EPCOR cites increase in sewage issues


Toilet paper has flown off store shelves since March like people’s lives depended on them.

And yet, sewer lines are shooting out more than the water-soluble material.

EPCOR, which provides water, wastewater and natural gas service to around 665,000 people across 44 communities and 15 counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, says it’s seeing an increase in sewer maintenance issues relating to non-flushable items like “flushable” wipes, paper towels, disinfecting wipes and even nitrile gloves.

With much of the workforce, students and others staying home under COVID-19 social distancing measures, EPCOR says these items are showing up in the local wastewater system, which can be costly both financially and in health.

Art Nunez, West Valley director of operations for EPCOR, attributed some of the problem to convenience and people not really understanding how certain items can effect sewage flow.

“The use is kind of the same to them,” Mr. Nunez said. “You think of Kleenex. You blow your nose and flush it down the toilet. You don’t think twice about it. So, when you run out of toilet paper, they do the same thing, using the Kleenex, which to the average person it seems comparable. But what they don’t realize is it’s manufactured completely different. It’s designed and made to not dissolve. When that stuff gets into the collection system, it clogs up equipment, pipes. It can clog up the residential drains on their property.”

Mr. Nunez said EPCOR’s eastern districts are seeing it a little bit more than his area in the West Valley, which includes Sun City and Sun City West, where there’s about 460 miles of sewer pipes buried underground.

However, at EPCOR’s West Valley site, staff is having to pull a pump out on a weekly basis for maintenance.

“It’s supposed to pump up primarily liquid, some slurry type material. But it’s not performing like it should,” Mr. Nunez. “It gets plugged up and it’s not moving the same volume. Alarms go off and staff have to go out, take the pump, lift it out of this big wet well, and literally lay it on its side.”

And they’re finding paper products that haven’t dissolved.

“We have a very active program where we’re out there cleaning the sewer lines on a regular basis,” Mr. Nunez said. “The industry standard is you clean all these miles of pipe with large equipment every five years. Now with people flushing more down the sewer, there’s a concern we’re out there cleaning it as often as we can. But that’s a concern, that some of the material could cause a restriction in the sewer pipe.”

Over in Surprise, Jayson Cheshire, wastewater operations supervisor at the South Water Reclamation Facility, said paper products like facial tissue, paper towels or napkins are designed to hold up better with moisture, unlike toilet paper.

“A paper towel isn’t much good if you go to wipe up a spill and it just falls apart,” Mr. Cheshire said. “They’re designed to hold up better, so they will start to clog up the pipes.”

The same goes for the so called “flushable wipes.” While flushable in name, Mr. Nunez advises against sending those materials down the drain.

“You can take that product and put it in a glass of water, put toilet paper in a glass of water, paper towels, Kleenex. Let them set for five minutes or so, stir them up, and toilet paper dissolves within minutes. Those things won’t. Especially the wipes.

“Physically they won’t plug your toilet if you flush them but they’re not good for the system. They’re not good for your plumbing. They’re not good for the collection system. They get hung in pumps. We’ve been seeing issues with those flushable wipes for years. I couldn’t tell you when they became so popular but there’s kind of an industry push to get people to acknowledge they’re not truly flushable wipes.”

People who continue to flush down wipes, tissue and paper towel are increasing the potential to have a blockage on their property.

“Say you have a typical house, there’s — it’s called a sewer lateral — a 4-inch pipe that takes the waste flow from your house out into the sewer main, wherever they might be, in an alley, in the roadway,” Mr. Nunez said. “The homeowner, they’re responsible for that 4-inch pip on their property. If it’s 6 feet deep and it’s going underneath your driveway before it goes out to the sewer system in the street and the blockage is so restrictive, you got to get a plumber out. It could be anywhere from a few hundred dollars if they’re successful and able to clean it out. Which in most cases they can. But if they cant, and it’s so bad they have to dig it up, I’ve seen expenses exceeding $10,000.”

In addition to the costs to the consumer, EPCOR or other entities could be left having to repair equipment, which comes at a price to homeowners in the form of increase utility or sewage fees. Then there’s the cost to pay employees who are having to go out and fix the damage.

“We would definitely try to repair,” Mr. Cheshire said. “But repair and replacement of equipment that would normally function just fine, because of the increased loading from undissolved paper products, could certainly increase our operating costs, which could eventually be passed on to the taxpayer.”

Reporter Matt Roy contributed to this report.