Sunday, December 1, 2013

It happens every season

Somewhere in my employment contract that I signed to come down here there exists a clause that reads "At least once per season, you must fix something that involves direct contact with poop."  Last year it was a fairly tame wax ring replacement on a toilet, and then in the fall I found myself crawling under a building in an area that we'd had a seweage spill a month prior.  None of it's fun, but it's part of the job and I get done what needs to get done, but last week was a fix that pushed the boundries of what I could stomach.

At 8am on Tuesday we got an alarm in our office; the floor-mounted water sensor had tripped in the aquarium, indicating that something down there was flooding.  Usually this is a fish tank overflowing or something else minor, but when we got there we found it was much worse; raw sewage was backing up from the drain and flooding the floor.  The aquarium is the lowest point in our drainage system; everything goes under the building, and then immediately out to the masticator and then to be dispersed into the ocean.  This means that if there's a problem down stream, the aquarium is going to be the first place that everything starts backing to.

There was a moment of panic among three of us as we stood in the aquarium, watching bits of TP and . . . other stuff burble up through the floor drain and start sloshing around the equipment, wondering what the hell we could do before this got worse.  Obviously, the main sewer line for the whole station was completely plugged up somewhere downstream, but we don't have a long snake on station right now and even if we did, the nearest clean-out is still buried under ten feet of snow and ice.

I don't have moments of brilliance very often, and when they strike it's usually completely random and about something quite useless.  But today, my usually scumbag brain performed perfectly and going off a random spur-of-the-moment hunch, I ran down to processing hut and cranked open the second masticator.

All of the sewage, in fact anything that goes down the drains on station, has to pass through one of these things before it's dispersed into the ocean.  Masticators, macerators, delumpers, whatever you want to call them, they do the same job; they grind and mash up any solid materials into a slurry so it can be more easily broken down by the enviroment.  We have two of them for redundancy; we usually switch them over once a month to give each unit a break, and so we can do preventive maintinence and servicing.  However, they're in parallel on the same line; there's only a Y-junction, not a Y-valve separating them.  Because of this, we make do with an individual gate valve in front of each unit.

My hunch turned out to be exactly right; the instant I powered up and opened the gate valve on the second masticator, everything in the flooding aquarium went back down the drain.  The invevitable conclusion being that something was either stuck in the first masticator or gate valve . . . and I was going to have to fix it.

But again, because it's just a Y-junction, and not a Y-valve, there's no way to shut off the sewage flow to this unit; at least some stuff was going to be going to it, even if the bulk of the material was passing through the other running unit.  I'd get to work on this . . . uh, live.  Or fresh.  Or . . . whatever you want to call it, I can't ask everyone to stop pooping for a day.

Just the act of getting this thing open required some doing; the only easy access was to take the head off the gate valve and see what I could see, but that head weighs about 150lbs and was likely going to be rusted in place.  I bolted some angle iron to the studs in the walls and then braced a 4x4 between them, to give me a good anchor point for a cable winch to lift the valve up with.

After a lot of cranking on the winch, much finangling and a few bouts of persuasion with a sledgehammer, the whole assmebly pulled free and I could get it up out of the way, so I could get into the pipe and see what was going on.

The smell was exactly as you'd expect; I worked on this while holding my breath, leaping out to the door every thirty seconds for a breath of air before going back in.  It was revolting beyond explanation; the few times I did inhale, even through my mouth, I had to force myself not to gag.

You came to this blog looking for pictures of penguins, didn't you?
What I found in there was a softball-sized wad of material that must have been growing for a while, mostly held together with something white and fibrous.  Tampons, or maybe a rag, or paper towels, to be honest I don't know and I don't care.  It was in there, and I had to deal with it.  With some shoulder-length rubber gloves and a rubber scraper I reached in there and broke it up, then shoved it down the pipe to the mastication blades (which I was kicking over manually with my foot on the pulley on the outside of the pipe) where it could be ground up and go away. 

I threw away the non-metal tools that I used on this; the gloves, scrapers, everything went into a big plastic bag and then to the solid waste milvan.  No amount of cleaning could ever make me feel good about using something that I'd used for that ever again, but this is my job.  I was pointed at a broken peice of machinery, and I made it not broken anymore.  I took it apart, found what was wrong, put it all back together so that once again, people may poop and push the toilet handle, and never have to worry about where the poop goes.

Well, they might not have to worry about it, but I and many other people like me do.  So please, to anyone reading this, for the love of all that is good and holy in the world: If it didn't come from your body, it doesn't go in the potty.


BabyWeightMyFatAss said...

Gross. Growing up in Chicago we were told we could flush well "those white things". When I moved to the boonies it was a hell no can't do that stuff. I would imagine that would be the same there. Sorry for the grossness! Tell them to get the Diva cup!

Kurt Verdejo said...

That's really worrisome. I hope the inspection is more thorough, in case it would necessitate a much more incisive repair to deal with all the errant aspects and details, which may be problems in the future. Drains are sometimes intertwining conundrums, but they are meant to be complex anyways, since that's what makes the lavatories much simpler for us to use. So yeah, we should watch out for these things.

Kurt @ Total Plumbing