Wipes Clog Pipes

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District Participates in California Flushable Wipes Dispersibility Study

 CASA's Jessica Gauger tosses a wipe into the sewer for the field test.
Jessica Gauger, Director of Legislative Advocacy for CASA, drops a wipe into an open sewer for the Flushable Wipes Dispersibility Study.
Wipes are one of the leading causes of sewer backups both in public systems and in private homes. The Dublin San Ramon Services District was one of the first districts to participate in a wipes dispersibility field study to determine if wipes are truly flushable or if they remain intact and clog pipes. This field study effort is led by the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA).

CASA representatives joined DSRSD Field Operations staff in September 2019 to take part in a Flushable Wipes Dispersibility Field Test. Testers used samples from a dozen brands of wet wipes, including ten sold in the United States labeled “flushable” and two types sold in Japan. Toilet paper served as the control sample. The wipes used in the study are sold as baby wipes, cleansing wipes, bathroom cleaning wipes, and even a brand called “Dude Wipes.”

“It was well worth the few hours spent participating in this field study, and we’re grateful to CASA for heading this up,” said DSRSD Operations Manager Jeff Carson.

CASA and DSRSD conducted this test in the eastern Dublin neighborhood near Dublin Ranch Golf Course, as the sewer pipelines here best met the study’s parameters: a minimal average flow of 1 to 2 feet per minute, 10-inch diameter pipes, minimal root intrusion, and relatively easy access points. All wipes samples were tagged with a color coded label for each brand. After soaking the wipes samples in water for 30 minutes, testers dropped eight samples of each wipe brand into a manhole opening to the sewer. The samples were sent in intervals, and they were retrieved about 3,000 feet down the pipeline by DSRSD operators. The wipes from Japan and the toilet paper were not presoaked.

As the samples were retrieved, researchers laid them on a tarp to show how much each one had dispersed—or if they hadn’t at all. Samples were evaluated with descriptions such as “intact,” “beginning signs of breaking down,” “partially deteriorated,” and “mostly disintegrated.”  The US-based wipes that were retrieved were either fully intact or only beginning to break down. As for toilet paper and the Japan-produced wipes, only the labels were retrieved, as these samples broke down before they reached the retrieval site.

“DSRSD was happy to participate because we know how wipes can clog our pipes, motors, and pumps, and consumers need to know,” said Water/Wastewater Systems Lead Operator Scott Roberson.

Wipes Linger in Pipes

 Wipes are laid on a tarp after traveling 3,000 feet in the sewer system, most still fully intact.
Wipes labeled "flushable" remain intact and are spread on a tarp after traveling 3,000 feet in the DSRSD sewer system.

Although single-use wet wipes are frequently marketed as “flushable,” they are often incompatible with sewer systems. They may leave the toilet bowl, but they can stay in your pipes. Wipes can catch on tree roots and accumulate with fats, oils, and grease to become large obstructions in pipes. They can weave together and create giant rags that get stuck in collection systems, pumps, and motors to cause backups and equipment failures. Wipes can also be a worker safety issue when hazardous objects such as sharps get tangled into the rags that must be removed from equipment.

Flushing wipes can clog home plumbing systems as well and lead to expensive repairs. In addition, microfibers can shed off wipes during wastewater treatment and make their way into the environment. Learn about what NOT to flush.

CASA is performing this study with a selection of wastewater agencies throughout the state to collect data on how wipes break down—or don’t—in California sewer systems.  The results will be available early in 2020, and can be used to spread the word about how wipes clog pipes, and also to support proposed state legislation AB 1672 (Bloom) which proposes proper labeling of “flushable” and non-flushable wet wipe products.