.

Statements like this one issued by California’s State Water Resources Control Board are circulating:

“Flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets will clog sewers and cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities, creating an additional public health risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Last week, Redding, California, was an example of the types of problems that are potentially more prevalent at this time. There a crew responded to a blocked sewer line and discovered that shredded T-shirts produced the clog, suspecting that a residence in the area had used the T-shirts in lieu of toilet paper.

“Anything and everything is flushable, but it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to put it down the toilet,” Ryan Bailey, assistant director of Redding’s public works, told the Record Searchlight.

Following the blocked sewer line incident, Redding city workers distributed door hangers in the neighborhood to remind people what can and cannot be flushed down a toilet.

Contractors are also putting the word out. Roto-Rooter recently sent an email to all of its customers:

“If you’re all out of toilet paper, there’s no perfect solution, but you should never flush paper towels and napkins. They don’t dissolve quickly in water and are likely to cause your toilet to back up. Facial tissue is another bad idea, but in the absence of toilet paper, you can use it in small amounts if you flush frequently.”

Roto-Rooter has also developed a COVID-19 resources page for its website to help customers deal with minor plumbing issues. It includes short how-to videos for things like properly plunging a toilet or un-jamming a garbage disposal.

Some contractors are seeing an increase in service calls for wipes-related clogs. 

“We have noticed an uptick in the amount of clogged main sewer lines and, when we dispatch our technicians, we are pulling baby wipes out of the line and we’re seeing paper towels and Lysol wipes,” Mark Russo, vice president of Russo Brothers & Co. of East Hanover, New Jersey, told the New York Times.

“Since the coronavirus, business has picked up. It’s been the busiest weekend I’ve worked since being at Providence Plumbing,” Andrew Cox, a plumber for Providence Plumbing of Concord, North Carolina, told TV station WBTV Channel 3. “People are using paper towels, linens, pieces of T-shirts, anything they can get their hands on because of the lack of toilet paper.”

BHI Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning of San Bernardino, California, announced last week that it had a limited supply of surplus toilet paper available to customers in need who weren’t able to acquire any as a result of the panic buying.

“We prefer that our customers use toilet paper instead of other supplies not meant to be flushed,” Bryan Henley, president of the company, told the Highland Community News.

Not all contractors have seen an increase in service calls, and some are using extra caution regarding the types of calls they’ll respond to as the country works its way through the pandemic.

Mount Mechanical in Denver is focused on serving property management firms that run high-rise apartment and condo buildings. Company vice president Jamie Mount told the Denver Post that those firms have scaled back work requests as they try to keep contractors out of buildings except for emergency situations. Mount Mechanical is also trying to protect its technicians by only dispatching them on the most severe calls.

Environment Masters of Jackson, Mississippi, is also being careful about what calls it responds to.

“We’re trying to stay current on their (customers’) situation,” Ben Nalty, a service manager for the company, told TV station WJTV Channel 12. “We’ve been contacting customers and getting age and health information. If it is somebody that we think there’s a risk involved, we will ask them if we can reschedule until things seem to die down.”



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