Red Deer has been experiencing its share of the widespread problem of pre-moistened bathroom wipes wreaking havoc in sewer systems.
The wipes are described as flushable but evidence is proving otherwise as sewer systems back up from New York to Vancouver and crews pull out large clogs, putting big holes in the pockets of some municipalities that see the problem over and over.
The situation in Red Deer hasn’t been that drastic, said Geoff Stewardson, wastewater superintendent with the city.
“We’re fortunate that Red Deer has enough grade to it that, through gravity, the wastewaters can make it to the plant for treatment,” he said.
Stewardson noted there is one area in the community, at the corner of 40th Avenue and 22nd Street, where wastewater has to be pumped through a lift station to give it enough pressure to make it to the treatment plant.
“It’s in that lift station that there are issues. Those pumps are not designed to push these wipes through them. They just clog. The impellers cannot rip through these things. It’s like, if you take a garbage bag, you can poke right though it but if you pull it, it starts to get stronger. These things are the same way.”
The pumps — which can cost $30,000 to $35,000 each — can burn out as the motors continue to run despite the impellers being jammed.
“Our guys know about the issue and they go there enough, at least weekly, to clean them out so we’ve been fortunate.”
According to Stewardson, no damages that can be attributed directly to the wipes have occurred so far.
“But they’re a contributing factor,” he said. “If it snags up on the line, everything else does, too.”
Stewardson said his department has tested one type of the allegedly “septic system safe” wipes and they do not break down in water.
“After being in water for over a day, that thing looked I’d say still about 98 per cent intact.”
Many of the wipes will float to the surface in the lift station and crews can skim them off. The pumps, nestled at the bottom of the tank, can mechanically rise up so crews can clean them fairly easily as well.
However, any sticks, rocks or tree roots in the system act as “snags” for these wipes, causing buildups that could lead to larger problems, Stewardson said.
It’s an issue the city has been noticing for the past four years.
“At first we didn’t know what they were. We thought they were paper towels,” Stewardson said.
As for a solution, he said educating the public is key.
At the city’s annual Let’s Talk event, there was a section illustrating how these wipes don’t break down. The city also created a new What Not to Flush brochure to get the message out.
“And if the collection guys really notice an area that the wipes are hanging up in the system, they can knock on certain residences’ door, drop off a brochure or put a camera line in if there is a genuine concern about lines backing up or the city main being affected,” Stewardson said.