PORTSMOUTH -- Clog-prone toilets on the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, a source of consternation for its crew, are being modified with a clog-preventing device as part of the ship's scheduled maintenance.
The USS George H.W. Bush is about halfway through a four-month maintenance period at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, and both clogs and the sewage treatment system are getting attention.
An Aug. 2 news release announcing the maintenance stop didn't mention problems with the Bush's 493 "heads" first raised last year by sailors and their families. It noted that workers are completing 84 ship modifications, including several software improvements.
A spokesman for the naval shipyard said toilets are also on the repair agenda. The ship's crew is "installing anti-snag devices in the toilet drainage lines to help prevent system clogs," the spokesman, Jeff Cunningham, said by email on Friday.
He said the waste system is being reconfigured to increase its capacity.
The Bush commodes became a national issue in November 2011 after the mother of a sailor stationed on the Newport News-built carrier complained publicly about them in an email to reporters. Several sailors told the Navy Times that there were enough out-of-service toilets on the ship that they'd been forced at times to seek other ways to relieve themselves, including urinating in bottles, sinks and showers.
The Bush's commanding officer, Capt. Brian "Lex" Luther, said in an interview with the Daily Press at the time that the clogs were caused by a few disgruntled sailors "acting out" by flushing innappropriate items down the ship's toilets.
He said hull technicians -- who spent 10,000 hours fixing the wastewater system in the ship's first six months since deploying in May 2011 -- found shirts, underwear, socks, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, bolts, feminine hygiene products, towels, eating utensils and mop heads jamming up pipes.
An engineer with the company that built the waste management system on the Bush, EVAC North America Inc. of Cherry Valley, Ill., said Friday that his company is providing the clog-busting device for the toilets, which have a vacuum flush as opposed to a more water-intensive gravity-powered flush. Vacuum flush toilets are common on ships and planes.
"The device is designed to be installed in the outlet of the toilet with a hook pointing inward towards the bowl," said Tom Obermann, the EVAC engineer. "The hook hangs into the center of the piping and will snag rags and other debris, preventing them from further travel downstream where they could block piping serving multiple toilets."
"You'd be amazed what gets flushed down the toilet of a ship," Obermann said. "Anything that can fall out of a pocket or off of a person, like sunglasses."
Vacuum piping has a smaller diameter than gravity piping, he said, so the systems are more vulnerable to clogging.
So far, the anti-snag device seems to be working, he said.
"Reports from the ship," Obermann said, "indicate that blockages have been greatly reduced."
He said EVAC has not charged the Navy for the work.