Every corner of the country has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Across the nation, there have been more than 5.75 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 177,700 deaths. It’s alarming to think of how fast this virus has spread during 2020. One area people don’t think about is the impact of COVID-19 on wastewater treatment.
While it might not be something you stop to consider, COVID-19 has impacted the wastewater treatment industry, too. It’s affected wastewater treatment in several ways ranging from increased residential wastewater to clogged pipes and equipment. There’s also the fact that the body does shed the virus through the waste that ends up in the wastewater traveling through sewer lines and into residential septic systems.
The CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have started a surveillance program to track the levels of COVID-19 in wastewater. While no one has found evidence of the virus spreading through wastewater (treated or untreated), the virus is present in the feces of those who have the virus. By studying patterns, experts know where they should be looking for COVID-19 clusters and making testing available.
The other reason it’s important for wastewater treatment plants to test for COVID-19 is to keep workers safe. Employees who work in wastewater treatment plans should take protective measures with personal protective equipment and safe practices at work. Doing so can eliminate the risk of contamination from untreated wastewater.
Problems With Clogged Lines and Equipment
One of the problems wastewater treatment plants are facing with the pandemic has been trash in the sewer lines. Around the nation, wastewater treatment plants are facing issues from a large increase in protective gloves, masks, and disinfecting wipes making their way into sewer lines and wastewater treatment plants. People are flushing these items instead of disposing of them in the trash as they should.
Most toilet papers disintegrate in water. It usually takes no more than 24 hours. Wet wipes don’t break down as quickly. They may flush and make it through toilet pipes, but as they travel through the sewer, they can catch on tree roots, curves, and other items and collect other items. Soon, there’s a huge blockage of fat, feces, napkins, tampons, and wipes that isn’t breaking down. It slows down the wastewater’s flow and can lead to sewer backups and spills.
As the pandemic started, toilet paper stocks decreased. Soon, toilet paper shortages were affecting everyone. People were turning to baby wipes, makeup removers, and any other moist wipe they could use in place of toilet paper. Napkins and paper towels were other items people were using in place of toilet paper. Rather than throw them into the trash, as they needed to, they were flushing them. These items do not break down quickly. They were causing clogs in sewer lines and water treatment equipment.
Latex or non-latex gloves and disposable masks were other items getting flushed. Again, they don’t degrade in water, so they were clogging lines. In Washington, a bill was signed making it illegal to flush non-flushable wipes starting on July 1, 2022. In Tennessee, one town’s sewer workers started cleaning sewer pumping stations twice a week instead of once a month. An Air Force base in California has crews working 16-hour shifts to remove clogs from pipes. In Maryland, one wastewater pumping station saw an increase of more than 37,000 pounds of wipes during the first quarter of 2020.
All of this is costing cities and towns a fortune in additional hours and repairs. People need to remember to only flush toilet paper and human waste. Despite the pleas from one side of the nation to the other, people keep flushing things that cause harm. That’s one of the biggest ways the pandemic has impacted wastewater treatment. Grinder pumps and screens are essential to handling all this increased trash, but not every district has the money available to install them.
Increased Wastewater Flow in Residential Areas
With more people working from home, residential water consumption has also increased. A water monitoring company studied water usage and found it increased by about 21% per day. Some cities saw higher increases. For example, New York City’s residential water consumption increased by 28%. In Minnesota, the increase was 25%. People working from home are doing more laundry, using the toilet more, washing more dishes, and taking more showers. People are also washing hands more as is recommended by the CDC.
This increase in water usage means wastewater treatment plants are treating an increase in water. Water treatment plants that treat a lot of water from commercial industries may see decreases, but water treatment plants serving mostly residential structures are facing large increases that older equipment may not be able to handle.
Another change with water usage is when peak water usage is happening. It used to be that most families showered and ate breakfast in time to catch buses/trains and commute to work or school. Families had to have kids ready to get on the bus for the early morning pick-up. Commuters had to be out of the home early to beat rush hour traffic. Wastewater treatment plants expected the highest water flow around 7 a.m. and again around dinner time or 6 p.m.
Without the rush to commute or get to a bus or train, people shifted their morning routines an hour or two later than normal. Peak water usage is now around 9 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. Water treatment plants expect changing flow rates throughout the day and may use computers to speed up or slow down equipment accordingly. Not every plant is set up this way, however. Changes in flow rates at unexpected hours can cause problems. If treatment plants have flow rates that are higher than anticipated, they may have to ask residents to avoid running appliances during certain hours to reduce the strain on older equipment that cannot keep up.
Does Water Treatment Kill Coronavirus?
People who get their residential and commercial water from treated water do not have to worry about the virus still being present. Wastewater treatment processes kill viruses and bacteria. After filtering wastewater, aerating it, and using chemicals to kill any residual contaminants, water that’s returned to bodies of water or put into storage tanks for public water systems. No evidence of COVID-19 surviving water treatment has been found.
What if untreated wastewater makes it into lakes or streams after heavy rains? There is the chance that COVID-19 will be in untreated water, but there has not been any known case of the virus spreading through wastewater spills. Wastewater treatment plants should do everything possible to prevent untreated wastewater spills by making sure their system can handle an increased capacity and repair broken equipment and lines.
Can steps be taken to eliminate the chances of COVID-19 untreated wastewater from returning to the environment? How can plants anticipate changes in peak water flow? What can be done to stop people from flushing their gloves, masks, and wet wipes? Upgrading equipment is key. Older infrastructure needs to be improved to reduce energy consumption and keep up with changes in wastewater flow rates and screening.
Lakeside Equipment is here for districts that need to repair their equipment due to damage from items that shouldn’t be flushed. We can also help districts upgrade equipment to be more energy-efficient or handle an increase in residential wastewater as people are working from home and cooking more meals at home. Reach us by phone or email for more information on a new wastewater treatment system or to discuss upgrades that will save your district money.