back to article Aw, bad day at your air-conditioned, somewhat clean desk? Try shifting a 40-tonne fatberg

Workers at Thames Water have shifted a 40-tonne fatberg – slightly more than three double-decker buses – from a sewer in south London. For the uninitiated, fatbergs are the glossy miracles that occur when fat, grease and oil meet wet wipes and nappies to congeal into an impenetrable lump of sewer-based deliciousness. Thames …

  1. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Other places...

    Apart from Parliament --- proudly claiming the soubriquet of The Greatest Fatburg --- does the government have a list of fatburgs in Great Britain ?

    And do they occur greatly in other countries ?

    And I'm not advocating executions in the early 19th century fashion, in the street where the offence occurred, and the fat went into the drain, but it couldn't hurt.

    1. Imhotep

      Re: Other places...

      Everytime I see a fatberg article, it seems to be in the UK. I have a hard time understanding how fats and the other substances are being flushed in to the sewers in quantities large enough to cause the problem. Maybe cooking with fat is more common or?

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Other places...

        Maybe the "dumpers" are just using water and not adding any or enough dish soap along with hot water to the mix?

        The other thought is you Brits have a different quality of fat and "disposable paper products" in the pipes then we here in the States.

        1. H in The Hague Silver badge

          Re: Other places...

          "The other thought is you Brits have a different quality of fat ..."

          I gather that in some city centres there are a lot of restaurants which serve fried food. Although there are collection services for old fat (even free of charge) some folk seem to find it easier to pour the stuff down the drain. That should be intercepted by their grease interceptors but it seems that these are either missing or defective. I've heard that the traps are not usually inspected, to relieve the regulatory burden on restaurants, but creating lots of problems downstream. Seems to be a fairly specific UK problem, haven't heard of this happening in, say, NL. Though here wet wipes seem to be causing problems (in blocks of flats, not so much the main sewers).

          I really can't understand why some folk flush inappropriate stuff down the drain but that probably just means I'm an unimaginative, grumpy git. Wish the magistrates could impose community service orders on these restaurant operators requiring them to help remove the fatbergs!

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            Re: Other places...

            As regards fat traps, at work ours is supposed to convert the fat using some kind of enzyme which is dosed into the trap by a small pump. It then becomes safe for the sewer. A previous head of the cafe didn't like the price of this stuff so stopped buying it. The grease trap - about the size of a chest freezer - simply clogged up and had to be dug out by hand, with spades.

            In general though, small quantities of fat shouldn't be a problem for most sewers. Where it does become an issue is when that fat gets caught up with the stupid inappropriate items which are also in the drains - the wet wipes, cotton buds, sanitary products etc. - and then get caught at a bend or on a root or something.

            Nappies? How can anyone flush a nappy? It would block most normal loos, never mind a sewer! Maybe they mean nappy liners, though these days most of them claim to be safe to flush I think.

            M.

            1. Bluto Nash

              Re: Other places...

              Previous head of the cafe was an idiot. Full stop. Hopefully their replacement has something aside from a lump of nappies for a brain.

    2. IGotOut

      Re: Other places...

      No they happen in the US as well. You also have to remember, many of the sewers, especially in London were built with populations far smaller in mind that now.

      Many issues could be easily solved by banning wipes that don't degrade in a typical flush.

      As I told a soon to be dad, if it's made by Johnson and Johnson, you probably don't need it.

      1. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: Other places...

        Many issues could be easily solved by banning wipes that don't degrade in a typical flush.
        Which, AFAIK, is all of them that don't degrade appropriately.

        Any 'flushable wipe' is determined to be flushable by the wipe-manufacturing industries own self-set standards, not standards set/approved/tested by the sewage/engineering/maintenance industry.

    3. d3vy Silver badge

      Re: Other places...

      "And do they occur greatly in other countries"

      My understanding (limited but I did used to do h&s software for utility companies relating to sewer management) is that they occur much more frequently in older sewer systems.

      London sewers date back to the 1800s lots of them are still made of bricks giving the wetwipes and fat a nice textured surface to cling onto.

    4. J27 Bronze badge

      Re: Other places...

      It's common anywhere it's legal to call baby wipes "flushable" and worse in places that market them to adults. In short, if you don't feel "clean enough" with paper buy a bidet toilet seat.

    5. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Other places...

      Many sources, such as this one, describe fatbergs in countries other than the UK.

      Besides the flushing of fats and non-disintegrating wipes, some major contributing factors appear to be the percentage of sewer capacity in use, roughness of sewer lines, and amount of calcium in the water (due to source hardness, calcium leaching from concrete, etc). The calcium reacts with saponified fats to form soap scale, just as it does in the shower, for example.

  2. Lee D Silver badge

    Question:

    Why is it not viable to fit a mesh over sewer pipes that enter the sewers so that things like wet-wipes and nappies block up the local sewer / that person's drain rather than get washed downstream into a big globule that affects half a city?

    Surely those pipes just feed into other pipes which feed into larger pipes which feed into sewers... start mandating and fitting a grille inside them just outside the customer's pipework so they can only block up their own / their neighbour's damn sewer when they flush something unflushable.

    1. stiine Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Because you wouldn't want to be downstairs from one of those...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Cost because it would just be money down the drain.

    3. Just Saying 132

      Considering some of the "dog logs" I've seen at work from inconsiderate coworkers who forget to flush ... I'd say if the mesh you're suggesting is open enough to pass one of these beasts then the wet-wipe will have no trouble getting through.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        logging In

        As for people forgetting to flush - perhaps - but have you noticed all the floaters that fail to flush no matter what you do? Even after multiple flushes, and we are supposed to be saving water!

    4. d3vy Silver badge

      "Why is it not viable to fit a mesh over sewer pipes"

      Poo?

    5. Keith Langmead

      Presumably you'd still end up with the same problem as now, but you'd simply be moving it up stream. So rather than one 40-tonne fatberg in one location, you'd have say 40 1-tonne fatbergs, all of which need individually removing, but which are all in smaller less accessible pipes so harder to work in.

      1. zuckzuckgo

        VPF

        So your saying it is easier to manage one Super-Fatberg rather than 40 or so Virtual Private Fatbergs? But which scales better? Although in PT (Plumbing Technology) we usually prefer less scaling.

        1. bobajob12
          Coat

          Re: VPF

          In a virtual environment, you'd need PCI passthrough: Pee/Crap Interleaving. Or maybe even DPDK: Double P Direct Konnection. But only if you had the right drivers. Like a dodgy vindaloo the night before.

  3. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Aww, The Romance of a Candle-Lit Dinner --- When The Lights are Low

    In China, fat from sewers and traps is illicitly scooped, cleaned up—though not well—and sold on the black market as “gutter oil.” In cheap restaurants and street stalls, your dinner might even be cooked in gutter oil.

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/08/fatbergs-fat-cities-sewers-wet-wipes-science/

    And in America the name is FOG. Fat, Oil and Grease.

    1. ShadowDragon8685

      Re: Aww, The Romance of a Candle-Lit Dinner --- When The Lights are Low

      I was much, much happier before I read that.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "This was a massive and disgusting blockage that took a great deal of effort and teamwork to clear and get the sewer working well again."

    Maybe they could take a shot at Brexit next.

    1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: Maybe they could take a shot at Brexit next.

      Hmm, but according to the spokesman the three P's shouldn't cause a blockage.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Maybe they could take a shot at Brexit next.

      Too late for that... Not even nuking Brexit from orbit will move it.

  5. Mark192

    This was a very silly article

    I liked it.

  6. hatti

    It's well known that fatberg size can be measured in Kiloglobules squared

    1 globule unit = 1 big mac

  7. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    How long...

    How long before this sort of thing happens in the Cloud?

    I propose this eventuality be called an NTFS Berg. (Aha funnily enough I see there is an IoT device being developed by a company called Berg). IoT arguably pumping a lot of waste packets through the intertubes...

    So yes, I've just convinced myself that NTFS Berg's will be the next big thing, made up of data and packets.

    So keep your data local folks to prevent an NTFS Berg.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The guys...

    ..dealing with this stuff are heroes.

    Really.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The guys...

      > The guys.....dealing with this stuff are heroes.

      Sometimes, I read these stories and wistfully imagine that mindlessly chopping-up a fatberg with a high-pressure water jet would be preferable to the metaphorical crap I have to work through for real.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The guys...

        Pays well too. My SO tells me that her (former) B-in-L works in the London sewers and is on exceptionally good money. Still, money isn't everything.

        1. paulf Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: The guys...

          One of my friends used to work for a company that contracted for the sewage side of things at one of the water companies in England. He used to have regular vaccinations (and I think tests) for things like Hepatitis (plus others) due to the risk of infection from being so close to sewage. He was glad to get away from that crap.

    2. chivo243 Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: The guys...

      Gives a new name to hazard pay. Surely our tech-wiz-bang tunnel maker, Musk, could make a roto-router tunneling robot of industrial proportions to ream out the tunnel. Won't someone think of the humans?

      My hazmat coat for these guys!

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Re: The guys...

        Has he still got that bloody submarine? Or am I thinking of Dr. Evil.

        For curiosity, would a fatberg float? I'm in an argument elsewhere about defining "a raft".

  9. WillbeIT

    Just so happy to see the el reg standards converter kicked back into life!! I've referenced it forever, often to much perplexed looks... Cheers

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Angel

      Here, here!

      My thoughts exactly, the comments section lately has had to fill the milliWales sized void on this sort of thing. Good to see the El Reg measurements bureau getting back on the case.

  10. RogerT

    British Standard double decker buses and things

    If journalists insist on describing objects in terms of double decker buses or other large objects or structures surely we need a British Standard size and weight so we know exactly what they're talking about.

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

      Re: British Standard double decker buses and things

      There is just such a place here curtesy of this very rag.

    2. SImon Hobson Silver badge

      Re: British Standard double decker buses and things

      If journalists insist on describing objects in terms of double decker buses or ...

      Not just journalists. A while ago I went to a talk by a retired drains engineer. He said that before the days of mobiles, all of them had to carry around an old penny or two for the phone boxes. When they investigated holes opening up in roads, they'd have to estimate it's size to report back to the office. They used units of DDBs - Double Decker Busses - as something that was fairly easy to visualise.

      So not a new unit.

    3. Claverhouse Silver badge

      Re: British Standard double decker buses and things

      The Brisbane fatbergs are described by Australians as the size of a Plane; 747s to be precise.

      https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/australia/87669859/brisbanes-planeized-fatbergs-and-how-were-making-them-worse

      In Michigan USA they compare theirs to Blue Whales; the Baltimore USA fatberg was merely compared to an Iceberg. However, worse than Britain that one sent 250 gallons of raw sewage onto the streets.

      https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2017/10/16/what-was-lurking-beneath-charles-street-a-colossal-fatberg/

      .

      Then again, why 'RAW' ?

      1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: British Standard double decker buses and things

        @Claverhouse - "Then again, why 'RAW' ?"

        Because it only gets cooked after arriving at your local [insert hated fast-food join].

        Seriously, sewage treatment eliminates the most dangerous pathogens and contaminants, and separates it into solids (can be used as fertiliser) and liquid safe enough to return to the environment. The stuff before treatment is raw.

  11. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge

    Well, Australia was meant to be the "lynchpin" to ban (or limit) flushable wipes. Unfortunately, the government was (easily) trounced by Kimberly-Clark.

    1. VerySlowData
      Coat

      not a great day at the ACCC

      you could say the the ACCC were not flushed with success!

      (I won't take a coat today, it's a bit warm out there!)

  12. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Go

    Matt Rimmer (yes, really)

    Way back at the dawn of history, when I first got out of college, I worked for a market research firm that did research on real-time control systems, like SCADA. We had a nice practice in research on SCADA and process control systems used in the water/wastewater utility industries. One of the wastewater utilities that we talked to every years had a superintendent as our main contact about their control system purchasing plans and needs, and that gentleman was named Gordon Catchpool.

    I still remember Mr. Catchpool, very nearly 30 years later.

  13. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Poor Gealtinous Glob got destroyed. And just when it was about to go on an unholy rampage through the city, devouring people, cars and other objects.

    And eventually do battle with Godzilla. *GLORP*

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Joke

      Enough about Trump; what about the Fatberg?

  14. eldakka Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    This sentence from the article is pure gold:

    For the uninitiated, fatbergs are the glossy miracles that occur when fat, grease and oil meet wet wipes and nappies to congeal into an impenetrable lump of sewer-based deliciousness.

    1. zuckzuckgo

      That definitely should be the first answer Google gives you when you search for fatberg.

    2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      impenetrable lump of sewer-based deliciousness

      Release the giant mutated WarRats! They'll clean up the fatberg in short order.

      And the sewer, and the workers, and people passing by..

      Maybe not then. Although the Pathfinder player in me likes the idea of a giant mutated rat..

  15. joewilliamsebs

    Nappies??

    How on earth do people manage to flush NAPPIES? That must take dedicated brush-poking to get round the U-bend.

  16. TWB

    What actually happens to the fatberg?

    So they break it up - but where do the bits go? does it/do they actually reach the sewage treatment plant and finally get broken down into .... whatever?....

    BTW - when people ask me the best ever invention, I always say sewage treatment.

    1. d3vy Silver badge

      Re: What actually happens to the fatberg?

      It gets broken up, lifted out and sent to landfill in the back of a truck.

      1. zuckzuckgo

        Re: What actually happens to the fatberg?

        No, they put it on display in a museum in London.

        https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/fatcam-watch-fatberg-live

        1. Scott 1

          Re: What actually happens to the fatberg?

          I thought you were going to say something witty, like they get appointed to public office.

      2. TWB

        Re: What actually happens to the fatberg?

        I wondered if it could go into an Anerobic Digester....

  17. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    From experience ...

    Having cleared a mini-fatberg about the size of three or four cricket balls from my drain the other day I find all this 'wipes' blaming interesting.

    As a human with half a grain of common sense, our house *never* sees wipes of any sort. The drain in question has a fat trap (most don't nowadays) but we use very little fat/grease/oil and the drain is only fed from the kitchen.

    The obvious conclusion being that neither wipes or logs that were bendy enough to avoid the bread knife were responsible ...

    The only sources of the hard, almost brittle material in the 'berg are the 'sludge' in cans that we're encouraged to wash out, soap, limescale, dishwasher and washing machine waste and the little 'fat' we use directly. If it's made of simple fats, I do wonder why the hot dishwasher/washing machine waste doesn't dissolve and clear it on the way through ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: From experience ...

      "the drain is only fed from the kitchen"

      What do you do with your poo? Keep it in jars in the basement?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: From experience ...

        >"What do you do with your poo?"

        They throw it out the second story window like a proper Londoner.

        1. quxinot Silver badge

          Re: From experience ...

          Gardyloo!

      2. Bluto Nash

        Re: From experience ...

        Doesn't everybody? Geez. You people.

    2. James Hughes 1

      Re: From experience ...

      I also had to clear out a mini-berg from our system (on path to septic tank), only about 45cm long, pipe shaped with a hole down the middle (like pipe lagging). Interestingly, I did find one wet wipe under the manhole with the berg.

      Having to do it does give a greater appreciation for the guys who deal with the big ones.

      ps. Wear gloves, and careful with the jet wash. You don't want splash back.

    3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: From experience ...

      As a human with half a grain of common sense

      Which is about 45% of a grain more than most people. Especially when there is money or effort required to do something properly..

    4. TrumpSlurp the Troll Silver badge

      Re: From experience ...

      Are you sure it was fat?

      I had an interesting time clearing a blocked drain downstream from a washing machine.

      I concluded that the whitish deposit was undisolved powder.

  18. M7S

    What is needed is some sort of organism that eats fat....

    ....in the same way that worms compost kitchen waste.

    Quite by chance I was at a motorway services* the other day and saw quite a few of these. Alas regulatory approval would preclude these particular specimens from use in this case.

    *Alternative locations for concentrations of such lifeforms abound.

    1. Daedalus Silver badge

      Re: What is needed is some sort of organism that eats fat....

      They're afraid the organisms will mutate, consume all the plastic in the world, evolve into the Great Intelligence and replace everybody with animated manikins.

      There, did I get enough Dr. Who/Doomwatch plots?

  19. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Dino juice, People juice

    We have to leave something behind for the next evolution to fuel its industrial revolution.

  20. Bluto Nash
    IT Angle

    Chew it up?

    Couldn't a collection point with some sort of a macerator be built prior to entry of the main sewer line? That way "flushability" becomes a moot point.

    1. Scott 1

      Re: Chew it up?

      What you're thinking of already exists and is commonly in use. It's known as a lift station. These are used sometimes to pump sewerage from a lower elevation to a higher elevation. They're also used to pump sewerage from a gravity-fed (no pressure) sewer system into a pressurized "forced" sewer main line (as is common here in Florida). These incorporate a wet-well chamber into which the incoming sewerage is fed, and then a pump and grinder system pumps the macerated sewerage into the outgoing line.

      I'm guessing this could break up some of the softer materials. However, this would be quite costly to retrofit into an existing large sewer system, and it would increase the amount of equipment that would need to be regularly maintained and monitored by the sanitary sewer service. For a city the size of London, that would be a rather large undertaking.

      Additionally, this might change the situation into problems with a multitude of individual "fatbergs" in the lift station wet wells and/or trunk lines leading to the lift stations, rather than one or two "fatbergs" in the main trunk lines of the sewer system. Also, the macerated fats and cooking oils leaving the lift stations might still be capable of congealing into the "fatberg" material, which seems to be the result of a chemical reaction (calcification of lipids from reactions with alkaline liquids).

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Chew it up?

        quite costly to retrofit into an existing large sewer system

        Especially one constructed in the late 1800's by a certain Mr Bazalgette..

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Bazalgette

        Really, really cool dude.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stay Puft

    Please tell me I am not the only one who visualised these as the Stay Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbusters? Can we use 1 Stay Puft as the standard unit of measurement for Fatbergs?

    Based on Wikipedia, he is 34.3m tall (I thought he would be taller) and I estimate based my highly scientific approach of holding a ruler up against the picture on my screen that he is around 19.5m wide at his widest. If he follows the UK/US average body sizes I believe he will have a ratio of 1:1.41 depth to width. Therefore he is likely to be 13.8m deep, presuming he follows the ratio consistently and acknowledging he is not likely to be as restricted by musculoskeletal requirements as you and I.

    So based on a total potential volume of 9230 cubic metres, I have at a wild guess assumed that his only fills 60% of that cube due to his shape which leaves 5538 cubic metres.

    For the instances noted that would give us the following (supposedly 1 cubic metre of beef tallow fat weighs 865kg)

    - London would be roughly 46 cubic metres (does anyone know what it actually was in volume?) which is only 0.0083 of a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (SPMM).

    - Whitechapel would be roughly 150 cubic metres (which based on a length of 250m might be close). That would be 0.027 SPMM.

    - Devon (using El Reg's prior estimate of 34 tonnes, based only on length, not volume) would be roughly 39 cubic metres or 0.0070 SPMM

    Hmm that worked out less than I was hoping, I will have to introduce Inflatable Model Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (IMSPMM) to make the standard measurement easier for the layman to use. Anyone willing to measure volume of one ;-)

    Anon or I would have to admit how much work time I now have to make up....

  22. Daedalus Silver badge

    Out sorcery

    "Thames Water has visited local food establishments to ensure their fat traps are working properly."

    Betcha they paid some plonkers to walk in, demand a free curry, check off a box on a clip board, and walk out again. They're in this situation because their bean counters won't let them employ proper inspectors.

  23. TrumpSlurp the Troll Silver badge
    Flame

    Candle?

    Couldn't they just insert a wick, light the brown touch paper and retire to a safe distance?

    Burning and melting from the downstream side should eventually clear it and keep the city warm over winter as well.

    Or melt the street of course.:-)

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