The Super Bowl of Toilets

Want definitive proof we live in the future? The information researchers can glean from flushed toilets at halftime of the Super Bowl is exactly, disgustingly that.

As with every mega event in America, our Super Bowl excesses will be on display this Feb. 1—eating, drinking, yelling and frequent trips to the bathroom—especially for those of us drinking our local microbrew.

Real proof of our partying will be in the pipes. It’s called the Super Bowl Flush—but it’s not just millions of toilets flushing simultaneously at halftime and immediately after the game. There’s more to it.

Our out-of-sight, out-of-mind and underground wastewater infrastructure is a window into our collective human activity. When the Super Bowl’s on, our pipes, pumps and plants show that we are consuming more and doing so within specific timeframes.

Super Bowl Sunday will be just another day for our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure. If it’s anything like last year, it will do its job like clockwork—approximately 111.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the game. It’s safe to say this year will draw at least that many. It’s also a safe bet that almost all of those viewers will flush a toilet at some point during the contest.

Here’s where that all goes.

All of it flows through a tangle of pipes to the nearest wastewater treatment facility, which handles all the stuff we don’t want to see or smell. Millions of gallons of wastewater stream into the approximately 14,780 treatment plants across the country at all hours, flowing in mostly predictable patterns that mirror the behavior of the nearest residents.

A Boston Globe article earlier this month spotlighted an effort by researchers at MIT to get “a sewage snapshot of the people of Cambridge.” One microbiologist, Eric Alm, captured it best: “Sewage is really an unexploited source of rich information about human activities.”

He was speaking of how our sewage reveals the state of community health by the detection of drugs and the presence of pathogens. The snapshot could also apply to our collective behavior during Super Bowls and other mass events.

We are what we excrete, the MIT researchers might say. A peek into our forgotten underworld on Feb. 1 will show that we are in full party mode—not from any kind of mass consumption of drugs—but from the patterns and the volume of the wastewater.

Luckily, our country’s engineers have blessed us with well-designed systems—there are between 700,000 and 800,000 miles of public sewer mains in the U.S.—that can almost always handle what comes through them.

Wastewater treatment plant operators can see what we collectively do through their data. In the morning, they see a spike in usage when we all get up and go to the bathroom and use water for our showers, to wash breakfast dishes, and other necessities. They see less “flow” in the middle of the night when most of us are asleep. And they see different hourly patterns on holidays and weekends.

And then there’s the Super Bowl.

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The Super Bowl Flush—the phenomenon that occurs when masses of fans flock to bathrooms at halftime to relieve themselves—has been the source of some debate over the years. Snopes.com, a website devoted to validating and debunking urban legends and rumors in American culture, doesn’t address whether a mass flush occurs but pours cold water on the urban legend which said sewage systems broke down because of overwhelming halftime flushes.

The origins of the too-many-toilet-flushes rumors, according to Snopes, date back to the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show in the 1930s and to the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983. In mass-flush lore, there’s a reference from the 1950s and 1960s when Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County could tell a commercial was being aired during “I Love Lucy” because of the spike in sewage flow through the pipes. No damage was done but an awareness of our infrastructure—and our collective impact on it—etched its way into the public’s consciousness.

In 2011, the New York Post illustrated the real-time impact of the Super Bowl Flush by measuring how much water was drawn from local reservoirs to fill up empty toilet tanks. The pattern was clear: a dramatic usage dropoff (7 percent) at kickoff and into the first quarter, and a huge demand for water at halftime (a jump of 4.5% from the previous week at the same time) and immediately after the game (13 percent). In fact, so many people flushed after the game that year (when the Giants defeated the Patriots) that Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers, a 30-feet-deep, 164-acre body of water which supplies New York City’s drinking water, dropped a full two inches.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which manages the city’s water supply, noted that the water usage was a significant jump for 10 on a Sunday night, a phenomenon that can only happen during the Super Bowl.

Going to the bathroom may be an end process for us, but it’s the beginning wastewater treatment plants. They not only take away the unmentionables from our homes but also make sure the water gets cleaned before being released into local waterways.

In New York City, for example, the waterways have drastically improved because of investments in wastewater treatment infrastructure. New York Harbor, according to DEP, is the cleanest it has been in 100 years. More people fish and swim in its waterways as a result.

A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers said we will need to spend $298 billion over the next 20 years to address wastewater and stormwater needs in the U.S., with pipes representing the largest capital need. Many of these sewer pipes in the U.S. were installed after World War II, according to the engineers group, which means they are on their last legs.

Cheap water is great and people love to protest water and wastewater rate increases. The Super Bowl Flush highlights why we need to keep investing in our infrastructure—without it, our communities would cease to function.

That’s something to think about during halftime. Or not. Either way, the monumental job of cleaning our wastewater will get done, as it does every day, whether or not you ever think about it.

Mike Saucier is the owner of Soss Communications and a former spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.