Wipes in pipes may be least of problems
If an Environment One Corp. sewer pump can grind up a metal toy car, it certainly won’t have problems with the disposable wipes that increasingly are flushed down toilets.
“We are not defeated in the way most of these systems are defeated,” says George Vorsheim, director of communications for E/One in Niskayuna, who’d rather talk about the need to repair sewer infrastructure or to replace the “environmental time bombs” that are septic systems.
But Vorsheim humors me by answering my questions about wipes, which have been in the news lately for clogging pipes and jamming pumps at municipal wastewater treatment plants as we Americans use more of the pre-moistened towelettes for personal cleansing and around-the-house cleaning.
E/One manufactures a sewer system that sends household waste through a grinder to be minced into slurry, then transports that via low pressure to a municipal sewer main or wastewater treatment plant. The system is adaptable to nearly any topography — mountains to coastline — because the lines are smaller in diameter and don’t have to be buried as deeply as traditional sewer pipes. And while most municipal systems need gravity and lifts to operate, the E/One system does not.
Founded in the late 1960s, E/One now is part of Oregon-based Precision Castparts Corp., a manufacturer of metal components for industry that acquired the Balltown Road company for $72 million in 1998.
Vorsheim, who says E/One is “on the front edge of the evolution of wastewater collection,” was in Chicago this week at WEFTEC, the Water Environment Federation’s annual technical exhibition and conference. E/One had a booth there.
Billed as North America’s biggest meeting of water-quality professionals, WEFTEC is composed of educational workshops and technical training sessions, as well as keynotes and panel discussions. “Wipe Out: Reducing the Burden of Wipes in the Pipes” was a planned topic on Wednesday for a panel of equipment manufacturers, municipal representatives and wipe producers. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies suggested in a blog post last month that it would be “a lively discussion.”
The association has joined forces with other trade groups to propose standards of what constitutes “flushable,” with an eye to alleviating problems at wastewater plants.
They contend that “rigorous product assessment before making a flushable claim, along with improved product labeling, would significantly reduce the amount of non-flushable items in the sewer system.”
Manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark, which has ramped up advertising for its Cottonelle brand of wipes in a “Let’s Talk About Your Bum” campaign, say they already test and label correctly.
For Vorsheim, the issue is simpler: Don’t put anything down a toilet that doesn’t belong there — just water, waste and toilet paper. And while an E/One pump could handle a disposable wipe or a Matchbox toy — “we can grind just about anything” — he wouldn’t recommend flushing either.
Vorsheim would rather focus on failing septic systems and aging gravity systems and how their replacements might be financed.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card on U.S. infrastructure gave wastewater systems a grade of “D” and projected a needed national capital investment of $298 billion over the next 20 years.
A “bigger challenge than wipes,” Vorsheim says, is getting caps removed on private activity bonds, which can attract private investment to public infrastructure. That could help smaller municipal sewer operators that don’t have the wherewithal to afford upgrades, he says.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at email@example.com.