Friday, August 30, 2013

Confessions of a Sewer Rat

After a recent blog post about previous jobs, I thought I should share some stories about one of my favorites from high school.  Enjoy.


At some point when I was in high school my father, who was a deputy sheriff at the time in our small town, decided to open a sewer cleaning business.  He purchased a nice high pressure water snake , an old fashioned sewer snake, and a very cool small, red pickup truck...a red truck with a canopy.  Admittedly I was excited when he first been discussing the idea of opening our own family business.  It sounded adventurous and profitable.

My optimism quickly dissipated as I helped on our first job in Roosevelt.  Of course, it should have been obvious that working with the transportation system of human biological waste wouldn't be the most desirable job in the world.  Despite my sudden decline in interest, it wasn't long before I was trained and doing jobs on my own.

While the job wasn't the most pleasant, it did pay well and made for some great stories.

Gear and Rules
There are three key pieces of personal protective gear to being a safe and effective sewer line cleaning technician.  First, you must have a proper pair of gloves.  Heavy duty, rubber coated gloves are necessary.  Sometimes you can get away with the coated cloth gloves that go to the wrist.  On most jobs, however, I preferred the solid rubber gloves that went almost to my elbows.  It's best not to allow the line from the snake touch your skin or clothes directly if you can help it.  Second, you need eye protection.  Because I wore glasses at the time, I just used those instead of wearing uncomfortable goggles.  Unfortunately they served their purpose more than once and were spattered with waste.  Finally, you need a good source of clean rags to clean the snakes off as you pulled them out.

Now for a couple of rules.  Keep your mouth shut when pulling a snake out of a line.  Under no circumstances do you want someone's waste landing in your mouth.  It would leave a permanent psychological scar and possibly lingering health issues.  Never turn on the pressure cleaner (jetter) until the head and line are safely in the sewage line.  Never pull the head of the jetter out of the line with the pump running.  

It's also important to realize that a sense of smell can be a serious curse.

Female Hygiene
During an early job I was sent to a neighbors house to clean out a line.  Luckily I had access to clean out valve outside.  It's always easier to do the jobs from outside a home as access is easier and you don't have to be as careful about making messes.  After an initial check of the line it became clear that there was a solid block in the line that required more than the pressure cleaner.  Using the mechanical snake with a drill attachment I fed the in line in.  Once I knew the end of the snake had grabbed something I pulled it out to investigate the obstacle at hand.  As the line came out I saw that what appeared to be large engorged cotton balls were wedged into the end of the snake.  Reaching down I pulled the first one off and stared at it trying to figure out what I had.  Pulling it apart to try to solve the mystery, I suddenly realized i was holding a used tampon in my hand.

Suddenly I found myself very angry with three people.  First, I was angry with my dad for getting us into this business.  Because of his entrepreneurial spirit his 17 year old son was sitting there holding a strange woman's used tampon.  Second, I was angry with the woman.  It seemed obvious that you shouldn't flush tampons down the toilet.  Third, I was angry with myself for not being somewhere else at that moment.  For instance, the county jail suddenly seemed a lot more inviting.

Unfortunately, the lady of the house was standing next to me, anxious to have her plumbing back in order.  As I kneel there in the field with my morbid discovery she leaned over my shoulder and asked, "What is it?"

Apparently the swell factor was enough to distort the item beyond identification for her, or she didn't want to accept what it was.  I looked up with her, my face red and shaking with anger, embarrassment and abject horror.  Whispering between clenched teeth I forced myself to say, "A tampon.  It's a lot of tampons.  You can't flush tampons down the toilet."  Suddenly realizing what kind of dialogue she was having with a young man, she muttered a little shriek and ran to her house.

In short order I was able to pull out the remainder of the used feminine hygiene products from the sewer line.  Eventually, and sadly, I progressed to the point where pulling used tampons and other items from sewer lines was no big deal.  The first time, however, was quite the ride.

A Skunk Would Be Better
One of my favorite experiences surprisingly didn't happen to me directly.  My dad and I were on a job together trying to clear out a blockage on single wide trailer.  Anytime you need to go into a crawl space it's always beneficial to have someone on the outside to turn the pressure cleaner on and off.  Upon arrival at the job I set the machine up while my dad put on his overalls and crawled under the trailer.

We knew it would be messy because their was raw sewage backed up into the bathtub.  Whatever clean out we opened, sewage was going to spill under the trailer.  The best thing to do in these situations is find a way to release the dirty water into a spot away from where you will have to lay.  Unfortunately this job started out badly.  As my dad was trying to move one of the sewer lines the connection under the bathtub came loose and created a veritable shower of sewage.  This of course put my dad into a poor demeanor.

It's important to understand that this jetter, or pressure cleaner, shoots water out at an extremely high pressure.  The heads are designed to shoot one stream straight ahead and multiple streams to the side and rear.  This design allows the high pressure water to cut through the blockage, propel the line forward, and clean the sides of the line.

Once he had the sewage pipe open he fed the end of the jetter in and pushed it around the first corner.  With the line loaded he asked me to flip it on.   I clicked it on and the pump started to hum, shooting water out at a crisp 4500 psi.  Within less than a minute the lady in the house opened her back door and yelled at me, "I think your dad wants you to turn the machine off?"

"Why?  I haven't heard him say anything."

She yells back, "Well, he's pounding like hell on my floor."

I turned it off as quickly as I could and yelled at my dad to see what he needed.  I didn't get a reply so I yelled again.  Soon I realized from the sound that he was crawling out from under the trailer.  Confused I leaned over by the entrance to see what he was doing when suddenly I saw my dad's face burst into the light with his eyes squished shut as tightly as he could, his lips pressed closed, and sewer water dripping down his face.  After a short second of shock and deep, deep amusement I grabbed a towel and pressed it into his hand so he could wipe his face.

With his face clean enough to venture opening his eyes, he looked at me accusingly and asked with more than a twinge of anger, "Why didn't you shut it off when I started pounding?"

"I didn't hear you pounding.  I was standing next the pump and didn't hear you.  What happened?"

In angry voice he explained how the head of the pressure line turned back on itself instead of going around the corner.  As soon as I turned it on it sprayed sewer water directly into his face and continued to spray all over him while he waited for me to turn it off.  With raw sewage dripping down his face he couldn't open his mouth to yell at me.

I'm not one to use foul language, but I have to say that was the only time I ever saw my dad totally #$#%faced.

Frosty and Cassanova
Cleaning frozen lines during the winter is a very uncomfortable proposition.  I once spent six hours in sub zero temperature trying unsuccessfully to clear a frozen line on a farm in Neola.  It took me hours to warm up, but it wasn't the worst.  One night in Duchesne I was called out to clear a frozen line on a trailer.  Knowing that I would be working under the trailer I called my friend Ryon to help run the pump on the jetter for me.  The temperature outside was well below freezing, but it wasn't nearly as cold right under the trailer.  In an attempt to break through the frozen line as quickly as possible we hooked the jetter up to the hot water heater.  Usually this will help get through a large portion of the frozen line quickly.

With everything hooked up and the line in the pipe, Ryon flipped the switch.  One drawback is that the jetter pushes all the water back into the work space while you work through the blockage.  Within a few minutes I was laying in a pool of melted sewer water and warm water from the water heater.  Despite the content of the water I unashamedly enjoyed the fact that at least it was the beginning. 

Ryon checked in with me once or twice the first little while.  I don't remember how long it took to finally free the block but by the time it broke through the water coming out of the jetter was cold.  While the temperature under trailer was higher than it was outside, laying in the now cold water had lowered my body temperature and soaked my heavy overalls through completely.  With the job wrapped up I yelled for Ryon to turn the pump off but received no response.  Grabbing my gear I crawled outside and couldn't find him anywhere.  I turned the pump off and reeled in the hose.  By the time the hose was reeled in I was was bitterly cold and could feel my overalls starting to freeze on the outside. 

In freezing temperatures, all the water in the pump and line of the jetter must be cleared immediately and replaced with anti-freeze.  Failure to do so can crack the pump or split the lines.  With frozen hands and body, I went through the process as quickly as I could wondering to where my help had wondered off.  Just as I was loading the jetter back into the truck, shaking uncontrollably, Ryon and the client, a beautiful lady who had graduated from high school just a few years ahead of us, walked out of the trailer. 

Ryon said, "Oh, are you finished.  Sorry, she invited me in for a cup of hot cocoa so I could warm up."

I don't remember what I said but it wasn't very nice and he laughed at me in response.  The drive home was extremely painful as was the shower I took.  In the shower I had to leave the water on cold for twenty or so minutes before I could begin to turn the temperature up.  As stood there shaking, thinking I would never be warm again, I kept picturing Ryon sitting across from the pretty lady enjoying a hot cup of cocoa.

A Slap in the Face
My final, and perhaps best story, once again involved Ryon.  I was called to go clear some blocked lines up at the Tabby Mountain Resort outside of Tabiona.  Ryon agreed to go with me to help.  As we arrived we found several families, some with cute girls our age, vacationing there from the city; all of them were gathered around the clean out line to watch us fix their sewage issue.  Working with an audience on this kind of project, especially when the audience is angry and impatiently waiting for toilets and showers to work correctly again.  Nobody wants to go on vacation and find raw sewage in their bathroom. 

With everyone looking on I learned from the maintenance guy that every cabin at the resort was blocked up.  Since their system all fed into a septic tank, I thought it wise to make sure the tank wasn't full with solid sewage going down the drain line.  If that was the case, then they would need to have the septic tank pumped and the drain line cleaned or replaced.  After wrestling off the concrete lid of the septic tank, I took my hat off and grabbed a flashlight and carefully peered into the edges of the tank looking for the drain line.  I was hoping to find a a clear line which would confirm that I could likely fix the problem quickly.

Honestly to this day I don't remember the condition of the drain line or whether or not we fixed the problem all because of what happened while and after I looked into the tank.  Let me set the scene one more time.  Thirty to forty people are sitting on the little hillside watching us, waiting for the problem to be fixed.  It was late summer and I hadn't cut my hair in about six weeks.  I mention this because as I sat up to tell Ryon what I had seen, something wet and slimy slapped me in the forehead and over my eye, dripping down my cheek.  Most of the people watching screamed, Ryon's eyes got huge.  It took a few seconds but then I realized that my hair had been dipped into the solid sewage at the top of the septic tank as I twirled it around looking for the drain line.  As I sat up the crap soaked swirly landed squarely on my face.

Within thirty seconds most of my audience had dispersed, running from the guy with poop dripping down his face.  Ryon took longer than me to recover but eventually he handed me a rag to wipe the sewage off of my face. 

Following the incident I'm sure we finished the job or referred it to someone to handle the septic tank.  All I remember is Ryon laughing at me during the entire drive back to Duchesne.

Since those days, whenever I think my current job is kind of crappy, I just remind myself that it's not even close.


rose thomas said...
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Ben Affleck said...
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