Stanley hands over a laudatory profile of Raleigh's sewer maintenance department in a recent issue of Municipal Sewer and Water magazine, then hands me off to Robert Smith, a sewer monitoring supervisor and asks him to show me around.
First things first: We walk the yard, checking out trucks. Sewer guys basically do three things: They perform maintenance, they respond to crises, and they "TV" pipes, sending tiny little vehicles with cameras on them up the pipes to check both their condition as part of general maintenance and whether the crews who claim to have recently maintained them have actually done so.
Smith shows off the department's various trucks. Rodder trucks have a spool of linked rods, a sort of long chain that the workers feed into a manhole and then rotate, just like someone cleaning roots or a clog out of your drain at home. Some rodders have cutting blades or spiral grabbing implements to clear roots or debris. Flushing trucks carry enormous water tanks to feed high-pressure hoses with spinning heads on the end: Workers feed the hose into the system, usually past the next manhole, and then turn on a pump. Water pressure starts the head spinning, spraying water at thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch back toward the truck as the truck pulls back the hose, scouring the pipes along the way. Standard now is the combination truck, which carries tanks of water for flushing and a garbage-truck-size tank for postflush water, which the truck vacuums up with a huge tube that hangs from a derrick over the cab like an elephant's trunk. The driver eventually empties that tank onto a pad in the parking area, Smith explains; water drains off into the sewer system and the cleaned-out debris--tampons, bricks, gravel, roots, supposedly flushable materials--gets loaded into a dump truck once a week and sent to the landfill. Smith marshals those vacuum trucks when Raleigh has a sewage overflow, too. Another truck he calls a blockbuster has a water hammer--a pipe that uses water to rhythmically pound and break up large blockages. Finally, he shows me a sort of souped-up golf cart that provides access to the many parts of the system that, because they follow ravines rather than roads, are not easily reached by regular trucks.
But we're standing in a parking lot while people are out in the field, rodding sewers. "Hey," he says. "You wanna shoot the line?" You bet.
Our first stop is a highway off-ramp, where two flush trucks and a pickup are parked behind orange cones. Several men wearing hard hats, green mesh vests, and rubber-palmed gloves manage a hose coming off a spool on the back of one of the trucks and running to a manhole 20 feet down a steep ravine. A hundred yards away, two guys stand at another manhole looking out for the spinning head of the water jet, which Smith says is called a Warthog. Once it's past, the guys still at the truck turn on the jet and the spool to start reeling it back in. Over the roar of the truck engine Smith explains that on the way out the head sprays as a sort of presoak; "on the way back, it's like a broom." Water-jet cleaning like this is standard for clearing roots, grit, and, especially, grease: "We run into some lines [where] you think, Where in the world did all this grease come from? It looks like you sprayed foam on that pipe." Because the bell-and-spigot joints in sewer pipes provide places for tiny tree roots to enter, and because trees got very thirsty during the drought, crews commonly run a saw through the line after cleaning just to make sure they've got everything. Where the vacuum trucks can't reach a manhole, the crew flushes debris downstream to one the truck can reach.
That's sewer flushing, and the sanitation department does it all day long. Ever since the Hamburg sewers first captured tidal water and then released it all at once to flush out debris, the basic idea hasn't changed much: You use water to flush, you use rods or hooks to attack clogs, and, as Ed Norton sang, you keep things rolling along.