COVID-19 Intensifies Existing Strains on the Wastewater Treatment System


DURATION 4 minute read

Panic buying toilet paper has spread around the globe as rapidly as the coronavirus. With many aisles left bare, those in need of the staple are left with perceived alternatives: flushable wipes. Though these sanitary wipes are labeled “flushable”, and they can pass through the toilet, they can wreak havoc on a wastewater treatment system and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.  


The Impact of Flushable Wipes on the Wastewater Treatment Process  

It is widely assumed flushable wipes disintegrate once we flush the toilet, though the reality is they do not. Unlike toilet paper that breaks down in roughly 24 hours, wipes remain intact once they make their way down the drain.  

These wipes have been found in drainpipes months after being flushed. Because they do not break down, they build on one another to form a massive mound that can clog pipes and back up plumbing systems, which are costly to repair.  

If wipes make it to a treatment plant, they can become caught on the edge opumps in lift stations. As wipes continue to collect on these pipes, they begin to bog down the treatment system, damage equipment, burn up pumps and in some cases, cause the water treatment system to fail. 

Though mixers can be added to help reduce wipes from clumping, too many wipes in a treatment system can cause raw sewage to back up into homes, which is never a pleasant experience.  


The Improper Disposal of Fat, Oil, and Grease 

Fat, oil and grease (FOG) are also known to damage wastewater treatment systems. A temporary ban on dine-in service at Texas’ restaurants has more people eating at home. Restaurants are equipped to handle the grease they generate with grease traps, but households are typically not equipped with this key wastewater industry tool.   As a result, more FOG is expected to build-up in pipes and treatment systems across the Lone Star State. 

FOG combines with flushable wipes as they make their way to a treatment facility. Once there, both materials will accumulate into a greaseberg, which is a large mound of non-biodegradable sanitary materials combined with FOG that can completely clog a sewer systemSewer lines bogged down with greasebergs require frequent jetting and chemical additives to break down the build-up. This can cause issues with lift stations and sewage pumps downstream. When a greaseberg reaches a wastewater treatment plant, it can block screens and filter systems, clog sludge pumps and increase sludge volumes, all of which are costly to repair.  

Greasebergs often require outside help from septic companies to clean and remove these massive build-ups, which is not cheap. In some cases, a greaseberg can cause enough damage to require the replacement of lift and pump stations, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

These problems are nothing new. Long before restaurants closed and toilet paper began flying off the shelves, flushable wipes and FOG build-up have been plaguing wastewater treatment facilities. But, with more people at home, water professionals are bracing for increased levels of build-up at their plants. 

Water utilities play a vital role in this crisis, so operations need to run as smoothly as possibleExperts are urging their communities to be conscious about what substances they contribute to the wastewater treatment system. Our team of wastewater design specialists and water district program managers are diligently working to ensure water utilities have the resources they need to operate efficiently during this time. Contact our experts to learn more about our team and how we can help prevent asset problems before they arise.  


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