Even two months into the coronavirus pandemic, toilet paper is occasionally hard to find in certain Denton grocery stores. Some paper product shelves are barren by the end of the day, leaving less fortunate shoppers to return home empty-handed.
Similar scarcities have been reported nationwide, prompting an increase in emergency plumbing calls as people turn to non-flushable alternatives.
As the virus continues to spread and temperatures begin to rise, the plumbing and HVAC industries are witnessing new trends — some of which have surprised even seasoned industry veterans.
Do not flush anything but toilet paper down the drain, said Roto-Rooter senior service technician Eddie Zeman. That includes paper towels, tissues and wipes — even the so-called “flushable” ones.
It may seem paradoxical for a product that’s advertised as drain-friendly to cause plumbing issues. But Zeman said wipes don’t break down the way toilet paper does.
“[Flushable wipes] do flush; the only thing is that they don’t dissolve,” Zeman said. “This is a flushable watch, but it’s not good in the sewer line.”
Although toilet paper supplies began dwindling in March, Zeman said he hasn’t seen an increase in wipe-related drainage problems.
Prior to the pandemic, Zeman said he primarily received calls for outdoor services, such as sewer blockages. Now, however, around 50% of his calls are for indoor issues.
The increase in indoor calls may seem strange, considering many people are still attempting to limit contact with strangers. But Zeman has a theory as to why that could be.
“Either people are using [appliances] more, all during the day, and they’re getting their final wear and tear,” he said. “And/or, they’re sick of watching it leak.”
For the most part, Zeman said people have maintained a reasonable distance from him when he’s working. Still, some have been less vigilant than others. Zeman said he has noticed that customers who live farther south in Denton County are less likely to adhere to social distancing mores.
To protect himself and his clients, Zeman sanitizes his hands before and after each job; he also wears gloves, shoe coverings and a face mask. But he said it becomes difficult to breathe when he’s performing heavy or prolonged medium labor. At that point, he’ll remove his mask and ask the customer to leave the area.
Just like other essential workers, plumbers and HVAC technicians put themselves at risk each time they answer a call. But Zeman said this falls in line with the plumbing industry’s credo.
“The mantra of plumbing is: For the health of the nation,” he said. “So we cannot stop.”
Ron Strelke, president of Denton HVAC and plumbing company Force Home Services, said his business has seen an uptick in emergency plumbing calls. With many people working remotely, houses are now consistently occupied. That means that toilets are getting clogged, sewers are backing up and old hot water heaters are croaking.
April is normally when the HVAC business starts to ramp up as some homeowners proactively check their air conditioner ahead of the summer, Strelke said. But Force Home received far fewer HVAC-related calls last month, likely because the area was under stay-at-home orders.
Consequently, Strelke expects his technicians will soon have their hands full.
“Once it hits 90 degrees, our business just skyrockets,” he said.
Prior to entering a house, Force Home workers will ask customers if they are currently or have recently been ill; if so, they’ll cancel the appointment. While working inside, technicians will wipe down everything they touch, such as thermostats, Strelke said. They also wear the proper protective gear.
But there’s another unique new protocol that Strelke’s employees are having to implement: No more interacting with customers’ pets.
“We’re typically going to be friendly with a dog, but actually that’s bad protocol,” Strelke said. “Petting a dog is just one more opportunity for transfer.”
Over the past two months, Strelke said he has seen renewed interest in water filters. COVID-19 isn’t transmitted through drinking water; however, people are purchasing less bottled water as they attempt to limit trips to the grocery store.
According to Consumer Reports, air purifiers can prevent transmission of certain airborne viruses such as SARS and influenza. Although they’ve not yet been tested against the novel coronavirus, purifiers could potentially do the same for COVID-19.
As such, Strelke said he has seen a piqued interest in whole-home air purifiers.
“Everything that passes through your air conditioning system is redistributed throughout the whole house,” Strelke said. “So if you take somebody and you isolate them in one room because they’re sick, as soon as you turn on the air conditioner, they might as well be in every room in the house.”