Keep wipes out of the pipes

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published August 20, 2015

METRO DETROIT — Nonwoven wipes are used on a daily basis.

Whether they’re used to clean a countertop, remove makeup or  change a baby, the convenience of nonwoven wipes makes them a marketable product.

But despite their handiness, nonwoven wipes can cause significant damage to sewer systems if they are not disposed of properly.

Nonwoven wipes, as opposed to wipes marketed as flushable, become resistant to tearing when wet. Instead of throwing these wipes out, Wendy Barrott, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Wastewater Treatment Plant general manager, said people flush them.

When flushed, nonwoven wipes retain their strength and clog the sewer systems. They can also clump together, forming hard masses, and damage equipment.

If a wipe tears apart easily, “it’s probably pretty flushable,” Barrott said, adding that she recommends people not flush any wipes, only toilet paper.

“(Nonwoven wipes) plug up the sewer lines, the smaller sewer lines, and cause backups to be removed mechanically,” Barrott said, adding that when the wipes wrap around propellers, they force equipment to stop. “It’ll throw the whole pump out of balance and knock it off line.”

Depending on the equipment, clogged pipes cost water and sewerage departments time and money because the equipment must be fixed immediately.

“We definitely need to raise awareness of the issue. People need to understand that what they put into their sewer affects their cost,” Barrott said, adding that the problem is nationwide and cannot be solved with local regulation.

In West Bloomfield Township, the Water and Sewer Department has been facing the same problems with nonwoven wipes for about 10 years, said Ed Haapala, director of the township’s Water and Sewer Department.

Haapala said that nationwide field studies completed by associations for clean water professionals showed that 40 percent of trapped materials were nonwoven wipes. Eighteen percent were baby wipes, 14 percent were household wipes and 8 percent were flushable wipes, he said. In recent years, water professionals have conducted studies that show that more than 50 percent of customers who buy wet wipes don’t have babies, Haapala added.

“We’re trying to capture the public’s attention, because it is rather nasty,” Haapala said. “Working in sewer, I’m not going to tell you it’s a glorious way to live, but it’s necessary.”

In addition to nonwoven wipes, grease and dental bibs are causing sewer problems in the township. The department has discovered dental bibs — which are woven and do not tear — in the system at 14 Mile and Maple roads. Dental bibs, when they get into a pump, will bind the pump. It can take up to three-quarters of a day to relieve the plug, Haapala said.

Though the department has not been able to find where the dental bibs are being flushed, Haapala said the department will pinpoint the locations.

“Heads up, dental offices. We’re coming,” Haapala said.

As for grease, Haapala said, rather than putting grease in a container to cool down, people have a natural tendency to pour grease down the garbage disposal. And when grease combines with wipes, the coagulation can create a bulking situation in the pumps.

“Grease will flow on top of hot water until it reaches a cooler state or reaches a belly in the line on a service lead. That starts to thicken over time in your service lead. Not only are you hardening that artery that you need to remove the waste … from your residence or business, but it also can flow and solidify in the township’s main,” Haapala said.

Haapala said the grease problem is not in any particular areas; it’s damaging the township’s entire system. Instead of pouring grease down the drain, Haapala said, people should pour it into a tin can, let it cool down and throw it in the trash.

“We’re trying to encourage people to be more cognizant of what it is they do with their waste,” Haapala said.