For print only.

Toilet backups lead to costly GRF repairs

Residents asked not to flush wrong items down toilets in public buildings

By Sam Richards

Staff writer

There’s a reason people are only supposed to flush certain things down the toilet – things made to break down in the pipes and not break the pipes down.

For reasons unclear, there’s been a recent surge in GRF public buildings of the wrong things being flushed away, leading to a spate of plumbing backups and other restroom-related failures.

“Paper towels are the number-one culprit, but there have been other things,” including incontinence briefs and feminine napkins, said Jeff Matheson, GRF’s director of resident services.

He insists the bathrooms in Rossmoor’s public buildings have remained well-stocked with toilet paper, and that paper towels shouldn’t have had to be pressed into emergency service.

Other items that shouldn’t be flushed include baby wipes and disinfectant wipes; Q-tips and similar swabs and other cotton products; baby diapers; the disposable gloves seen more often during the pandemic; dental floss; cigarette butts; cat litter; gum; cooking grease; food; and bleach (even for cleaning the toilet bowl, some sources say).

And even if toilet paper is specifically made to be flushed, entire rolls of it aren’t – and that has been a problem a few times recently, said John Raith, GRF’s foreman for trust facilities. “That, to me, is someone maliciously plugging a toilet.”

The last straw, Avinash Singh said last week, was a massive backup at the Event Center on May 4 when the men’s, women’s and smaller gender-neutral restroom were all affected.

“All three overflowed –by the time we got there, residents were walking in sewer water,” said Singh, GRF’s custodial supervisor. The resulting plumbing repairs and cleaning of carpets (and ridding them of the smell) cost over $1,500, he said.

Now, he and other Rossmoor managers are pleading with residents not to put in the toilets things that don’t belong there.

“If you don’t flush it at home, don’t do it here” at GRF public facilities, said Raith, whose crew responds to such events – or calls in outside vendors when his people are stretched too thin. “And if you’re doing that at home, you should stop.”

Before Rossmoor’s most recent “reopening” in February following the COVID-driven shutdown of most public common areas, such backups occurred a few times a year. Since then, Matheson said, “it’s literally been a weekly thing, if not several times a week.” And plumbers have had to be called to the Event Center, to Gateway and to Creekside – the latter on May 8, no less, when the Creekside Grill and Bar had a considerable Mother’s Day clientele.

“There’s been something at the Event Center every three or four days,” including the May 4 backup. And it all gets expensive quick, he said; the vendors who clear up the plumbing and clean up the messes charge $165 an hour for starters, and up to $275 per hour for after-hours calls.

Singh said GRF has spent $5,075 on toilet backup cleanup and maintenance so far in 2022; the flooding caused by backed-up toilets also can damage carpeting, wooden floors and even the base of walls.

Backups also present a health hazard; Raith said on one recent cleanup, a crew was crawling on a floor covered with backed-up toilet water, which stained their clothes. Inhaling that water can bring on a number of nasty illnesses, several of which can cause fever, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal unpleasantries.

The physical repair costs are covered by GRF’s janitorial budget and by its Trust Maintenance Account. But eventually, Matheson said, these repair costs will affect Rossmoor residents’ coupon payments.

Short of catching someone in the act of doing something that causes a big repair bill, there isn’t much GRF can do in the way of punishing the perpetrators, Matheson said.

Singh said bins, larger than the existing trash cans, soon will be put in some bathrooms as a place for non-flushables to be discarded. New signs to discourage illicit dumping also may be put up, Singh said.

“Maybe we just need to put hand driers in the bathrooms,” Matheson added. “That’s a hefty expense, but the cost of calling out a service on the weekend, and all of the staff time, the costs really mount up.

“For everybody’s health and safety,” Matheson added, “don’t put things down the toilet that don’t belong.”