The Costs of Flushable Wipes Clogging Pipes

flushables_downthedrain

In previous posts on The Water Voice, I provided background information on the problems caused by flushable wipes and other non-dispersible products that are disposed of in the sewer system, and then an update on some success with improved labeling on Costco products and continued state efforts to improve labeling. As NACWA continues to work on this problem with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the American Public Works Association (APWA), it is becoming more and more apparent just how expensive this problem is for utilities:

  • The City of Vancouver, Washington, has spent $650,000 on new pumps and equipment in the last five years and spends more than $100,000 each year in extra maintenance and electricity costs because of clogged pumps.
  • Clean Water Services in Oregon spends approximately $120,000 dealing with problems from these products.
  • The Orange County Sanitation District in California has spent $2.4 million in the past five years on new equipment, and more than $300,000 in one year to unclog pumps.
  • Columbus Water Works in Georgia spent $550,000 in the last two years on new in-line grinding equipment and spends $250,000 each year on additional operations and maintenance costs.

Unfortunately, even spending such large sums on new equipment does not solve all of the problems associated with wipes and other flushed products.

As Cliff Arnett from Columbus Water Works explains, even with their new equipment at critical lift stations, “Recent heavy rains have resulted in our maintenance personnel having to pull and unclog pumps at two of the stations every two hours in order to avoid SSOs. The ground up fibers were so concentrated due to increased velocities that they began reassembling in the lift stations.” Cliff also notes that “None of this addresses the impact on primary treatment and digestor volume being taken up. As you can easily see, this is no small matter.”flushables_downthedrain2

Simply keeping inappropriate items out of the sewer system could prevent all of these problems and save clean water agencies—and, ultimately, the public—a significant amount of money. Changing consumer flushing habits is a difficult task, as Columbus Water Works has discovered.

“We are stepping up our campaign to educate our customers by literally going door-to-door to all commercial establishments, including apartment complexes and assisted care facilities, in an effort to reduce the problem,” Cliff Arnett explains. “But it is regrettable that the product users become the villain when the product manufacturer is the real villain, in our estimation.”

NACWA, the Water Environment Federation, and the American Public Works Association have been working to improve voluntary flushability guidelines and labeling for wipes and other products that are commonly flushed. However, legislative action may be required to truly make progress. NACWA is beginning to explore this step. As always, our advocacy efforts are much more effective when we have detailed information about the problem from our members (we can always keep your utility anonymous if you prefer). In particular, if you have information about how much these products are costing your utility in increased maintenance or new equipment, please send it to me at cfinley@nacwa.org. Or share your story in the comments section below.

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One Response to The Costs of Flushable Wipes Clogging Pipes

  1. Bill Bruml says:

    With costs like what are listed in the article, one might wonder whether the best available answer might be for sewer districts, or groups of sewer districts to file lawsuits to recover costs from sellers who advise customers to flush items that damage sewer equipment. The prospect of having to bear the full cost of selling "flushable" wipes might change manufacturer behavior. Certainly innocent ratepayers deserve to be insulated from these costs.

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