Underground Goes High-Tech
Pipe Tec, Inc. uses closed-circuit TV inspection to keep sewers clean
Kevin Stewart used his closed-circuit TV (CCTV) operator skills to become a hero on April 2, 2018. It was the day after Easter when the Pipe Tec, Inc. Foreman and CCTV Operator found himself in the middle of a freeway in the early morning hours using his special set of skills to rescue a 13-year-old boy who had been trapped in sewer lines for 13 hours.
“It was an emergency response that I never thought I’d do,” Kevin recalls. “It was a life-and-death situation. My wife and I were watching the news about the boy falling down into the sewer and she said ‘They’re going to call you to help.’ Then my boss called me.”
Pipe Tec is a sewer mainline cleaning and video inspection company. Providing 24-hour service, the company uses the latest technology and equipment to provide solutions for any sewer line issue, Kevin says.
In the situation with the boy who fell into the sewer lines, Pipe Tec was called in to use CCTV to determine his exact location, Kevin says. In other situations, CCTV is used to determine defects, the likelihood of failure and the rehabilitation needs of pipe systems.
Emergency calls are part of the job, but in the case of the boy, it took on a whole new level of response. Kevin anticipated a body recovery when he heard the details of what happened. The boy and his family were in Griffith Park, which is Los Angeles’ equivalent to Central Park, when the boy was playing in an abandoned building that had previously been used to pump fresh air into the sewer system. Once new technology was adapted, the building became obsolete, Kevin says.
“He was bouncing on a board that covered the shaft to the sewer and the board broke, sending him into a 12-foot drop into the system, which was like a raging water slide because of the speed of the water,” he recalls. “There was a battalion of search-and-rescue firemen all waiting for me when I got there. The child went down probably three-quarters to 1 mile into the system through a 48-inch diameter pipe. I was dreading what I was going to see, but then everyone was in a hurry and I realized that maybe he was still alive.”
Kevin says the job was complicated by a number of issues from the limited amount of cable available and the 800-foot length between manholes. After multiple reviews, a city inspector noticed handprints dragged along the top of a pipe. Kevin met with city engineers and the lead inspector to discuss where the lines turn and stop to determine the most likely location of the boy.
“We all thought we would be trying to chase this for miles until we put our heads together and really thought about where he would stop,” he says. “We determined it would probably be at a turn in the pipe right under the middle of the freeway. It was 3 or 4 in the morning and Caltrans (the agency that manages more than 50,000 miles of California’s highway and freeway lanes) and CHP (California Highway Patrol) wanted to do a lane closure, but we knew the timing was critical, so we opened up the manhole with cars zooming by and I heard people screaming ‘He’s alive!’ and he was right there,” Kevin says.
“That was very stressful. Never in my life did I think I’d do something like that. The family was watching throughout the efforts, so I turned off my monitor because I didn’t want them to see anything bad. Thank goodness they got a happy ending,” he says.
Smile for the Camera
Using CCTV is a big part of what Pipe Tec does routinely. But, there really isn’t a routine day, says Tom Vukojevic, Pipe Tec General Manager.
“There aren’t really any bread-and-butter jobs for us because every job is different. We often do a lot of subcontracting for general contractors, but we do get a lot of emergency work from the City of Los Angeles, too,” Tom says.
“For the city, maybe a sewer is backed up and sewage is coming up through a manhole; sometimes, their cleaning tools—like a wedging tool—get stuck in a line,” Kevin explains. “There are 22 general contractors on the rotating emergency response list and we sub for 17 of them. One of them may call us to bring in our robotic camera and possibly a cleaning truck, just in case.”
Sometimes, the city engineer wants Pipe Tec to clean pipes that are too small for a person to safely enter. The equipment is specialized for storm drains, sewers and confined spaces, he explains.
For example, in a pipe with an 8-inch diameter, the camera (on a hose that is 1 inch in diameter) can go into the pipe and see if a tool or line isn’t straight, is winding or simply can’t go any farther, Kevin says. The location of the problem can be marked on the surface.
“Then, the pipe can be entered from the other end, and we can figure out where the flow is held up on that end. Once that point is marked on the surface, the contractor can pinpoint where to dig to fix the pipe,” Kevin says.
This same principle goes into flushing or cleaning, he explains. CCTV can pinpoint where the problem is so engineers can get in and make repairs. Then, Pipe Tec is often called back to do a post-problem video to ensure any blockage is completely gone, he adds.
High-pressure water jetting is an efficient, economical and environmentally safe way to clean drain and sewer pipes, Kevin says. Using state-of-the-art pumps and flexible hoses, ordinary water is propelled under varying amounts of pressure into the sewer line. A special nozzle mounted on the end of a heavy-duty hose has an array of forward and reverse water jets, which direct extremely powerful concentrated streams of water all the way to the pipe walls, he says.
Another scenario is for new construction. For urban multifamily projects, a construction crew usually digs down a few stories to make underground parking and beams for support, Kevin says. When utilities are cut and concrete is poured in by accident, Pipe Tec can use a camera along with high-pressure water to get into the pipes and remove concrete, he says.
Pipe Tec also does lateral launching, which allows for inspection from the mainline. The lateral launch inspection method means surveys can be conducted of side sewers connected to a mainline from a single manhole access point, he explains. It is also more efficient and less intrusive than any above-ground method, which requires cleanout access points and private right-of-entry, Kevin says.
“I’m especially proud of our guys. These jobs are not the prettiest, but our team tackles them and gets them done,” Tom says. “What we do is a specialty. We had one project where the guys cleaned a sewer line running under a freeway.”
The company was founded in 2013, but Tom says it really blossomed in 2018 as customer service and safety became a bigger priority. “I joined the team and we rebranded as we evolved into doing bigger projects along with more volume,” he says.
Safety is critical in this line of work, Tom says, so communication and training are important. “Experience makes the difference. These guys know the industry, and safety is a staple to what they do,” he says.
Kevin agrees that experience and teamwork enhance safety. He and a fellow operator each have 20 years of experience in the industry and a cleaner has 15 years under his belt. “We have learned best practices over the years, plus we get training from NASSCO (National Association of Sewer Service Companies). It is the training authority for this industry and also produces the manual of defect codes, so it is like a university in the industry."
“We can handle anything that arises on the job, plus our equipment is new and state-of-the-art, which makes it less of a struggle on the job site,” Kevin says.
Tom says the employees are a tightknit group that is very supportive of one another. “We look after each other; there is a camaraderie. The boss hosts holiday get-togethers and we all bring our families. Sometimes, we spend more time with each other than our own families,” he says. “These guys average nine to10 hours a day, six days a week. They put in unbelievable hours because we are on an on-call emergency basis. They may get a call at 1 or 2 in the morning, and they go out and do the job before coming in to do their regular job. It’s a tough business, but the reward is great. We are a union company, and we take care of them.”
Tom says growing the company is on the horizon, as well. Most of the growth is organic as jobs get done and owners come back with more projects.
“We make sure our customers are taken care of and that we get the job done. We are using LinkedIn and The Blue Book to help grow our customer base. Our clients—whether existing or new—are always a priority. We tell our team to be honest in all they do. We give accurate descriptions of what we can do to tackle a project. We make sure our guys know what the job is and what to expect, and we make sure they bring the right tools to get the job done,” he says.