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Amid run on toilet paper and extra cleaning, sewer district reports equipment clogged with wipes

Amid run on toilet paper and extra cleaning, sewer district reports equipment clogged with wipes

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The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District system has in recent weeks been more clogged than usual with baby wipes and other non-flushables.

The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is seeing more sanitizing wipes, paper toweling and other clog-causing material enter the system in recent weeks as toilet paper has disappeared from shelves and people are focused on disinfecting amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re seeing it out in the collection system and we’re seeing it at the plant,” district spokeswoman Amanda Wegner said. On Saturday, the materials caused a pump at one of the district’s pump stations near the Dane County Regional Airport to fail, she said.

Sewer officials have long cautioned that the only things that should be flushed are human waste and toilet paper. Even wipes marketed as flushable aren’t because they’re made of fibrous, stringy materials that can hamper pumps and get stuck inside manhole covers, on air tubing and on mixers that keep wastewater moving as it makes its way to the district’s South Side treatment plant, Wegner said.

Sewage district rags

Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District operator Brenda Staudenmaier removes wipes and rags at the district's treatment plant.

Wegner wasn’t sure if the increase in banned materials is because people are cleaning more or because they’re using something other than toilet paper in the bathroom as hoarders have made the product harder to find.

But she cautioned that “these things can get backed up in people’s homes” as well.

Jay Schlicher, general manager at Fitchburg-based Benjamin Plumbing, said his company has seen a mild increase in the number of calls about home systems clogged with wipes over the last couple of weeks. He thought the increase was likely due to people wiping down surfaces with sanitizing wipes.

Clearing the clogs can be done with an auger but sometimes it requires removing the toilet, he said.

“A majority will make it into the city sewer pipes,” Andrew Uttech, general manager at Sun Prairie-based Action Plumbing, said of the wipes and other banned materials.

But the newer low-flow toilets aren’t always as able to push the heavier materials through a home’s pipes, he said. And Wegner said that any clogs from the toilet through the home’s pipes and into the sewer lateral are the homeowner’s responsibility.

“Depending on age, proximity to trees, etc., these laterals can deteriorate or tree roots can grow into them,” she said in an email. “Anything that’s not (toilet paper) can get caught in the sewer lateral, especially if there are roots or cracks.”

She said the problem only gets worse if fats, oils and grease — or FOGs, as the district calls them — get put down the drain as well, because “the FOGs and other non-flushables can congeal together and cause ‘fatbergs.’”

Wegner said the “flushable” moniker some wipes manufacturers are attaching to their products is misleading.

“Basically a ‘flushable’ label just means it will clear your plumbing,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it will actually break down in the sewer system.”


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