Ed McMenamin: Grinder pumps offer a solution to the synthetic wipe nightmare
Plumbing horror movies
There’s a one-panel strip of the absurdist newspaper comic “The Far Side” that I remember well from childhood. It shows human-sized insects sitting in a theater for a horror movie called “Return of the Killer Windshield.” It still makes me laugh when I think about it, but the joke probably works better visually than verbally.
I imagine you could draw a similar comic of a theater full of plumbers and engineers watching a horror movie called “Walmart’s Aisle of Indestructible Babywipes.” Or better yet, the scary movie could be footage of everyday people tossing whatever and whichever down the drain.
The thought seems to be “there it goes, gone forever” when a person tosses a “flushable” cleaning wipe in the toilet. Of course, it might not have gone that far at all. It might be clogging the solids handling pump and causing a pretty nasty backup in the basement. Despite appearances, synthetic cleaning wipes are flushable in the same way Tide Pods are edible. They’re not. Nevertheless, they are becoming so commonplace in plumbing systems that grinder pumps, once the domain of commercial and municipal plumbing, are now being made and designed for single-family residential applications.
We live in a world where synthetic disposable wipes are made and branded for every demographic — baby wipes for new parents, Clorox wipes for anyone who has a kitchen or bathroom, and Dude Wipes — for dudes — apparently. Although the silliest thing on the packaging might not be the name, but the “100% Biodegradable” logo, framed by two green leaves and the word “Flushable.” Flushable, in this case, has an asterisk after it telling customers to read the back of the container. I think a good rule of thumb is any product description requiring an asterisk might as well instead say “Actually, this is false advertising, ignore.” Maybe the fine print on the back says, “Flushable — if your plumbing system includes a grinder pump.”
The point was made last month at the WWETT show in Indianapolis. Every pump maker’s booth had a helpful demo displaying the hungry appetites of grinder pumps. Those things will eat anything — microfiber hand towels, baby wipes, feminine products, denim shorts, rubber gloves, you name it. I wanted to empty my pockets and see what else it could grind up. Goodbye iPhone, see ya later wallet, bon voyage socks. I maintained self-discipline and left with the same possessions I brought.
But the newest grinder pumps are mean little machines, with improved cutter blade design and rethought plate holes. If in the past, hard-to-tear items might leave the grinder as strips of cloth which could still pose a hazard, whatever enters the cutter now leaves as fine-ground pulp. For a deeper look at this topic, we talked to three grinder pump makers as part of a feature on the latest commercial bath and kitchen products on Page 40. Flip back a page from there to a read a case study about one installed at a distribution center. As always, the industry has solutions for whatever problems items people flush down the drain.