Justin Vaughn and Tim Dobbs have seen some crazy things clogging the sewer pipes they maintain.
Vaughn and Dobbs, sewer field operators for the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, have found everything from toy trucks to pet fish to entire towels and bedsheets. Vaughn even found a 6-foot-long 2-by-4 board once.
But the oddities aren't what keep these technicians busy. Instead, it's clumps of the small, disposable cleaning towels that most of us use almost every day.
In the past three years, BJWSA crews have found more and more of these disposable cleaning wipes and other materials that don't break down after flushing, according to BJWSA field operations director Joe Devito.
Those materials clump up and clog sewer pumps throughout the BJWSA system, which might someday cost residents of Beaufort and Jasper counties higher utility bills, Devito said.
"The most common thing that we see, and is being seen around the United States, is the disinfection wipes," Devito said. "Somebody just wiping down the toilet seat, then dropping it and flushing it. It's that simple."
In Beaufort and Jasper County, field crews must take apart and clean pumps at two to four stations every day, Devito said.
"It's a daily thing we deal with," adds Vaughn. "With 250 stations, two pumps in each station, we're pulling a pump somewhere every day."
Disposable cleaning wipes for bathroom and kitchen counters have become more popular in recent years, and though they may be advertised as "flushable," they're not all safe for the sewer system, Devito said.
The confusion comes down to which wipes are flushable versus which are "dispersible."
Many of the cleaning wipes on the market will go down the toilet, but they're made with thin nylon fibers similar to fishing line that won't disperse in the sewer system's water, Devito said.
When soggy fabrics haven't dissolved and start to clump together, they often stick to the inside of the pumps. The pumps push water from neighborhoods to the sewer system's main pipes, which lead to the treatment facility, Vaughn said. When the pumps get blocked, they turn more slowly, pump less water and use more energy -- essentially halting the process.
On Thursday, Vaughn and field operator Tim Dobbs visited the water authority's station behind the Baywood neighborhood off Simmonsville Road in Bluffton, which serves the neighborhood and part of the Westbury Park apartments.
The only way to clear the 250-pound, 10-horsepower pumps is to use a small truck-mounted crane to hoist them out, then take them apart and clean them by hand.
Out of each pump the operators pulled football- and basketball-sized globs of tangled fabric and fiber.
"A little bit hurts just as much as more would," Vaughn said. "And it's not just a problem (at these stations). It ends up at the treatment plant."
The sewer authority strives for an 80-20 maintenance split, in which crews spend 80 percent of their time on preventive maintenance and 20 percent reacting to problems, Devito said. With more hours spent on blocked pumps, that split is more like 50-50 now, he said.
Those extra hours add up to additional labor costs for the sewer authority, and more clogs mean the pumps, which cost $3,000 to $5,000, might need to be replaced every five years instead of every seven, Devito said.
Because the water authority is funded by utility fees, those costs could be passed on to customers through a rate hike, Devito said.
"That's where it hits our pocketbooks, and that's what we want to prevent," Devito said.
BJWSA isn't the only organization dealing with the problem, said Kelley Ferda, manager of the South Island Public Service District on Hilton Head.
"Everyone in the country is having this problem, and we find the exact same things," she said.
Professional associations and environmental groups are banding together to try to change the rules about which wipes are allowed to carry the "flushable" label, she said.
Locally, sewer districts are trying to get the word out, Ferda said. Next week, water and sewer managers will talk about the issue at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area. The event, at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Hilton Head Public Service District at 21 Oak Park Drive, is a way to try to get residents to think twice before they flush, Ferda said.
"I think the thing with most people is they turn on a faucet and water comes out and it goes down the drain," Ferda said. "But they don't think about the infrastructure that delivers the water or takes it away and treats it."
Video: Sewer authority urges residents to toss disposable wipes in trash, not toilet (1:44)Delayna Earley
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.