COVID-19 and Municipal Sewer Systems

  • 5/28/2020 4:00 pm


COVID-19 and Municipal Sewer Systems 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges over the past several months, but a unique challenge to wastewater collection systems has been the toilet paper shortages. Although the supply chains have largely improved since the initial shortages, there has been an increased use of paper towels, napkins and “flushable” wipes as alternatives to toilet paper. Unfortunately, these products can cause extensive damage to municipal wastewater collection systems since they do not break down at the same rate as toilet paper.

 Flushable wipes are not actually “flushable.” Many wipes are made from plastics and are not suitable for sanitary sewer systems since they are not biodegradable. Flushable wipes and grease account for the majority of sewer blockages in municipal sewer systems. When they make their way into a sewer lift station, they can clog the pumps, sometimes causing the pumps and motors to burn out.


 Paper towels account for up to half of the debris found on the bar screens of wastewater plants. Paper towels are not designed to break apart when wet. Unlike tissue paper, which breaks down readily when wet, paper towels absorb water and expand when wet. When flushed, they expand in size and remain that way as they move through the entire sewer system. If they get caught on tree roots that have entered the piping, a big clog can result, leading to a sewer backup. Clumps of paper towel waste can damage sewer lift station pumps and motors.


Please remember (and promote in your communities) that only toilet paper should be flushed down the toilet. Sewer blockages can be costly for the homeowner, and can also cause increased maintenance costs for wastewater collection and treatment plant operations.


Taking the proper steps to create an effective backup and overflow prevention program can help you manage the liability associated with your sewer system, and hopefully prevent costly sewer backups and damage to the system.


These steps include:


 1. Document complaints about backups 

Public Entity Partners’ casualty loss control consultants can work with you as you evaluate the processes you have in place to document complaints and backups within your system.

Documentation should include:

  • The name of the individual making the complaint
  • Location of the backup
  • Date and time you received the complaint
  • Who received the complaint
  • The action you took about the complaint


All inspections, maintenance and repairs on your sewer system should be documented with the dates they were performed, the name(s) of the personnel who completed them, and what the results were. 

2. Map out your system

 Most sewer systems are mapped. Your system’s map should include numbered manhole covers, all lift or pump stations, and the location of complaints. This will help you track your complaints and identify areas of your system that may need to be fixed.


 3. Fix the problem areas 

Your ongoing schedule of inspecting, cleaning and preventative maintenance for your system should be in writing. This is documented proof that you are taking care of your system. Focus on problem areas of your system. Plan and schedule cleaning for these areas at least twice a year. An uninspected line that hasn’t been cleaned is typically responsible for backups.

4. Educate employees and the public about their responsibilities during a sewer backup or overflow event

  • Do you know how to respond to a sewer backup? The manner with which your personnel handle residents who experience the trauma of a backup can influence whether or not your entity is sued. Your personnel should always treat citizens with concern for their problems. Explain what will be done, by whom and when it will occur, and consider suggesting precautions to prevent these types of events in the future.
  • Your employees should never discuss who is at fault for a backup or overflow event. Sometimes employees say things that make residents believe the overflow is your entity’s responsibility or fault. Educate your employees so they understand that responding to a sewer backup or overflow event does not mean accepting responsibility for the damage.
  • Create educational documents, fact sheets or brochures detailing the causes of backups and overflows. Explain that cooking grease, diapers and debris should be kept out of sinks, toilets and drains, and can cause backups and overflows.
  • Residents should be encouraged to have a backflow device and understand they are responsible for maintaining their lateral line.


These four steps for creating an effective program are key to identifying areas of concern within your sewer system and proactively working to fix these issues. A program of this nature will not only reduce the number of backups experienced in your system, it will also demonstrate the duty of care that you exercise, reducing your potential liability for these types of events.

 Any local government employee or elected official who may receive a complaint from the public should have a basic understanding of your sewer backup prevention program — and where to direct a complaint so it can be properly documented. Never admit or assume liability until a determination is made by your claim adjuster. If you accept responsibility for a backup before the claim adjuster has investigated, you could put your coverage in jeopardy.


If you have questions as you evaluate your sewer backup and prevention program, please reach out to your casualty loss control consultant.


East Tennessee

Judy Housely

Middle Tennessee

Chester Darden

West Tennessee

Paul Chambliss