Strategies and Tactics to Keep Pipes Flowing


The Festus School District is taking a three-pronged approach to reducing clogs and clearing clogged drains quickly.

By Ronnie Wendt, notes

Before the Festus Missouri School District developed a tripartite drain maintenance program, maintenance manager Tom Stegemann routinely called in a professional drain cleaning service to clear clogged drains. Today, the county keeps drains clear through regular inspections, preventive maintenance, and sewer cleaning technology.

“If you want to test the durability and quality of a product, put it in a school,” says Stegemann, who and his team maintain seven school district buildings with 3,000 students and 400 employees.

“Our mission is to provide a clean, safe learning and working environment for students, teachers, administrators, and support staff,” he says. Plugged drains have always challenged the K-12 school system and made that effort difficult.

“There is a huge difference between drains in a school and, for example, a hospital, a church or a car dealership,” says Stegemann. “We had to clear our drains of everything from soda bottles to T-shirts to instant mashed potatoes.”

Problems with clogged drains

In a busy commercial or school building, a clogged drain is no small problem, and clogs happen in every area, not just bathrooms. In a school, blockages occur in grease traps in kitchens, toilets, urinals, sinks, drinking fountains, floor drains, roof drains and gutters.

“Our biggest problem was downtime,” says Stegemann. “A clogged drain in a building can affect more than one area, even multiple floors. Things can back up in floor drains, bathrooms, locker rooms and other areas where people spend all day.”

Clogged drains can affect operations and make rooms unusable. Kitchen staff may not be able to wash dishes due to a clogged drain and may have to switch to serving food on paper plates. A clogged drain in the science room may require classes to be moved to the library. Then the library and science room are out of order, and students and teachers are evicted.

Cleaning clogged urinals, water dispensers, hand and pan sinks, and disposal lines frees maintenance technicians from other tasks.

“Now they are informing the affected population about the problem, working to solve the situation and calling service companies so that they come as soon as possible, which is often the next day,” says Stegemann.

A single clogged drain costs money in addition to downtime and disruption.

“Every time we called a service company, it cost us between $300 and $600,” he says. “We had 12 to 15 challenging clogs a year to deal with. It’s a real benefit to buy the gear and learn how to use it.”

technology solutions

Like most maintenance managers, Stegemann was looking for a solution to quickly clear and unclog clogged drains. He found the answer in two General Wire drain cleaning machines, a drain inspection device, and a rigorous maintenance program.

“I bought two different machines, one with a larger, 50-foot cord for 3-inch to 10-inch drains and the other with a thinner, 35-foot cord for smaller drains,” he says.

According to Stegemann, his employees rely on the compact drain cleaner to clean sinks, tubs and laundry drains in a variety of applications. Weighing 30 pounds, the compact tool features variable speed power cord feed for maximum control when feeding and retrieving cords at up to 16 feet per minute. A 4-foot conduit means maintenance workers never have to touch the cable, keeping their hands and the job site clean and hygienic – an important consideration in schools.

They also use a larger tool to clear difficult clogs in 3″ to 10″ drains. The field-proven machine tackles difficult blockages and even removes tree roots from drains. It drives ¾” and 5/8″ cables without the need for adapters to switch between cable sizes.

Two tools for different size jobs provide the reliability and flexibility a busy school drain cleaning program demands.

“We need both tools,” says Stegemann. “I need the smaller line when I have a clogged sink. I need the bigger machine when I have a clogged sewer.”

The tools also come with a variety of heads for different applications. Stegemann says one head may be better suited to a T-shirt-clogged drain, while another may be best suited to hardened foods.

The two machines cost the district about $5,000, an expense that has more than paid for itself since the district bought the machines over six years ago.

“This year alone I’ve used the big machine four times,” says Stegemann. “It would have cost $600 or more to have a service company remove the impediments. I covered half the cost in a single year.”

Reducing downtime also frees technicians for other work.

“For 80 percent of our clogs, it takes us more time to load and transport equipment to the building than it does to clear the drain,” he says. “We now clear most clogs in 15 to 20 minutes.”

Another important part of the district’s drain cleaning program is the drain inspection equipment, Stegeman says. The drain inspection tool has a camera at the end of a long cable line that technicians insert down the pipe to get a clear picture of the entire drain.

“It’s great to go in and inspect the drains to see where we are,” he says. “We have buildings that were built in the 1950s with cast-iron drain lines that can rust, become brittle and break over time.”

designing a program

The third component of the district’s drain cleaning program is routine maintenance. Several times a year, the district brings in a company that uses pipe cleaning agents to remove organic substances from pipes.

“We also use a product that helps reduce food waste in the kitchen,” he says. “Despite disposal, solid waste can accumulate in the drain. This product breaks down those proteins and washes them away.”

Not all devices, drain cleaning products, and drain maintenance companies offer the same service, Stegemann said, so managers need to do their due diligence when adding technology and not be swayed by the lowest price point.

“You get what you pay for,” he says. “If you’re not spending the money, you’re probably sacrificing quality, durability, and ease of use.” He also recommends researching a tool’s ease of use and the training offered by the vendor.

“You need a product that’s easy to use and move around to get the job done,” he says.

Stegemann also recommends looking for drain cleaning tools with a simple design. He says all technicians should need a user manual and basic instructions to operate the device.

“The company should give you some tips and tricks on how to empty a drain, but experience really is the best teacher,” he says. “I show our technicians how to operate and use the equipment safely and how to judge the machine by the noise it makes. Does it move? Not moving? how does it move Do you hold it still and let it work, or do you push it down the drain?”

Managers should also choose devices that operate quietly, as building occupants require a quiet environment to work or study.

“Noise has been an issue with other devices we’ve used,” he says. “We need devices that operate quietly and effectively reduce disruption to normal school activities. We have used our drain cleaning tools in quiet classrooms and busy lunchtime cafeterias without disrupting activities.”

While technology can save money, Stegemann says investing in drain cleaning tools could be more than some maintenance jobs require. A small office building with a clog or two a year might not need advanced technology to clean drains. However, for larger operations with multiple buildings and seven to twelve blockages per year, the considerations are different.

“There’s money in the bank to buy the gear and learn how to use it,” he says.

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

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