A woman walks past mostly barren paper products shelves at Tom's Fresh Market in Traverse City on Sunday. Toilet paper, facial tissues and paper towels are largely sold out at many stores.

TRAVERSE CITY — While toilet paper is flying off of the shelves Traverse City officials are urging residents not to flush anything except toilet paper to reduce the chance of backing up the public sewer system.

Many have turned to alternatives to toilet paper — tissues, napkins, wet wipes and even paper towel — and the city’s Department of Municipal Utilities says anything but toilet paper will do the city’s sewage system harm.

“By design toilet paper breaks up when it’s flushed and creates smaller pieces that won’t clog up a pipe,” said Art Krueger, Traverse City’s director of municipal utilities.

Municipal workers have enough trouble under non-emergency circumstances with so-called “flushable wipes,” he said.

“A lot of times they will make it to the city sewer and begin to create a clog,” Krueger said. “And that is our concern — that we may see a lot more sewage back-ups.”

Retailers both locally and nationwide have reported shoppers flocking to stores to stock up on food and other essentials. Consumers have expressed frustration that some items — such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper — are becoming more difficult to find.

That’s why some are expected to resort to replacing unavailable toilet tissue with other paper products. And the unlikely chance certain paper towels will ever break apart is even a frequent marketing point.

Citywide back-ups can cause serious damage to homes and businesses if sewage was to overflow. The created clogs are commonly called “fatbergs,” a congealed mass in a sewer formed by the combination of flushed non-biodegradable solid matter, such as wet wipes, and congealed grease or cooking fat.

And it’s not just a public problem. Private homes may be at even greater risk for plumbing damage.

Residential homes are particularly susceptible to damage because of improper materials being flushed down the drain, according to Chris Wood, operations manager at Team Bob’s Heating, Cooling and Plumbing.

He said toilet paper quickly degrades and anything that doesn’t could potentially cause even further damage down the road.

“It will clog the system. It is not designed to be flushed ... period,” Wood said. “An internal system in a house can handle a little bit. Even just putting a full sheet of paper towel is really risking it backing up. You can plunge and push it through but you are on a path to some major problems down the road.

“You are going to require a service call from a plumber if you continue to flush these things.”

No calls of that nature have come into the company — so far.

Wood said while they have not run into the problem of backups in homes yet, they “are fully expecting it.”

Wood said one alternative would be to throw away any non-flushable wipes after they are used, into a trash can or even a closed diaper pail. Another idea would be to use washable rags as reusable wipes.

While no alternative will bring the same comfort to you or your home, they can bring unforeseen consequences that could be hard to fix during a time of self-quarantine.

Team Bob’s has instituted some new restrictions for their plumbers and HVAC workers who enter homes during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Wood said they have begun issuing face masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer to their workers, but still rely on the customer to follow new guidelines.

Team Bob’s started pre-screening customers this week, asking if anyone in the house is ill or has come in contact with a sick person, and informing them of a 10-foot buffer their service technicians require once they enter a domicile. They have even made a company-wide no-handshaking policy.

“We are currently servicing customers and taking every precaution we can,” Wood said. “We are in an industry that people still need. We are pressing on as long as we can.”

Service technicians also have been issued gloves and face masks, provided hand sanitizer for every truck, and are encouraged to perform vigorous hand washing.

Record-Eagle reporter Sheri McWhirter and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow Jake on Twitter @JakeAtnip

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