Fatbergs: Protect Your Home’s Plumbing and Sewage System

By Dave Webb
clogged drain

Here’s an experiment: Fry up some bacon (you know you want to, anyway). Let the leftover grease sit in the pan for a few hours. Observe the skating rink of lard left behind.

What you are looking at is the beginnings of a potential fatberg if you dispose of it using your sink or toilet. Fatbergs can pose a serious threat to your home’s plumbing system. While home insurance exists to protect you from the unexpected, neglecting to maintain and care for your dwelling, including its plumbing and sewage systems, can lead to insurance claims larger than the limits outlined in your policy.

The term was coined in 2008 when large lumps of congealed cooking fat began washing ashore on the coast of Wales. (Note to self: Don’t go swimming off the coast of Wales.) It came to be identified with sewer blockages in the Victorian era plumbing of parts of London. The Whitechapel Fatberg weighed in at 130 tonnes and was 250 metres long. It took two months to remove. The last remaining chunk, hard as concrete, was displayed for five months at the Museum of London.

Though fat gets the credit, it’s not the only component. Experts believe the rise in the use of so-called “flushable” wipes is contributing to the problem, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying fetishistic cleaning of hands is certainly not helping. Other detritus, from condoms to tampons, can help form a fatberg.

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Avoiding Water Damage to Your Home

Water damage, and whether or not it is covered under your insurance, is a complicated issue. Coverage depends on what caused the water to enter your home as well as the optional add-ons you may have purchased when getting your policy.

People have flushed some odd things down the toilet. While some are at the extreme level of plumbing compromises, there is an ongoing problem with everyday usage of home-based sinks and toilets. And the risks aren’t just blocking the sewage system — which can have disgusting effects on basements — but the casual disposal of cooking fat and non-biodegradable items are also a threat to your home plumbing. What goes in doesn’t necessarily come out.

So what can you safely flush down the toilet? Bodily waste and toilet paper. That’s pretty much it. Sinks see a wider variety of content, some of which can be detrimental to your plumbing. Here’s a shortlist of things to keep out of your plumbing:

  • Grease and cooking fat. You’ve got a skillet full of leftover fat but don’t pour it in the sink, even if you run hot water with it. Pour it off into a leftover soup can and freeze it until garbage day or let it cool and solidify and scrape it into the green bin. Small amounts of cooking oil can go in the green bin, as long as there’s an absorbent material, but large-scale disposal of cooking oil depends on your municipalities bylaws.
  • Wipes of any kind. Hand wipes, baby wipes, disinfectant wipes, even if they’re billed as flushable, aren’t. These go in the garbage.
  • Tampons and paper towels. Both absorb water and enlarge, potentially blocking your U-bend. Don’t flush them. Same goes for facial tissue. They all go in the green bin.
  • Condoms, cotton swabs or balls, dental floss. All of these should go in the garbage, not the loo.
  • Shaving stubble. Shaving stubble likely won’t clog a sink, though it may slow drainage over time. But if you’re removing your six-months-a-lumberjack beard, put a paper towel over the drain and wipe out the sink afterwards.
  • Leftover medication. Return unused drugs to a pharmacy. If we flush it, we run the risk of harming wildlife as well as the quality of our freshwater.

Protecting the Plumbing and Sewage Lines to Your Home

No one has reported a bus-sized fatberg in Ontario or Alberta, but the potential is there. In 2011, a fatberg backed up sewers in Halifax. Vancouver spends more than $2 million a year cleaning up mini-fatbergs. And you’re not just risking a potentially expensive plumbing problem. A Toronto bylaw forbids fat flushing, with non-compliance fines.

Even with the best plumbing hygiene, blockages happen. Have two plungers on hand: The suction-cup-shaped on for sinks, the flanged one for toilets. Pro tip: You need water to clear a block. The more full the sink or toilet, the bigger the column of water, the more force applied to the clog.

Better pipe hygiene will result in optimum flow through your pipes and help avoid costly repairs and claims on your home insurance.