I'm a research scientist working in another field (radio / networks), and I often like to hear interesting problems; sometimes it gives me creative new ideas. So I figured I'd try to see if there would be Chemists likewise interested in a problem I heard about.
I live in a 20+ floor high-rise building in San Jose, CA. There's a problem where a few times a year, a huge amount of soap bubbles start coming out of the toilets of people living on the lowest floor, engulfing their bathroom in suds. We call this a "bubble-rama" and each time it causes $1000s in damages -- upwards of $50,000 so far. It's serious and expensive. It seems to have just started in 2021.
The building engineer suspects that someone is dumping way too much laundry detergent into their washing machine. One piece of evidence is that sometimes the water in the bubble-rama victim's toilet turns noticeably blue when it happens.
We are looking for creative ways to isolate who it might be. About 20 units share the same drain-pipe, so any one of those residents/families that could be the source. Imagine at least 3/4 of them would be fully cooperative to try things out; the people here are generally friendly and helpful.
Are there chemistry solutions here? For instance, are there additives we could ask people to add to their detergents so we could differentiate whose laundry did or did not cause the problem? Is it feasible to do a chemical analysis of the detergent and match it up with different brands?
Some thoughts / questions so far...
1) Are there other chemical reactions in common household goods that might produce extreme amount of bubbles? (I saw a picture -- imagine an entire bathroom with bubbles 1 high)
2) Techie approach: I'm thinking we could install remote power monitoring devices to learn when different units run their washing machines. After collecting data, use an algorithm to find correlations between certain units washing and the "bubble-rama" events. (I can do this one). Maybe there are some problems I'm not anticipating?
3) Give residents in this "stack" free laundry detergent. We will give them either clear, blue, or blue-phosphorescent (you can see it under a black light -- ie. Tide). We track who was given what color. Then next time it happens we might be able to narrow down which unit is causing the issue. Binary search (etc). We could also learn how much they use by how often they request more.
4) Is there a way to get rid of the bubbles? I seem to recall putting your finger into a fizzing soda can cause it to quickly stop the fizzing. Is there a way to compress them if they travel upwards so they collapse into just liquid? Anything we can install in a drainpipe.
5) Is it possible that it's not laundry detergent, but something like Drano? (which people do use in large quantities) Do they both make bubbles?
Btw, there was a technical reason that a check-valve can't be used to prevent the bubbles.
Anyway, any thoughts at all on this would be appreciated !