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PROFILE: Sewer crew goes all MacGyver, solving a clog with hose, fishing line, remote-controlled drone

What could a sewer maintenance crew possibly be doing with a drone, fishing wire, machetes, and 600 feet of rubber tubing?

Add a roll of duct tape and cue the MacGyver theme? You could say so. But the reality is they were clearing a sewer blockage with a little ingenuity.

Reaching the sewer posed a challenge.

When a Sewer System Maintenance and Operation crew was called to empty a clogged sewer, normally it’s no big deal. The team would simply locate an alternate pipe and pump the water from the blocked sewer into it, and then clear the blockage.

But this particular site posed some challenges: the pipe sat at the edge of a 40-foot ravine, making it difficult to access, and any alternate manholes were undocumented and lay under a wilderness of trees and overgrown grass.

SSMO Manager Brian Stapleton saw it as a training opportunity. “This was a good non-emergency situation for our new guys to learn how to operate in an emergency.”

Before taking action, the team made a plan, discussed things that could go wrong—and got creative. They built a 600-foot siphon to move the water down the hill without the use of a pump, which would speed up the process considerably. To prevent the pipe from bursting on the rough terrain, they used heavy rubber piping.

At the base of the hill, the team used machetes to clear the manhole areas until they found a sewer they could use. Upon discovering that the hill was much too steep to clear a path for the siphon, they quickly established an alternate plan, using the District’s helicopter drone to fly fishing line up the hill. The wire served as a guide for a rope to lead the siphon down the hill.

The crew used the siphon to fill the manhole with water from the blocked sewer, and then opened a valve to create suction, pulling the water out of the manhole.

“The crew learned an alternate option to pumping water that will solve similar problems quickly,” said Stapleton. “They also now have a reusable pipe. When there’s a similar problem in the future, we can grab it and go.”

—Story and photos by Communications Specialist Yolanda Kelly