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Flushable wipes: bad reputation is no bum rap

NL resident, public works want people to know what’s behind clogged sewer line
Brent Smith, a resident of Arlington Ridge subdivision in North Liberty, shows how he checks the sewer backup prevention valve in the basement of his home. A sewer main leading out of the subdivision was clogged by an apparent mass of adult hygiene wipes: touted by manufacturers as flushable, the wipes do not break down and have been known to cause extensive clogging in urbanized areas all over the world. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– The claims that personal hygiene cloths are “flushable” and “septic and sewer safe” may be a load of crap.
Flushable wipes were the apparent cause of a sewer backup that occurred in two homes in Arlington Ridge subdivision in North Liberty two weeks ago.
Brent Smith, of 595 Penn Ridge Pl., said he was on his way home from a 24-hour shift at the Cedar Rapids Fire Department at about 7:10 a.m. when he got a call from his wife saying the water detector in their basement had gone off. She investigated and found sewer water coming up through the drain in their utility room. At that time, the water was contained to the concrete floor in that small area.
By the time Smith made it home just 10 minutes later, the situation had gotten much worse.
“It was just boiling out of the drain by that point,” said Smith. “I immediately knew it was sewage, because I could smell it.”
A quick group text message to his neighbors brought four people to his rescue, Shop-vacs® in hand. Another friend brought a supplemental pump, and the crew worked to stay ahead of the sewage backup by removing it as quickly as possible.
Smith also called North Liberty Public Works Director Don Colony, who answered right away.
“He was super fast; he was here in about five minutes in his pickup,” said Smith. “He was just down the street at the sewer junction, pulled the manhole cover off, and it was clear full.”
Colony called the rest of his public works employees into action, and they brought out the city’s new jet truck; a piece of equipment the staff had just acquired and trained on the day before.
“It’s similar to the old jet truck, but is more user-friendly,” Colony explained. “It allows us to shoot water into the line and break the clogging material loose.”
After about 30 minutes, the water in Smith’s basement began to recede. The city crew had located the clog and cleared it from the sewer main.
“We saw a mass of white, towel-like matter come through the main,” Colony said, referring to the clog of adult wet wipes. “The mains in residential developments don’t have enough flow to push them through, and they don’t break down. They get caught inside the pipe, collect other debris and eventually cause a clog. There’s a difference between flushable wipes and disposable; yes, they flush, but they don’t break down.”
Colony said he knew of nearby cities that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to update their wastewater pumps to handle the wipes, and he heard a report of one city that, after installing special filters, was regularly catching enough of the wipes to fill six dump trucks full.
“It was an added cost of over $1 million to upgrade their grit screens and hire people to haul them away,” Colony said.
In fact, there are many reports of the adult wipes causing plumbing and sewer problems throughout this country and others.
• In 2014, according to an online report by ABC News, a New York physician filed a class action lawsuit against Kimberly-Clark, the makers of the flushable wipes, seeking damages of at least $5 million. The suit represented 100 consumers claiming use of the wipes has caused clogged pipes, flooding, jammed sewers and problems with septic tanks.
• A 2013 report from the Associated Press stated a 15-ton clog comprising “slime and wet-naps” was extracted from a sewer main in London, it was the size of a bus, according to the report.
•  USA Today offered a 2013 report citing cloth-like bathroom wipes as the cause of major sewer blockages in the cities of Raleigh, N.C., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Boise, Idaho.
• Other places, such as Columbus, Ga., Orange County, Calif., and Vancouver, Wash., have spent thousands of dollars clearing sewer lines clogged with the wipes, and millions of dollars to buy equipment, grinders and pumps to deal with wipes that get into their sewer systems.
Bathroom wipe manufacturers have responded that the wipes are indeed flushable, and that much may be true; they are designed to go through a home’s plumbing system. However, many laboratory tests and practical experiments conducted by public works employees in numerous cities have demonstrated the wipes simply do not break down.
Consumer Reports tested the deterioration of a few brands of wipes marketed as “flushable,” in January 2014, and posted an online video showing the results. After 10 minutes of churning in a disintegration tank– a tube of forcibly swirling water– the wipes did not break down even slightly. Testers then put a wipe in a stand mixer filled with water, and experienced the same result; the wipe remained completely whole and undamaged after 10 minutes. Even leaving the wipes in water overnight did not cause disintegration in most brands.
By the time North Liberty’s public works crew unclogged Arlington Ridge’s sewer line, sewage had seeped into the finished areas of Smith’s basement, damaging carpet and hardwood flooring, and soaking into the bottom few feet of drywall throughout. They managed to keep furniture from being damaged but, even with an insurance rider to cover sewer and water backups, the Smiths’ out-of-pocket expenses to clean, sanitize and repair the damage will exceed the amount of their insurance coverage. Another Penn Ridge Place resident received a small amount of sewage in his basement, Smith reported, but it only affected an area with a concrete floor and damage was minimal.
And that was for a backup caught immediately and mitigated quickly.
The outcome can be worse when a sewer backup or a sump pump failure occurs while a homeowner is away.
“A family next door was gone on a week’s vacation, their sump pump went out, and they came back to six inches of water in their basement. It ruined everything. They had a $20,000 remodel of their basement, at minimum,” Smith said.
Smith, who serves as the president of the Arlington Ridge Homeowners’ Association, shares his story because he hopes to educate the rest of the public on several points. First, don’t flush anything but toilet paper. Second, there are simple and inexpensive precautions homeowners can take to prevent water and sewer damage from happening in the first place.
• Homes should be outfitted with a backflow prevention valve to keep sewers from backing up into a basement. North Liberty city code requires all homes built after 1995 to have a backflow prevention valve.
“It’s in the International Building Code, but not all communities require them,” Colony noted. The Smith home has one, but installation is not enough, Smith warned. Theirs failed because, over time, the valve gasket became covered with gunk that kept it from working properly. The valves should be checked at least once a year and replaced when worn out. Colony suggested having a certified plumber check and clean the valve, but homeowners can do it manually themselves as well.
• Sump pumps are usually equipped with alarms to warn homeowners of a pump’s failure; however, sump pumps run on electricity. In the event of a power outage, the pump will fail, and so will the alarm. Put a battery-operated backup on a sump pump to keep it running even when the electricity goes out.
• Sump pumps, especially those running consistently, wear out. Replacing the pump is easy and inexpensive relative to repairing a flood-damaged basement. Colony even suggested having an extra pump on hand.
“If a pump runs constantly, it will break down, and chances are other people’s are running constantly and breaking down at the same time. So everyone runs to Menards to buy one, only to find they’re sold out. It’s better to have a spare pump on hand to use in an emergency,” said Colony.
• Water detectors are small, unobtrusive devices placed on a basement floor to sound an alarm when even a small amount of water gets near. Locate one next to a floor drain and another near the home’s water heater.
• Consider water detectors with remote warning capability.
After his recent ordeal, Smith and his wife realized, had she not been home that morning, no one would have heard the water detector alarm until after extensive damage had occurred.
“It made us think, what happens when we go away for awhile? So I researched a bunch of different types of water detectors, and bought a wi-fi water sensor with an app that will send push notifications to my phone.” The unit Smith purchased cost just $54.
“I was so thankful for my friends and neighbors who came over and helped,” said Smith. “That work saved furniture, saved multiple walls, and we contained the sewage to two smaller areas. I would take a sump pump failure or a water heater leak any day; a sewer backup adds a whole other level of mitigation that has to be done.”
Colony said sewer backups don’t happen often in North Liberty; maybe once or twice a year. His department has a maintenance schedule for all the sewer mains within the city, he said, and they try to hit several subdivisions each year.
“When a subdivision gets completed, we wait awhile and then jet that main, especially to remove construction debris. Usually once we clean out a main, it will be good for about a decade,” Colony said. Since 2001, he has recorded on a map when each main gets cleaned and when it will be due for maintenance again.
But like Smith, Colony hopes the incident in Arlington Ridge will be a good lesson for everyone throughout the city.
The bottom line? Don’t flush the wipes.