Utility asks customers to help keep sewer pipes, creeks clean

by Frank DeLoache

Let’s start with a test: After you cooked the Thanksgiving turkey – and before you sat down with family and friends for a wonderful meal – what did you do with the grease?

Be honest.

Did you pour it down the drain?

Even if you didn’t, many of your neighbors did, and all that fat is clogging sewer pipes all over Mecklenburg County. Grease causes about 60 percent of sewer overflows each year in the county, according Barry Beamer, field operations’ compliance officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department. The utility has steadily reduced overflows since 2007, but field crews know they have to clean out some sewer lines in the system every three months or risk an overflow because of grease, Beamer said.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, utility crews responded to a sewage backup and overflow on Shawnee Ridge Road, in the townhome community at Bailey Road and Oakhurst Boulevard, in Cornelius. The crew found grease had blocked the pipe and caused the spill.

How can a little bit of grease diluted by water clog a huge sewer line?

The answer, Beamer said, comes in the way people used to make soap at home – combining animal fat with lye. Essentially the same process happens in sewer pipes. The grease floats on top of the water, collects on the sides of pipes and reacts overtime with chemicals in the pipes and water to harden – forming a bar of soap.

Grant Gray, a field operations team leader for one fourth of the county, said he’s seen crews pull long logs of hardened grease that had almost filled the inside of a sewer pipe.

Of course, other problems cause sewer overflows, especially tree roots that get the blame for 20 percent of sewage spills annually. In recent years, utility crews have seen a big increase in baby wipes that companies advertise as biodegradable but actually clog sewer pipes. Utility workers also see plastic items and, near hospitals, medical rags. Beamer said he’s heard of crews finding a vacuum cleaner and a bowling ball inside pipes.

But grease easily tops the utility’s enemy list, one reason that utility trucks and pipe-cleaning equipment bear signs with a big frowning face of eggs and bacon in a frying pan, proclaiming “Grease Clogs Pipes!”

Besides the expense of malfunctioning equipment and inconvenience to customers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has to answer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has court consent orders with a number of large utilities across the country requiring them to reduce overflows and pollution of creeks and streams.

That’s why grease gets a lot of attention from utility officials.

The utility has an aggressive program for monitoring how restaurants and commercial-size kitchens, like schools, manage their grease.

“We feel like we’ve got a real good handle on commercial grease,” Beamer said. But that leaves the challenge of convincing cooks all over Charlotte to stop pouring the fat down the drain.

Apartment complexes are the single biggest source of residential grease, partly because such complexes pack a lot of people and kitchens in a relatively small area and partly because renters, who don’t own their pipes, don’t worry about having to call a plumber to clear a line.

Utility officials try to regularly attend meetings of apartment managers groups to explain the problem of grease and ask their help in educating tenants. The utility also works with individual apartment complexes to get the word out to their residents.

One of the utility’s best weapons in its war on grease was cleaning a sewer line off Providence Road recently. Ruben Linares is one of Gray’s crew chiefs and an experienced leader who knows how to find and address problems in pipes before they cause a sewage overflow.

A native of Guatemala, Linares also is bilingual and mans the utility’s information booth at events that attract Hispanic residents, educating them.