Three Steps to Clean Caving with Hot Water Disinfection

Caving is muddy. Sometimes really muddy. But “Clean Caving” is a practice we should all follow to help protect our cave ecosystems.  In addition to concerns regarding White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus-caused disease that has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. in the past several years, we also need to protect other forms of cave life.  Some cave microbes may only exist in one cave in the world, and can potentially be wiped out if we inadvertently bring in microscopic hitchhikers from other caves. Also, who knows what effect contaminants we accidentally track into caves may have on other creatures we all love to see, like salamanders, crickets, and fish. Caving with clean cave gear will help ensure that we do everything we can to protect all life found in caves.

Fortunately, researchers recently demonstrated that simply soaking your gear and clothing in a hot water bath that’s at least 122°F (50°C) and stays at 122°F for at least 15 minutes is effective at killing the fungus that causes WNS, and many other microscopic hitchhikers as well.  This new method of cleaning gear is quick, easy, cheap, and may be safer for your vertical gear: including your rope!

This article describes three easy steps you can follow to successfully disinfect your gear using only hot water.  You may only need to do steps one and two once; after you’re good to go on the first two steps, this really turns into a one-step method!  Just remember that disinfection is itself just the third step in the three-step SCCi Clean Caving Procedures (see page 2).
Step One: Choose your container. You can use this new method in any large container that will hold water.  Large plastic storage tubs, which are inexpensive and readily available at home improvement and discount retail stores, work great; you can also use your sink, your bath tub, or possibly even your washing machine.  If you don’t have a ton of gear or don’t mind doing multiple runs, a large insulated cooler could work as well.  The key is that it needs to be big enough so that your gear is all entirely submerged in water.

With washing machines, the machine must be able to fill the drum completely. Most, if not all, top-loading machines do this just fine; unfortunately, few if any front-loading machines will work; they’re designed to be water-efficient, so the drums never fill completely.  Many top-loading washers have a soak cycle, which may work well if it lasts long enough.  If not, you can just put all your gear in the washer, let the washer fill with hot water until everything is completely submerged, then turn off the washer for at least 15 minutes to let everything soak.

Step Two: Make sure your water is hot enough. To be effective, the water temperature MUST remain above 122°F (50°C) for the entire 15-minute period.  Your initial water temperature will need to be considerably higher; how much higher depends on how quickly your container loses heat, and how much gear you put in it.  Here’s how you can do your own test to make sure your water is hot enough:

  • Get a thermometer that is reliable in hot water.  Meat-grade thermometers may work; waterproof probes of indoor/outdoor thermometers have also been successfully used.
  • Put your gear in your container, and fill the container with hot water.  If using a washing machine, use the “soak” cycle, or just let the drum fill with water, then turn it off.
  • Check the temperature periodically for 15 minutes to make sure the water remains above 122°F for at least 15 minutes.
  • If the water isn’t hot enough, adjust your hot water heater setting and try it again. Most hot water heaters have a small dial on the side that allows you to adjust the temperature. Consult your water heater user’s manual before changing the settings (many manuals are available online). In general, make sure to turn off the circuit breaker to the water heater before changing anything. Also look and see if there’s a Reset button you need to press.
  • After changing the hot water heater settings and waiting an hour to let the water heater reach the higher temperature, fill up your washing machine again and check the water temperature for at least 15 minutes.   You may need to try this a few times before you are successful.  (Note: if you’re concerned about the additional energy usage associated with a hotter hot-water heater setting, you can turn it back down to a lower setting when you’re done – just be sure to turn it back up the next time you need to decon!)
  • If increasing your water heater setting doesn’t work for you, or you don’t want to mess with it, consider one these suggestions:
    • Use a container that will better maintain the temperature, such as a large insulated cooler.
    • Heat up a large pot of water on your stove, and add that to your bath.
    • Check online to see if anyone else has come up with a different solution that works for you.  As of the time this article was written, the following thread on CaveChat was active: http://www.forums.caves.org/viewtopic.php?f=58&t=13604&start=60

Step Three:  Disinfect your gear. This step is the easiest.  After hosing off and pre-cleaning your gear as described on page 2 of our Cave Visitation Policy, just put your gear in your chosen container; fill up the container with the hot water using the method you’ve found to work for you, and let your gear soak for at least 15 minutes. Longer won’t hurt. Check the water temperature with your thermometer at the start and after 15 minutes to make sure it’s above 122°F throughout.  Once you’re done, remove your gear; if you’re using a washing machine, you may want to just remove any large, bulky items, leave your clothing in the washing machine and continue the soak or wash cycle like normal to drain the water.  Dry your gear using whatever method you typically use (remember of course to follow product labels and manufacturer instructions!), and store it.

Step Four: This step is the most fun.  If you’ve been paying close attention, though, you may be wondering why this “three-step disinfection method” has a step four; we included this extra step to help everyone remember why we’re doing all this disinfection stuff.  Step Four is this:  Go Caving!

Let’s All Keep Our Gear Clean!

This really is a VERY easy way to disinfect gear. Give it a try and make this a standard part of your caving routine.  If you have tips or tricks to disinfect your gear with hot water, please let us know! This is still a new method and we’d like to hear how others are doing it.

NOTE: At this time, we do not recommend using this method in your dishwasher. Although they get gear hot and wet, dishwashers do not submerge gear, and have not yet been tested to see if they are actually effective at killing the WNS fungus. Also, some dishwashers have the potential to get gear so hot that adhesives and some types of materials could be damaged.

SCCi Unable to Renew Jacobs Mountain Preserve Lease

October, 2012

Due to the pending sale of the Jacobs Mountain property by the current landowner, the SCCi was not able to renew our lease on the Jacobs Mountain Preserve. Our lease expired on October 13, 2012; SCCi members no longer have access to the preserve.

We are hopeful that the property will be acquired by an entity that will allow caving, but there remain many unknowns in that process.

Many SCCi members have appreciated the opportunity to visit the many great caves on the property during the two years of the SCCi lease. On behalf of the SCCi board, I would like to express appreciation to all the SCCi members who provided financial support for this lease, and I would particularly like to thank Brian Killingbeck for doing an excellent job as our preserve manager!

 

Southeastern Cave Conservancy End Lease of Long Island Cove

The Southeastern Cave Conservancy recently decided to end our lease of Long Island Cove. We’re really glad our members could enjoy the wonderful caves in the cove for the past two years, but we felt that the money we would spend on an additional year’s lease would be better spent in other ways. In addition, visits to the preserve significantly decreased in 2011, indicating that our members who wanted to visit the caves had done so, and were not likely to continue to visit the caves year after year. We would like to thank Tracy Wooden for generously allowing cavers to visit the fine caves on his property for the past two years.

We are very serious about managing your donations effectively and making sure that the SCCi continues to be able to acquire and lease caves we can all enjoy for generations to come.  As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us! Thank you very much for your continuing support!

We’re Reopening Caves

The SCCi Board of Directors recently voted to re-open nearly all of our caves with seasonal bat populations in May 2012.  We had closed these caves in 2009, when the cause of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), and mechanism by which it spread, were poorly understood.  At the time, WNS was over 1,000 miles away from our caves, and the board wanted to reduce the potential that a visitor to one of these caves could inadvertently cause a long-distance jump of WNS.  The SCCi acted before most state and federal agencies, demonstrating our leadership in cave conservation and management.

Since 2009, we have continued to monitor WNS developments, and we have also continued to analyze the best ways to protect both bats and caves in general.  Scientists now understand that bat-to-bat transmission is the primary mode by which WNS is migrating.  We also now know that the risk of inadvertent WNS transmission by humans can be dramatically reduced by following established protocols to clean and decontaminate caving gear and clothing.

WNS has now been found in central Tennessee, making it well within individual bat-flight range of all of our caves with seasonal bat populations, and eliminating our original concern about inadvertently facilitating a long-distance jump of WNS.  Also, over the past year, some our closed caves have been found to have been vandalized during the closure period, demonstrating the negative impact to caves and cave ecosystems that can occur when cavers stop having an active presence on our preserves.

When the caves re-open, visitors will be required to follow the current SCCi cave visitation policy, and will need to obtain permits and decontaminate their gear and clothing prior to visiting the caves.  The SCCi takes WNS and bat conservation very seriously, and will communicate additional information about access to specific caves in the coming months.

The SCCi Now Owns Tumbling Rock Cave

We’re pleased to announce that cavers now own the classic and caver-favorite Tumbling Rock Cave! The SCCi started leasing the cave in January, 2008 and purchased the cave in July, 2011. Tumbling Rock Inc., an Alabama non-profit corporation, manages the cave. This very special acquisition is the culmination of more than four years of extensive efforts by SCCi member Jay Clark and others. The cave is open for visitation primarily on weekends, from Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon. Access at other times may be possible by special arrangement. Send an email to tumblingrock@scci.org if you have any questions about visiting the cave.

We have several special fundraising opportunities for everyone to help us pay off this fabulous cave. First, you can “buy a piece of the cave.” We also have a new, unique fundraising program. We’re going to build a small patio near the cave entrance, and you can purchase a brick for $100 engraved with your name, your Grotto’s name, your scouting troop’s name, or anything you want! This will be a wonderful way to permanently mark your support of the Tumbling Rock purchase. Look for additional details about these programs soon.

In addition, one of the best things you can do to help the SCCi pay off this cave and purchase more caves is to sign up as a Sustaining Member by giving a set amount each month. As little as $10 or $15 a month really helps us buy even more caves. Plus, all sustaining members get into the cave for free!