Pandemic cleaning frenzy: wipes clog sewers, costing county thousands

Pandemic cleaning frenzy: wipes clog sewers, costing county thousands

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -All the cleaning and wiping down we’ve been doing for the past year may help to slow the spread of COVID-19, but when those wipes go down the drain, it’s costing the county thousands of dollars.

Instead of dissolving like paper does, rags and wipes clump together in sewage systems, often clinging and hanging on to important sensors.

“Those clumps become larger and larger,” said Jaime Rivera, deputy director conveyance division for Pima County.

It costs more than a thousand dollars in labor and supplies to clean these clumps out of the system every time and the pandemic cleaning frenzy isn’t helping. In a normal year, crews would maybe check and clean out pipes with rag clogs every two weeks or so, now, they have to clean them every week.

“There’s always been rags in the system, but they were not to the point where they were causing a large problem. 2020, we’ve seen a large increase in wipes,” said Rivera.

In 2019, rags and wipes made up 19 percent of the sewage overflows, creating environmental hazards and neighborhood nuisances. In 2020, they made up 58 percent of the overflows.

“It’s better just to put them in the trash can,” said Rivera.

In 2020, rag and wipe clogs cost the county about $21,000 dollars to deal with these types of overflows specifically. In 2019, they spent $9,000 dollars on the same types of clogs. Fortunately, the county thinks this will likely mellow out as the pandemic fades, but if it does not, there’s no way around it—they’d need more money in the budget.

“You’re looking at $30-35 thousand dollars a year in increased maintenance to address wipe related issues,” said Rivera.

Overall, sewage overflows for the county are down from a peak in 1999 of 245 in a year, to around 25 the last several years. The county reminds people to not flush bottles, rags, towels, wipes, or other solids down drains, including grease.

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