Stop flushing your wet wipes 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

There can only be one: Toilet paper has become a scarce commodity in the past month, which has led to many people to stock up and flush down the toilet wet wipes. The wipes don’t break down and have been causing problems for local sewer-plant operators — in the past month and for the past two decades. 

Many things are flushable. 

But very, very few things should ever be flushed down your toilet.  

That was the message sent this past week to Voorheesville residents and it’s a message that local sewer plant operators have been preaching for years. 

“Please stop flushing wipes immediately as well as anything other than toilet paper,” the email sent to village residents said. 

The products don’t break down like regular toilet paper, said Brett Hotaling, the superintendent of Voorheesville’s Public Works Department. The wet wipes can clog the lines, which can possibly lead to parts of the plant shutting down; it also means a lot more maintenance and a lot more unnecessary cleaning out of the lines by hand.

Jeff Moller, Altamont’s superintendent of public works, said that the problem of wet wipes in the sewer system has been ongoing for the village but since the coronavirus has hit — and there has been a run on toilet paper, leaving shelves empty, so more people have been using wet wipes — the past month at the treatment facility has been worse.

“All the [sewer plant] operators you talk to are going through the same thing,” said Moller, who has worked for the village for about 20 years and said that wet wipes have been a constant issue over that time.

Within the past two weeks, a sewer backed up on Sunset Drive, and Moller thought wet wipes played a partial role in the clog, he said.

At Altamont’s wastewater-treatment plant on Gun Club Road, Moller said, a “bar screen” is meant to filter the wet wipes, paper towels, etc., from the wastewater before it enters the treatment facility — if the wipes and paper towels got into the plant, they could really cause a lot of problems.

The bar screen is what it sounds like: a bunch of bars across a pipe entering the treatment facility. Moller said there is also an automatic raking device that cleans the screen every 15 minutes and then the paper product is disposed of.

Moller has noticed an almost doubling in the amount of paper products being removed from the bar screen lately. 

With the old wastewater-treatment plant, the wipes were even more of a problem.

Moller said the wipes would partially break apart and get into the air tanks and would reform; he called it “re-ragging.” The strands would be 20 feet long and have the circumference of a person’s leg. Those strands of re-rags would intertwine with each other and then Moller and his crew would have to get inside the tanks to cut them apart and remove them.

“In my first year as Sewer District Manager for the Berne Sewer District, we had one instance of a grinder pump failure due to an ‘extreme’ amount of flushable wipes binding the impeller and overworking the pump motor,” Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise by email. “The grinder pump was so overloaded it was tripping the electric service breakers. Since then we do annual inspections of grinder pumps including current draw measurements.

“When we compare the new to past years’ measurements we can see a pump becoming overloaded due to a clogged situation caused by ‘stuff that should not be flushed.’ During these inspections we also hand out reminder cards to the sewer district residents reminding them of what is and is not flushable. As a result we have not (knock on wood) had any more events leading to grinder pump failures or clogged pipes.”

The problem is not just a municipal one. Homeowners with septic tanks, if they are not careful, could find themselves ankle-deep in excrement.

Like Moller, Steve Oravsky of Countryside Septic Service of New Scotland began encountering the wet-wipe problem about 20 years ago. Oravsky has seen instances where the wet wipes will get caught on the walls of the pipe that leads to the septic tank, which creates a barrier and causes a clog.

Oravsky said wet wipes were even more of a problem at the turn of the millenium because they were being advertised as “septic safe,” which they are not. Products that used to say “septic safe,” are now advertised as “flushable,” Oravsky said. “You can flush anything down a toilet, anything will go down,” but consumers don’t understand the damage that these products can do because they don’t break down.

Now that the news media has been reporting on the issues around flushing wipes, some people have wised up — more so people who have septic systems, Oravsky said.

People who are on a sewer system will continue to flush wipes; they have the mindset, Oravsky said, “It’s not my problem, pretty much.”

 He said he has issues with about 10 percent of the systems he services. His trucks are, obviously, built to vacuum out septic tanks, so it takes a lot of paper towels and wet wipes to cause a problem.

When he does encounter a problem, Oravsky said, it’s similar to that of  municipal sewer operators: The wet wipes or paper towels will clump together and create a rag, and he has to rake out the rag. 

He then has to explain to the homeowner that, although the packaging says it’s flushable, flushing is not a good idea. 

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