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Small fix solves carrier's toilet problem

Oct. 8, 2012 - 07:34AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 8, 2012 - 07:34AM  |  
This anti-clogging device is being installed on toilets aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush. The carrier had problems on its first deployment when sailors kept clogging the sewage system with a range of items including shirts, underwear, socks and mop heads.
This anti-clogging device is being installed on toilets aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush. The carrier had problems on its first deployment when sailors kept clogging the sewage system with a range of items including shirts, underwear, socks and mop heads. (EVAC)
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What is it? A stainless steel ring with an attached spike.
How big is it? A little less than 2 inches in diameter.
Where does it go? The ring is placed in a rubber fitting in the back of the toilet.
How does it work? Items such as socks and underwear will get snagged on the ring and clog the individual toilet instead of the entire system.
How many is the carrier George H.W. Bush getting? 100 have been shipped. Another 175 more are on order.
Cost to the Navy? $0. EVAC, which installed the toilet system in the Bush in the first place, is providing them free of charge.
Other ships? The Navy’s next carrier, Gerald R. Ford, will have the same vacuum system as the Bush. But for now, no anti-snagging devices have been ordered, EVAC said.
Source: EVAC North America


After a deployment riddled with out-of-order heads, sailors on the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush will finally get some relief.

While the ship sits at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., about 275 of its commodes will be fitted with a device that helps catch things like socks, shirts, underwear and mop heads all items sailors have tried to flush.

During the carrier's first deployment, which ended in December, sailors frequently contended with clogged heads. Half of the ship would often go out of service, and sometimes all 423 commodes would simultaneously go offline.

Sailors would scour the ship for a place to use the bathroom. Women would find an empty men's head and position a lookout by the door. Others would uncomfortably wait for the ship's 35 hull technicians to find a clog in the 250 miles of pipe.

More desperate sailors would find a shower or an old water bottle, or lean over a catwalk.

Bush was the first carrier to use a vacuum-powered system to suck sewage from commodes en route to discharging it at sea. To maintain suction, the sewage pipes were narrower than pipes in other carriers. It worked well, except for one thing: It's not sailor-proof. And for some reason, Bush sailors tended to flush paper towels, shirts, underwear, mop heads, hard-boiled eggs, socks, feminine hygiene products and other stuff that was never meant to go into a toilet.

When they flushed, these items would get stuck in the bends in these narrow pipes, causing commodes upstream to lose pressure. It was possible for one single jam to clog half of the ship at once. The hull techs onboard, including 13 vacuum specialists, spent more than 10,000 hours working on commodes, Navy officials have said. Clogs took around three hours to fix.

"Obviously, there are things that sailors put in the toilet that aren't supposed to go in there," said Tom Obermann, an engineer with EVAC, the company that built the Bush toilet system and is providing the parts to fix the problem for free.

Snag one, save all

The fix is a stainless steel ring with a spike that snags any items that could potentially clog the system. Waste passes through as usual; the device fits into a rubber fitting that is already installed into the back of the toilet.

While it won't stop individual toilets from clogging, it will stop massive system failures

"The poetic justice … it plugs the head of the guy who was using it," Obermann said.

When there is a single-toilet snag, a hull tech would most likely disconnect the toilet and pull out the offending item.

Navy officials confirmed EVAC was installing the snagging devices.

So far, the company reports it has shipped about 100 devices to the Navy and had received an order for 175 more enough to cover the ship's "problem areas," Obermann said.

They'll be installed as a part of 84 projects during this round of updates to the carrier. Other work includes upgrades to the combat system software, digital networks and a data processing system. The work is expected to be complete by December.

Bush isn't the first, nor will it be the last, ship to have a vacuum-powered sewer system. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and San Antonio-class amphibs use one, as will the future Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Navy leaders, as well as sailors on those ships, said they have occasional breakdowns, but it's not a recurring problem, possibly because there are fewer sailors onboard.

Meanwhile, the carrier Gerald R. Ford, the first in the next generation of flattops, is being built with an EVAC commode system. The Navy has yet to order any anti-snagging devices for that ship, Obermann said.

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