Money on toilet paper roll (Rubberball-Jupiterimages)
Whatever British sewer workers are paid, it's not enough. Last month some of them had to deal with a 15-ton "fatberg," a clog made up largely of congealed cooking fat and baby wipes, in a London sewer main.

That's the size of a bus. A double-decker bus. Eeewww.

Just as disposable diapers are now considered a necessity, wet wipes have become essentials in the average parent's  arsenal. But the popularity of these one-time-use items isn't limited to infant backsides.

Soldiers use them in desert climates for personal hygiene and to remove camouflage makeup. Travelers find them handy for freshening up on long trips. Hikers and backpackers carry them on treks where water is scarce.

Antibacterial wipes are available to clean just about every surface, from grimy floors to bathroom mirrors. Special-use wipes are being marketed to women (to help them feel "fresh" -- thanks a lot, Madison Avenue), pet owners, computer users, and those who suffer from hemorrhoids or menopause.

We're hooked on the convenience of these pre-moistened squares. But here's the problem: A lot of them end up down the toilet, and none are flushable.

Well, they flush just fine -- but the cloth-like products don't disintegrate the way toilet paper does. That's where it starts to cost us money.

'Inappropriate' items being flushed
City sewer systems around the United States are reporting expensive repair and maintenance issues resulting from flushed wipes, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. For example:

  • In the past five years the Orange County (Calif.) Sanitation District has spent $2.4 million on new equipment, and more than $300,000 in one year to unclog pumps.
  • Columbus (Ga.) Water Works has spent $550,000 in two years on new equipment and $250,000 per year on additional operating/maintenanc​e costs.
  • The city of Vancouver, Wash., has paid more than $650,000 in five years for new pumps and equipment, and spends more than $100,000 each year on extra maintenance and electricity.
"Simply keeping inappropriate items out of the sewer system could prevent all of these problems and save clean water agencies -- and, ultimately, the public -- a significant amount of money," the NACWA reports.
(Incidentally, it’s not just wipes. Other “inappropriate” items include paper towels, disposable toilet brush heads, cotton swabs, dental floss,  and tampons and tampon applicators. Baby alligators, too.)

Consumer Reports notes that companies currently advertise their wipes with terms like "safe for sewers and septic," or promise that the product will "break up like toilet paper."

However, a "disintegration test" showed that three brands of wipes were still intact after 30 minutes. By comparison, toilet paper began to break down in 8 seconds.

The conclusion: "To avoid taxing your toilet or your septic system, we recommend that you bag the wipes after use and toss them into the trash."

'Every plumber's nightmare'
If you've been flushing them for years with no problem? Then you've been very lucky. But one day you could find yourself with a nice sewage backup in the basement or the bathtub.

The folks at Quality First Plumbing of Denver refer to wipes as "every plumber's nightmare."

"It only takes a few wipes to get hung up … for a major disaster to happen. No matter what the packaging says, flushable wipes are not flushable," the company notes on its Plumbing Help Today blog.

So keep the wipes out of the pipes, unless you like paying plumbers and/or cleaning up after sewage backups. Even a non-bus-sized clog can ruin your day.

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