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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Vactor Trucks: Protecting our sewers from ourselves...and roots

TL;DR Vactor Trucks are hard to miss and help keep our stormwater and wastewater systems free of backups. Watch what you flush down the toilet/blow into your streets. Keep your easements clean. Issues? Call 368-3111.

For more photos, videos and conversation, check out the compilation of tweets on Storify.

Vactor Truck crews spend their days looking down on people.

Seriously, (video) their rig is like 12 feet tall. I had to jump to get to the first step.

But the three I rode around with -- Ray Martin, Steve Rishel and Chuck Roberts -- don't let that get to their heads. They even go by nicknames: Ray Ray, Crusty Steve and Chuckles.

"Dealing with what we deal with, you've got to have a sense of humor," said Martin, who has worked with Vactor Trucks for 13 years.
Crusty Steve and Ray Ray 
Vactor Trucks (OK, technically it's a Vac-Con. Vactor is a brand, like Kleenex, but that's how we all know them, so I'm going with it) are responsible for clearing stormwater and sewer mains of debris, to keep...things...running smoothly.

One of the tanks for water
The massive Vactor Truck has two main tools: A hose on the front that is powered by 1,500 gallons of water stored in tanks on the truck. That hose pumps 2,000 pounds of pressure and about 65 gallons a minute, using water to get things moving in the pipes.

The other tool is the big thing that goes over the top of the truck. It's a vacuum with enough power to lift a 180-pound manhole off the ground.

"It'll suck ideas right out of your head," Martin joked from inside the cab.
crazy-powerful water hose

I first learned about the power of Vactor trucks when I went out with the sewer camera crew. They came out to (video) clear a root ball with a root saw powered by water. The camera crew found it while making its rounds. Turns out, those calls are a fairly small part of their job.

The City's five Vactor trucks (four mammoths like the one I rode around in, one "small bus" used during night shifts) inspect and clear City sewer and stormwater mains each weekday. They have a run list with sewer mains they check on a routine basis. Some, in the older, heavily forested parts of town, need checked every six months. Others, the newer mains made out of PVC pipe, only need checked about once every 10 years. Crews also routinely check stormwater drains that are known to back up, especially before and after a storm.

Vactor crews -- whether they are collections (cleaning) or repairs -- typically work 8 to 4, but for one week about once every month, a few crews are on-call after 3:30 p.m. in addition to their normal shift. They are the ones responding to an emergency sewage backups or an overflow from a storm in the dead of night.

Martin filling out paperwork -- his favorite.
"Sometimes it kills us," Martin said, "other times we're just twiddling our thumbs."

Crews of three spend their days inspecting and clearing these lines, if and until they receive a work order from our e311 system or an emergency call, like when a sewer backs up into a resident's property. They drop what they're doing, and head over.

We did that today. Our first job was to respond to an e311 report of a clogged stormwater drain. Minutes after we determined the drains had no issues, we got a call on a residential sewage backup. On that call, we cleared our main. If that doesn't fix it, the problem is with the private line from the home to the main, and that's the homeowner's responsibility.

Martin offered some tips to avoid a Vactor Truck pulling in front of your house: Watch what you flush down the toilet or put down the drain. Grease is a definite no-no, but paper towels clog things up, too. Also, if you want to keep your storm drains clear, watch what you blow out into the street: Leaves and grass certainly don't help things.

It's also the responsibility of the homeowner to give our crews easy access to the easements, where the manhole covers to the mains are located. There was no shortage of frustration among the crew today when we showed up on the backup, only to find the easements blocked by fences and overgrowth.

This crew spent about 30 minutes just trying to find and access the manhole, all the while the home's basement was backing up with sewage. Keeping your easements clear helps us as much as it helps you.

While these crews have routine maintenance to do, they are eager to respond to the needs of the community. Storm drain clogged? Sewer backing up? Report it with our e311 system. There's a new app for smartphones, or you can call our call center 785-368-3111.

Next week I'm going out with the Topeka Police Department's Animal Control Unit. Already mentally preparing myself not to take any animals home with me.


  1. It's interesting to know how those Vactor Trucks work. I see them all of the time around my city and never knew exactly what they did. What an important thing they're doing. If those sewer and storm drains ever got block up or didn't function properly, we would have a lot of problems. These are the types of guys that should be getting recognition and awards. The people that make a real difference.

    Darryl Housand @ Haaker Equipment Company

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I have two-year-old twins who we are in the process of toilet training, and I read your comment about watching what we flush down the toilet, with a smile on my face. My daughters recently created a toilet blockage by shoving all kinds down it, resulting in a call out to the local plumber. But they fixed the problem!

    Traci Romero @ Harris Plumbing

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