An Unanticipated Consequence of Covid-19
While citizens have been sheltered in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Henry County Water Authority (HCWA) has seen the unintended consequences of a higher volume of wet wipes, rags and grease in its sewer system.
As a result, the utility is dealing with this additional strain on its assets, which is causing damage to its equipment and infrastructure, increasing maintenance hours and costs. And this is in addition to the Authority’s continual maintenance efforts to address line clogs, sewer spills and overflows, which Authority officials say will intensify if this trend continues. The improper disposal of these non-dispersible items also increases the risk of sewer backups in homes.
To maintain the integrity of residential plumbing (and septic tanks), as well as the HCWA sewer system, the Authority is pleading with residents to refrain from flushing any type of wet wipe or rag down the toilet, even those that are marketed or labeled as “flushable.”
Authority officials say when wet wipes are flushed down the toilet, they enter the HCWA sewer system (or a septic tank) and clog HCWA sewer lines (or septic system field lines), causing sewer spills and overflows, not to mention sewer backups in homes that require the attention and added expense of a plumber for a homeowner. Worst cases have resulted in damaged equipment in the field or impaired operations at HCWA wastewater treatment plants, which in turn necessitate even costlier repairs than sewer line blockages or spills and overflows.
Instead of flushing wet wipes, residents are asked to throw them in the trash after use. An effective reminder is to consider: “the toilet is not a trash can!”
During the current pandemic, HCWA officials also have noticed an increase in the amount of fats, oils, and grease (FOG) entering the HCWA sewer system, most likely due to more people resigned to cooking at home.
Excessive fats, oils and grease have damaging effects on home plumbing (and septic tanks), as well as the HCWA sewage conveyance and treatment system. When customers dispose of FOG down the sink, these items act as coagulants within HCWA sewer lines and a home’s plumbing, clogging the flow and causing backups, which facilitate sewer spills and overflows in the utility’s system and in local homes, resulting in costly solutions for the Authority and homeowners.
“Grease is more of a problem now, with everyone at home and with more cooking taking place,” says Ray Sanders, HCWA Manager of Water & Sewer Operations Maintenance. “Unfortunately, as long as it’s not backing up in their house, people don’t see the problem.”
Rather than pour grease down the drain, residents are asked to let grease cool and pour it into a container that can be sealed and thrown away. Plus, scraping food from plates and wiping dishes clean prior to washing help to preserve the integrity of sewer lines and plumbing as well.
“We all are adjusting to a different way of life during the pandemic, but we are doing everything necessary to continue to provide safe, reliable water and sewer services for our customers,” says Lindy Farmer, HCWA General Manager, who notes that he and his senior management staff hold virtual briefings at least three times per week to monitor developments related to the pandemic. “One of the ways the public can help is to be mindful of the things they put down the sink and flush down the toilet, because they have a direct effect on the integrity of our system. Wet wipes and grease may be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for our customers, but they are among our most challenging issues to deal with as a utility.”
For more information and updates on HCWA operations, especially during the pandemic, citizens can contact the Authority’s Customer Service Representatives at 770-957-6659, or refer to the utility’s website at www.hcwa.com.
Caption for photos:
The top photo shows the increased number of wet wipes and rags pulled from the HCWA sewer system, while the bottom photo shows the damage rags and grease have done to the utility's Parkland Lift Station.
Chris Wood, Ph.D.
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