What your plumber wants you to know while you're home during the coronavirus crisis

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Center, as seen on Saturday, March 28, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Coronavirus has lead to many Chattanoogans spending more time at home and due to social distancing and businesses being shut down, and as a result the City is facing disproportionate amount of sewer lines getting clogged, the flushing of disinfecting wipes down the toilet has been a leading cause of back ups.

Plumbing experts will tell you there are only three things you should ever flush down your toilet: urine, feces and toilet paper.

Disinfecting wipes are nowhere on the list, not even the ones marked flushable.

"No flushable wipes - they don't break down like toilet paper," said Jeff Logan, owner of Scenic City Plumbing in Chattanooga and a plumber with 22 years' experience.

This might come as a surprise to shoppers clearing shelves of sanitizing wipes during the coronavirus crisis. The products' claims of germ obliteration may be true, but don't believe everything you read on the label. Yes, technically, they are flushable. But so is a cellphone. What these products are not is dispersible, or easily dissolvable.

Bottom line: The only thing you want going down your john are the three P's of potent plumbing - pee, poo and (toilet) paper. Keep the wipes out of your pipes.

"You can flush [a wipe]," Logan said. "But especially with older drains, if it hits a rough spot, it's going to snag. Then it catches everything else that comes down the line, and it builds up and builds up and causes a clog."

He'd also add baby wipes, paper towels, facial tissue and feminine hygiene products to the list of no-nos. Only toilet paper is designed to dissolve easily.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday advised against flushing anything except toilet paper in an effort to safely manage the nation's wastewater and ensure that toilets, plumbing, sewer systems and septic systems will continue working properly.

"Having fully operational wastewater services is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks," said the EPA statement.

Tennessee American Water has issued a similar advisory for its 380,000 customers in Tennessee and North Georgia who may be using baby wipes as a backup for toilet paper or disinfectant wipes for habitual housecleaning.

"While it might seem to make your daily life easier, putting the wrong thing down the toilet or drain can and does cause blockages, which take time and money to fix," said Vice President of Operations Grady Stout.

Even if you luck out and avoid a clog in your own plumbing, you can cause trouble down the line, said Jeffrey Rose, director of the Waste Resources Division of Chattanooga's Department of Public Works.

He manages the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant - the No. 1 guy for your No. 2. It's true, he said, that this stuff runs downhill.

"It flows by gravity," he said. "[Home sewer] lines have to be laid on a slope to make sure things flow out. Then when it hits the main sewer line, that's also laid on a slope so that all the water will flow by gravity downstream. The lines get bigger and bigger as they move toward the plant."


Woven wipes aren’t the only concern for families spending more time at home during the coronavirus. If you’re cooking more, you should avoid pouring grease, fat or oil down the drain.When washed down the drain, grease and oil can adhere to the insides of the pipes that carry the wastewater from homes and businesses to the sewer treatment facility. Over time, this buildup of grease can restrict the flow of wastewater or, worse yet, block the homeowners’ or utility’s sewer pipes.These blockages can lead to sewage overflowers or backups in homes and businesses. It can also have an adverse effect on the environment if the overflow enters local rivers, lake and streams.Tennessee American Water advises:* Allow grease to cool, and use a rubber scraper to remove the fat, oil and grease from cookware, plates, utensils and cooking surfaces. Then place the grease in a sealed container and dispose of it in the trash.* Install baskets/strainers in sink drains to catch food scraps, and empty the scraps into the trash.* Keep in mind, garbage disposals do not prevent grease from washing down the drain. Also, detergents that claim to dissolve grease may pass it down the line and cause problems in other parts of the wastewater system.

In places where gravity can't do the work, there are pump stations. Their job is to rapidly spin the wastewater and push it into a force main, or a pressurized sewer pipe, that can run it for some distance, such as over a hill, until it reaches a gravity line, he explained.

"Sometimes those pump stations have chopper mechanisms to chop things up. It works for normal [biodegradable] stuff," he said.

Not so much for wipes. Instead of mincing the wipes into small pieces, the chopper may only mangle the cloth into halves or thirds, especially in neighborhoods that are flushing large numbers of wipes into the sewer system. When these pieces hit the pump station's spin cycle, chugging at 1,200 to 1,800 rpms to pressurize the wastewater, the wipes "reconstitute themselves and turn into strands, like a rope," Rose said. "It's likely to clog the pump station eventually.

"The backup [of sewage] may happen at the pump station, or it might be at someone's house," he said.

Public Works employees sometimes pose with the glop of wipes and grease and other nonbiodegradable substances they pull from the system. "It's interesting but gross," Rose said.

The largest of these congealed masses are called "fatbergs," a combination of fat and iceberg. Fatbergs became a problem in the 2010s in Britain because of aging Victorian sewers and the increased use of woven wipes, according to news reports. Among the first notable fatbergs was a 17-ton congealed mass of food, fat and wet wipes, roughly the size of a bus, discovered in drains in London in 2013. More recently, a 440-ton mass was discovered in a sewer in Liverpool in February 2019.

The coronavirus scare means there are many more of these wipes in use, Rose said, creating potential problems for Public Works employees. While some wastewater employees can work from home, most are working normal or staggered shifts to keep the system functioning.

"As you can imagine, it is often difficult to 'social distance' when two or more people are required for certain maintenance tasks on these large and complicated systems," Rose said. "So along with dealing with the normal issues of operating and maintaining aging infrastructure, responding to sewer blockages and overflows, we have the added concerns of a very contagious disease."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.