Wipes in the pipes: City warns of rising cost to clean the clogs

Posted at 11:18 AM, May 01, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-01 11:18:33-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Wipes in the pipes. It’s a problem around the world, and it's costing cities millions of dollars a year. Cleaning wipes advertised as ‘flush-able’, but the City of Grand Rapids is sending a stern message that flush-able doesn’t mean it will disintegrate in water.

The Grand Rapids Water Department said that it spends more than $10,000 dollars a month just to unclog these wipes in the pipes.

The city said that in the past decade the popularity of disposable wipes has skyrocketed and it’s taking the problem to new levels along with it’s demand.

"You can see this doesn't dissolve or disperse. Once it gets in your pipe, it can get hung up on a root or grease or something," said Michael Lunn, Environmental Services Manager for the City of Grand Rapids. "When the bar screens start to bind of clog, they speed up automatically and they take more and more material off. They actually go 4-5 times faster than you are seeing here."

With heavy duty machinery, the waste-water plant is the final stop for wipes that haven’t already clogged up pipes at area pumping stations.

The Grand Rapid's system collects waste-water from more than a quarter of a million customers.

"We can see a lot of rags, a lot of feminine care products. We can see diapers and we see other debris that people just put down their toilet," said Lunn.

Lunn said that if you are lucky, after being flushed down the toilet the wipes will travel away from your home, then into a sewer main. From there it travels through a series of larger mains. If it slows down, it would travel into a pumping station. Eventually arriving here.

"Up there hanging off there, you can see like a wipe hanging off there or a rag. You can see the wipes hanging there. You can see parts of the wipes as they come up. So, while they may flush down your toilet right, in one piece and be gone and out of your hands, they show up here and clog up the sewer system," said Lunn.

Lunn said that the wipes seem to be flowing in from all areas costing between $1,000-$2,000 dollars each time workers have to go clear a clog in the pipes, adding crews are dispatched at least two times a week.

"We dispatch a crew of two to four people out to clean it out. It would take them any place from two to eight hours depending on how bad they were clogged up, so you can see from a thousand to two thousand dollars we could spent just unclogging one pump due to the debris getting caught in it, mainly the wipes," said Lunn.

Lunn said that water departments around the county are in communication about the ongoing problems that wipes in the pipes are causing. The issue has been pushed to the conversation tables because of the problem costing millions of dollars a year nationally.

"Our industrial treatment guys went out and fish hooks in the sewers, different sewers as they branched out to figure out where it was coming from. They thought they were coming from everywhere," said Lunn.

In the meantime, Lunn said that all he can do is warn the public that you can't flush this problem down the drain.

"It goes down in the water. It's screening everything up. As you can see it's bringing up all kinds of stuff up on the bar screens. You can see right down the line," said Lunn.

Additionally, Lunn said that several water departments across the country are attempting to work with companies directly instead of waiting for legislation to put restrictions on the manufacturing.