Does the coronavirus have you worried about toilet paper? Using paper towels or napkins can lead to plumbing problems

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Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

The photos from supermarkets of aisles emptied of paper products get no less jarring as the coronavirus continues to have an impact. People reportedly are asking other shoppers before they park at a store if toilet paper is available.

But carts full of toilet paper lead one to ponder just how much damage we can do to our toilets during self-quarantine. (Bidets are becoming popular.) According to Patrick Sullivan, a 24-year plumbing veteran with Wheeling, Ill.-based Taylor Plumbing Inc., it’s a lot of damage if common sense isn’t used.

Baby wipes? Those don’t go in the toilet.

As for Kleenex? That, too, is a no-go.

Paper towels? Nope.

“Baby wipes, even though some of them say they’re biodegradable, they really aren’t,” Sullivan said. “Those are one of the No. 1 causes of a backup in plumbing systems — baby wipes and paper towels. Paper towels are pretty tough. They’re designed to absorb spills, but they’re not designed like toilet paper, which is supposed to break down as soon as it hits water. They have a tendency to clump up and that causes problems.”

He adds that if you think those pads on the end of that toilet wand (part of some toilet cleaning systems) don’t cause drama for the pipes, you’d be mistaken.

“Those things don’t break down,” he said. “They may float along and make it out to the street. But really, if you follow one, it doesn’t break down before it leaves your house, that’s for sure. Don’t risk putting them down the toilet because, ultimately, you’ll meet one of my guys.”

Craig Campeglia, a retired Chicago plumber and former president of the Plumbers Contractors Association, agrees. A plumber featured in the book “The Poop Diaries,” he said a friend saw a lady buying eight packages of paper napkins, guessing the intent would be for the toilet. But dinner napkins do not break up in water the way toilet paper does.

“It will flow for a little while, and then it will stop flowing, and being that it’s wet, it has weight to it,” he said. “Then it dries and gets hard, and as you flush more stuff down the toilet, it acts as a dam. It will plug, then we’ve got to come into the building with a rod and rod it out, and people don’t realize that.”

Campeglia said an industry friend sent him a picture of a guy with a gold shirt, gold chains and a gold wristband citing: “This will be the plumbers in the next couple of weeks rodding sewers.”

Sullivan hasn’t seen an uptick in plumbing calls since self-distancing became a mandate in the Chicagoland area, but he thinks that’s because people also don’t want those from the outside coming into their space unless it’s a true emergency.

“If it’s not spraying everywhere, people are putting it off until we get an all clear or things change a little bit,” he said.

“This is a crazy time,” Campeglia said. “I don’t know why people are hoarding toilet paper. But I do know the only thing that should go down a toilet is sh—, pi— and toilet paper. Anything else, put it in a bag, seal it up and toss it in the garbage. That’s what it’s for.”


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