Q: I’m really upset. I’m retired and have limited resources. I just had to spend $3,300 on a new sewage pump that was ruined by flushable wipes. What can you tell me about these flushable wipes? The label says they’re “sewer and septic safe,” whatever that means. Would you use them at your home? Other neighbors are complaining of more frequent clogs at their homes. What’s the best way to protect a home’s sewer pipes so there’s no damage or expensive surprises like I had happen to me? — Ed P., Hendersonville, S.C.
A: You have every right to be upset. Based on the emails I receive, you’re not alone. In fact, if you do a simple Internet search on the topic, you’ll discover that thousands of homeowners like you and sewage treatment plant managers are up in arms about these products.
The labeling on the product is accurate if you want to split hairs. You can flush these wretched wipes down a toilet. They make it through the curved colon in your toilet and enter the three-inch drainpipe in your home. You can also flush plastic army men, plastic dinosaurs, golf balls, keys, sand, gravel, cellphones, underwear, cosmetic bottles, pill bottles, etc., down toilets.
The question is: Are the wipes truly sewer and septic safe, and is it a good idea to flush all those things above down a toilet? In my opinion, absolutely, positively NO! I’ve been a master plumber since age 29, and I can tell you the only thing that should go down a toilet is liquid and solid waste from your body and toilet paper. It’s also important to realize the less toilet paper you use each trip to the bathroom, the happier your plumbing system will be.
The flushable wipes controversy is really a common-sense exercise. If you moisten a single sheet of toilet paper and rub it on your skin or a hard surface, you’ll discover it rapidly falls apart. This is by design. You want toilet paper to disintegrate as fast as possible into the tiny cellulose fibers used to create it.
Try the same experiment with a decent-quality paper towel. You’ll notice that the paper towel tends to hold up and not fall apart. Once again, this is by design. The paper towel manufacturer wants you to be able to use them to clean up spills and do light-duty cleaning. Never flush paper towels down a toilet.
Finally, do the same test with a flushable wipe. You’ll quickly discover they hold together better than paper towels. Can you imagine what happens if there’s not enough water to transport these through your in-house building drain and outside buried sewer line out to your city sewer? At some point, you’ll get a clog. In your case, they didn’t disintegrate, and they burned up your sewage pump!
These wipes survive the long and tortuous journey from homes through miles of sewer pipes, ending up at municipal sewage treatment plants. They clog giant pumps at the plants. The Internet is littered with stories about massive clogs in sewers and treatment plants caused by these wipes. Flushable wipes are the scourge of sewers and septic systems.
I’d never use them at my house. If you must use them in your home, I suggest you dispose of them in a sanitary way in a special garbage can, much like you’d store a soiled baby’s diaper until trash day.
Clogs in residential plumbing systems can also be traced to the low-flow requirements forced upon us by government officials. Years ago, the standard toilet used 3½ gallons of water per flush. Toilets now use 1.6 gallons of water per flush. There are tens of millions of people like me that have private water wells that don’t have water shortage issues and shouldn’t be forced to use these fixtures. There are tens of millions of people who are connected to municipal water systems that pull water from large rivers that have no chance of running dry. They shouldn’t have to suffer, either.
This small amount of water, in some plumbing systems, often doesn’t have the energy to transport the flushable wipes or ordinary wastes out to the city sewer. Remember the simple formula from high school physics class? Force equals mass times acceleration. Three and a half gallons of water has much more mass than 1.6 gallons of water.
I routinely protect my home's plumbing system by filling up two five-gallon buckets of water. This water is poured into a toilet on the second story of my home. My wife assists me as we flush the toilet. As soon as the water from the tank enters the bowl we both pour in our buckets of water at the same time. We pour as fast as possible, making sure the water doesn't overflow in the bowl. This massive slug of water entering the pipes from up high acts like a giant internal pressure washer to keep my main building drain clear.
We also only allow body waste into our toilets. The other best practice is to keep as much grease as possible out of the plumbing. I save paper towels used to dry hands, and these are used to sop up liquid grease from pans and pots. I throw these grease-soaked towels in the garbage. Solidified grease is a major cause of clogs in residential plumbing systems.
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