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:

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.