Battling Shifting Sands of Tidewater Region to Keep Storm Water Systems Flowing

When storm sewers become the unintended receptacles for animal carcasses, bicycles, marine wildlife and other exotic — and not-so-exotic — debris, it’s time to call in the experts to restore order. And in the Tidewater area of Virginia, where shifting sands aggravate the problem by misaligning sewer pipes, the experts to call are Tri-State Utilities.

The Tidewater zone of Virginia presents unique challenges in terms of storm water management for municipalities. The dominant soil type is sandy, water-soaked and prone to washouts, shifting or collapse during heavy rains or flooding. That means storm water infrastructure such as pipes and drains are subject to displacement during weather events. Even day-to-day pressure from high water tables and unstable soil can cause structure failure.

“We regularly see shifts in the pipes that lead to sand and debris filling up the systems, said Pete Kurz of Tri-State Utilities, a company servicing communities throughout the Tidewater region.“ It’s our job to clean those pipes out and report back to the municipalities on the condition of their system.”

“There’s a touch of the wild frontier looking down that manhole to find out what each new job entails,” Kurz said. “Storm sewer pipe systems vary from 12 to 60 in., so there is tremendous variability in your capacity to actually see and diagnose the problem. But our guys are highly trained to work with all types of storm sewer problems.”

Understanding nature is particularly important in the Tidewater region. “We all need to know the tide schedules because the movement of those water systems completely dictates whether we can work in an area or not,” Kurz said.

The other challenge to face is the constitution of the soil itself. “With sandy soils, there’s such a high grit content. You’re basically sandblasting any bend in the hose system of your equipment when you turn it on to clear out a pipe. You try to control those variables and be aware of how those factors affect your equipment and the preparation it takes to do the job.”

For these reasons, Tri-State Utilities maintains a consistent maintenance schedule. Keeping up the maintenance program can be demanding when customer requests roll in or bad weather creates an emergency status. The logistics of keeping 10 vehicles effectively deployed over a three-state region can make it tough to get trucks back in for scheduled maintenance, but Tri-State Utilities makes every effort to stick to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule for its fleet of 10 Vactor trucks. “That’s an investment we believe in,” Kurz said.

Owned by parent company Federal Signal Corp., Vactor Mfg. has been the industry leader in sewer and catch basin cleaners for more than 45 years and produces a wide range of combination sewer cleaners and jetters for sewer line maintenance, as well as specialty products including vacuum excavators.

As business and the scope and size of jobs have increased in recent years, Tri-State has encountered an increasing number of jobs requiring additional power and capacity from its trucks. Recently the company purchased two new Vactor trucks delivering 4,500 cfm to handle large capacity storm water line plugs. “Sand can be stubborn stuff,” Kurz said. “You don’t want to start a job and wind up with a stuck nozzle because you don’t have the power to complete the task. When it comes down to it, you’re really trying to outwork the power of nature in many of these circumstances. Sometimes that takes a little extra juice to handle the job.”

Out in the field, Tri-State Utilities works in teams of one operator and one assistant. Understanding the capabilities of the equipment and assessing the needs of the job are crucial to efficient operation. “You can’t get away from the basics,” Kurz said. “Good sewer pipe maintenance practices stipulate that you do about 25 ft at a time in a storm water sewer system. That way, you can see what you are doing and maintain control of the situation at all time. We also check our work using the camera. That feeds into our reporting practices with the municipalities we serve.”

Kurz said being on the front lines for municipalities reliant on their services to keep storm water systems working properly is unique and rewarding work. “I kind of stumbled into this profession, but I’ve been here for years and I just love it,” he said. “The people I work with are great and there is real satisfaction in seeing the results of your work.”

When asked if a company of his size is essentially like a fire department with its 10 vacuum trucks, Kurz replied, “Yes, but we don’t have the same amount of down time with our trucks that you might get with a fire department. We do get called out on municipal emergencies and sometimes wind up being on the front lines, problem solving on the spot with overflows, clogged drains and other problems.”

Brett Hart is a product manager with Vactor Mfg.

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