Out of sight, out of mind
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Once the toilet handle is pushed, the drain plug pulled, or the washing machines are started, most people do not think about the process that has been put into motion, or the problems they might be making worse. Treatment of wastewater begins with the user, and what the user puts into the system can lead to extra, needless costs.
Cabot Waterworks general manager Tim Joyner remarked Monday that some significant costs are incurred fixing preventable problems. “And those costs are passed along to the customer,” and the Waterworks has is beginning an emphasis to tell people, he said.
“We are trying to educate people,” Joyner said. Over the next few months there will be varying subjects emphasized. This month’s water bill included a note about not directing rainwater into the wastewater system; next month will be another subject.
Two continuing battles plague wastewater, or sewer, systems — FOG — fats, oils and grease; and I & I, infiltration and intrusion of rainwater and groundwater into the system. Combined, the cost of fixing problems caused by fat, oil and grease and preventing I&I can mount into hundreds of thousands dollars.
Fats, oils and grease act on wastewater systems the same way fats build up in arteries, Joyner said. FOG in wastewater systems builds layer-by-layer until finally, like its counterpart in individuals’ arteries, it creates a blockage.
“We use hundreds of man-hours on clearing it from the lines,” Joyner said.
Unlike an arterial blockage, a wastewater blockage does not have fatal consequences, but a worst-case instance could lead to overflows into residences causing thousands of dollars in damage. Under city ordinance, the Waterworks will not pay for damage caused by sewer backflow.
The ordinance sets out that it is the customer’s responsibility to ensure a back flow device is installed in the sewer line to protect the residence. The device, available through building supply businesses, is installed between the home and the main sewer line.
“It is a matter of not pouring everything down the drain. Let frying pans cool and then scrape it into the garbage can,” Joyner said. “Go back to having the grease can next to the stove.”
As far as rainwater matters, the problem is that the wastewater system is not intended for storm runoff, Joyner said. “[Storm runoff] can overwhelm the system. It causes other problems, too,” he said.
“We have had some instances of people connecting downspouts and French drains with the wastewater line. Or, they just open the cleanout and let the water drain in. They are not supposed to do that,” Joyner said.
The Waterworks has invested possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in wastewater system improvements to keep unwanted water out of the system. The elevated manholes seen in low lying areas are the most easily seen, other measures include replacement of sewer lines.
“There isn’t any one fix, it is trying to stop a lot of little problems,” Joyner said. But keeping unwanted water out is only part of what the department copes with, he said.
Another problem caused by customers is non-biodegradable materials flushed into the wastewater system. Paper towels, hand and baby wipes, napkins, facial tissue, and feminine hygiene products
“Sometimes the pump looks like a mop is caught in it for all the strings,” wastewater plant operator Jana Kohlmann said, explaining what happens once the wastewater reaches the treatment plant. At least once a week, a 10-yard trash container full of the trash separated from the wastewater is hauled away. “The only thing ‘flushable’ means is that it will go down the drain,” she said.
Toilet paper is designed to break up quickly and easily, Kohlmann said. A simple test will show whether something is acceptable in the wastewater system; “Put whatever it is in water. If it has not broken down in an hour, don’t put it down the drain or the toilet. Put it in the trash,” she said.
Joyner said there is another, though not obvious, problem customers could have lurking in their sewer system. “If they have a sinkhole in their yard that just will not go away, won’t be stopped, it could be a hole in their sewer line,” he said.
A hole will allow soil into the system, which is washed away in normal drainage. As the soil is washed away, the sinkhole forms. “People will put all sorts of fill in trying to stop it; bricks, rocks, whatever. But it won’t stop until the hole is fixed,” Joyner said.
Information about the residential grease program, backflow prevention and other Waterworks services and programs is available at the Waterworks office, 1 City Plaza; or online at www.cabotwaterworks.com.