What do these three things have in common?
If your mind isn’t in the toilet right now, it really should be! That’s right: Q-Tips, baby wipes, and dental floss are three of the most common of many items that should never be flushed down the toilet. Yes, they will probably go down that porcelain hole just fine but their journey is long and will involve many twists and turns along the way. This article will discuss some of the risks you take whenever you flush anything but human waste and toilet tissue down the bathroom throne.
Most people know that drain pipes vary in size; a 4” drain is the most commonly sized pipe that will exit your house to either a municipality’s sewer system or a septic system. Drainage pipes are designed and installed to optimize the movement of water and human waste but not the various product categories than can be found in any drug store. Even if the package states that it is “flushable”, don’t do it! Here's why:
Your toilet is probably connected to your plumbing system by a 3” or 4” drain pipe. That pipe travels in the walls and throughout your house to the point where it leaves your house (usually the basement) and continues underground to either a sewer or a septic system. It is not a direct run. In addition to the twists and turns that it needs to make to get outside your house, it is joined with other drain lines that are connected to other fixtures in your house: sinks, showers, dishwashers, clothes washers, etc. Every turn that a pipe makes and every connection to another pipe it passes, there is an opportunity for a clog. In a properly designed system, these pipe intersections are common and designed to assist in vacating water, human waste, and toilet paper. Putting aside all the things that you shouldn’t flush down the toilet (I don’t even want to hear about the kitty litter), there are other liquids and solids that get introduced to your drainage system over time that will cause problems. The kitchen sink is one of the biggest culprits: oils and greases including butter will slowly create a residue on the walls of the drains they go though. Most us know that we shouldn’t empty a cup full of bacon grease down the drain but even small amounts can add up over the years. All of our drains ingest a lot of soap (in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room) and usually that soap combines with water and follows it designed path out of that house but over time, soap can build up in the drains as well (think soap scum around your shower and tub and you will have the right idea). Hair is another big culprit. It goes down the drain strand by strand but it often gets stuck somewhere along the way. Multiply a few daily hairs by the number of showers taken annually in your home! Usually this soap scum and hair will accumulate in a drain trap first and can be (should be) removed on a scheduled basis but we all forget to do that until our drains slow down or clog up completely. So, then what you we do? We send a chemical or a snake down the drain until all is draining again without thinking about the possibility that this debris (hair, soap, etc.) just moved down to a different part of the drainage system where it is no longer causing us an immediate problem… for now!
The older a home is, the more likely its drainage system is going to be a problem someday. Plastic piping is the product of choice these days and it works well. When your house was built however plastic might not have been available. Many older drains were made out of galvanized steel. One often thinks that something galvanized wont rust but over time, it will. And the rust will develop on the part of the pipe exposed constantly to water- the inside! This process doesn’t happen overnight but little by little rust will start to build on the inside lining of steel pipes. These pipes were also used for water supply and many people in older homes that haven't had a pipe upgrade will notice significantly lower water pressure year after year. This is because as the rust accumulates, the inside diameter of the pipe gets smaller and smaller so water that once have ¾” of space to travel though may now only have ¼”. This same effect can occur in drains. It is not uncommon for a drain that once had 3” of space to be reduced to half that.
The age of your house (and the age of the town you live in) can also determine if you might have another obstacle that your flushables will pass on the way to freedom. Starting in the late 1800’s and up until the 1950’s and 1960’s, a product called Orangeburg pipe was often used to bridge the path from your home to the sewer in the street. So, after all the pipes in your home converge into a single main drain, it would connect to an Orangeburg pipe that would continue the path to the big sewer pipe under the road outside your home. Well, like asbestos and other building products used in the past, over time it was discovered that Orangeburg pipe might not have been the best product to use in the ground. Made of a fibrous wood pulp, it useful life at best was only estimated at 50 years. Homes on the block I live in were built between 1925-1930 and they still have Orangeburg pipe attached to them. Besides the shortly rated lifespan, Orangeburg pipe overtime begins to crush and form more of an oval shape instead of round. The weight of all the dirt that make up our front lawns begin to take a toll of this pipe running beneath it. Tree roots are also a big concern in the proximity of this pipe as it is common for a strong root to grow right through an already slightly crushed pipe.
Ok, you may be thinking. I live in an older home, my pipes suck, and I am doomed. While it is true that a plan to upgrade your plumbing will absolutely save you from an emergency situation down the road, you owe it to your aging plumbing to treat it well. If you do have older galvanized plumbing in your home, consult with a plumber about your options. Often large sections of this older piping can be replaced easily from open areas. Remodeling projects in your home are also a great opportunity to open up a wall and upgrade at least a portion of a pipe. Every section you upgrade will reduce your likelihood of problems later. If you are doing a landscape project or installing a sprinkler system in your yard, consider having your contractor dig a little deeper in the ground to have your underground pipes upgraded. Yes, there will be an added expense, but if you have the opportunity to do it, you should!
This article is really about not causing problems in your pipes though. As explained in this post, drains will age and slowly become less effective than they once were. In a perfectly new house, you may get away with sending an occasional baby wipe down the pipe even though I wouldn’t recommend it. Older pipes are going to have less space inside them, more snags to catch things on, and have reduced stress levels. A Q-tip will easily get caught in a turn of a pipe, an innocent piece of dental floss combined with a few hairs and some cooking grease is a clog waiting to happen. Baby wipe are designed not to tear easily for good reason but that reasoning makes them a lousy candidate for a journey through your plumbing.
When you do experience a blockage, think twice about shoving a coat hanger down the sink drain (yes, we have all tried that once) because even if it gets you used mouthwash down the sink today, that blockage may wind up further down the line someday causing a bigger problem.
Think about how a chemical drain cleaning product might do damage to pipes that are very old. The same active ingredient that was designed to break up your clog may also break up your pipes. Boiling hot water or a simple mixture of baking soda and vinegar can have the same results many times without causing further problems. Whenever possible, try to remove a clog by taking it out of the pipe instead of pushing down the pipe. Yes, there is some icky stuff down those pipes but it is worth the effort.
Most importantly though: do NOT flush anything but human waste and toilet paper down your toilets!