Where Would We Be Without Drain Cleaners?

Trips to developing countries open author’s eyes about the value of the industry.
Where Would We Be Without Drain Cleaners?
Josh Jackson, left, and Jeff Goree of Fayette Drain & Sewer snake a drain at a local business in Fayette, Alabama.

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As a teenager, I worked in the kitchen of a summer camp. I didn’t cook or care for the campers. I was the dishwasher — responsible for ensuring that all plates, cups, utensils, pots and pans were properly sanitized and sparkling clean for each of the meals we served to a dining hall full of smiling campers.

On the last night of camp, the tradition was for each camper to describe the low and high points of his or her camp experience. You can probably guess the most common answers. Low point: mosquitoes. High point: horseback riding.

My joke for the summer was, “What about clean dishes? Why isn’t anyone’s high point clean dishes? Imagine what camp would be like if you didn’t have clean dishes at each meal!”

This was silly. What 10-year-old puts clean dishes above riding in the woods on horseback? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually on to something. There was a kernel of truth in my joke.

A clean dish is something most people take for granted. We turn on the faucet, scrub the pots and pans, and wash the residue and soapsuds down the drain. But what if having clean dishes was a high point of your life? What if you weren’t able to have clean, running water and a free-flowing drain for disposal?

The drain cleaning industry is similar to old movie theater projectionists — no one thinks about the person running the projector until something happens and the movie stops rolling. You don’t think too much about drain cleaners until your drain becomes clogged and you can’t wash dishes. You not only get mad, you also know that unsanitary conditions can quickly arise. The option to call a knowledgeable person who correctly uses safe, reliable equipment and gets things flowing smoothly again is definitely a high point.

We don’t often think about the people in the drain cleaning industry and how they contribute to our health and well-being. Developed countries are fortunate to have well-functioning drainage systems that are usually clear of blockages. Have you ever thought about what life would be like without fresh flowing water and clear pipes to remove the wastewater?

I was in Haiti on the one-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake. While I could tell story after story of that trip, there is one aspect in particular that has stayed fixed in my memory. Driving through the capital city, Port-au-Prince, the waterways were filled with trash. Many of these waterways didn’t have much, if any, water in them; just trash. Most of the homes I encountered did not have running water or trash service. Sanitation services were nonexistent. All trash — including human waste — was left on the ground, where it stayed until heavy rains came and washed everything into the waterways. Eventually those waterways led to the bay, where the trash washed out to sea.

The cholera epidemic that hit Haiti in the months following the earthquake shows the extent of the problem. The epidemic eventually killed over 8,000 people. Without sewer systems and clean drinking water, the infection — spread by contaminated water and food — was almost unavoidable. If your only source of water is from garbage-filled waterways, your options are dehydration or drinking potentially contaminated water. Given those two choices, contaminated water seems the “preferable” option.

I remember all the warnings about the water I had heard before leaving; the admonitions to only drink bottled water that had been provided to us by our contacts there. It wasn’t until I personally saw the situation that I realized how easily I take for granted the sanitation we have in the U.S. Being able to turn on the faucet and get potable water, being able to flush the toilet and know the waste is being properly disposed of — these are luxuries provided to us by many hardworking people. The drain cleaning industry is not just about clearing clogged drains. At its heart, it is about the health and well-being of people and our environment.

Have you ever heard of a flying toilet? If you’ve been to an urban area in a developing country, you may be familiar. They are commonly associated with the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. In Kibera, there are an estimated 225,000 people living in an area about the size of New York’s Central Park. There is no running water in Kibera. The few latrine facilities are pay-to-use, and the average is one toilet for every 50 families. Many families cannot afford the fee to use the toilet. Additionally, it is often dangerous to leave one’s home after dark. Combine these factors, and the best solution seems to be the flying toilet — a bag filled with human waste that is thrown as far from one’s home as possible. If someone happens to be walking by in the dark when the bag is thrown, well, that is considered their bad luck. 

For those of us in developed countries, the thought of something such as flying toilets for waste disposal is unfathomable. We depend on the men and women working in the drain cleaning industry to keep our sanitary systems functioning. Cleaning drains is a job that most people would rather pay someone else to do. It is something thought about only when problems arise. Working in this industry has given me an appreciation for the people who do drain cleaning on a daily basis. They are some of the unsung heroes in our lives.

About the Author
Jennifer Shoemaker is the marketing and e-commerce manager for Spartan Tool.


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