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Rags and wipes clog pumps and pipes in Lester P
Date, 2014

By Ivan Raconteur

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Manufacturers label some disposable wipes as “flushable,” but people who maintain sewer systems say flushing these items can lead to blockages, damaged pumps, and expensive repairs.

While maintenance workers in Lester Prairie were jetting sewer lines last week, they found a line that was nearly blocked by rags and wipes.

This was not the first time the city has had problems with wipes being flushed.

In 2012, the city reported numerous alarm calls at the lift station that serves the East Park Estates development.

Lee Ortloff, the city’s wastewater plant operator, said the problem was caused by residents flushing items such as sanitizing wipes, baby wipes, and disposable mop cloths down their toilets.

The current problem was located in a different part of the city, not in that development.

Problem is widespread

Lester Prairie is not alone.

Reports from across the country indicate that problems caused by wipes and rags flushed into sewer systems have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs.

Flushing these items can also cause blockages and sewer backups.

The practice has even led to a new term – “ragging.”

According to a report by Michigan State University Extension, “ragging” refers to the phenomenon in which flushable wipes for adults and toddlers combine with other items such as extra-thick toilet paper, toilet cleaning wand pop-off pads, baby wipes, paper towels, sanitary pads, dental floss and other items that are not designed to be flushed that get tangled up in sewer pipes.

Items that are “disposable” are not necessarily “flushable,” and even those items marketed as “flushable” may cause problems, according to some sewer system operators.

Ortloff noted some studies show that even items labeled as “flushable” may not break down, or may break down very slowly, and may be intact when operators remove them from pumps or sewer systems.

Cities across the country have tried various methods to educate their residents about the problem.

The City of Waukesha, WI, created a flyer titled “Keep wipes out of pipes” to educate its residents.

“A general guideline is, if it doesn’t dissolve as fast as toilet paper, it’s not flushable,” the flyer notes.

There is disagreement between manufacturers of the “flushable” products and sewer system operators.

The manufacturers say their products break down, but the system operators dispute this.

According to a 2013 Washington Post story, utility officials say that one of the manufacturers’ key tests for wipes marketed as “flushable” does not simulate conditions in sewer systems.

The story notes “The ‘slosh box’ test requires that at least one-quarter of a wipe agitated in water be broken into pieces small enough to pass through a small sieve within three hours. However, utility officials say wipes can reach a pump within a couple of minutes. Moreover, many sewer systems, including the [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s], move sewage primarily via gravity and are not nearly as hard on the wipes as the agitation test, utility officials say.”

Lester Prairie has invested in new pumps, which are designed to help eliminate the problem, but this alone may not be enough.

The only way to be sure wipes and rags won’t clog pipes or pumps is for residents to dispose of them in the trash rather than flushing them down the toilet.

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