His name is mud — sort of
Pioneer Press columnist Irv Leavitt (center, street level) talks with Northbrook Public Workswater crewman Andy Roiniotis (left) as Pete Vavalle (right) and Al Schmitz work on a leaky water main alongside Dundee Road in Northbrook. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-T
Updated: April 2, 2012 10:28AM
Ankle-deep in muddy water, I held one end of a 4.5-foot length of new 12-inch water pipe in both hands as I straddled the end of the existing main.
Now what do I do?
I was supposed to line up the two pipes, and, with less than a quarter-inch of play, slide a 15-inch steel sleeve down the new pipe and halfway onto the old one. Then, bolt it down tight. On the other end, Chuck Weidner was about to do the same thing.
This was new to me. Up until that moment, the biggest pipes I had ever fit together had come from True Value Hardware in blister packs, and went under my kitchen sink.
And they leak.
The big new pipe was suspended on a sling from the arm of an end-loader, and swung back and forth ominously. I had no faith in my ability to wrestle my end of it up against the old pipe and slide home the sleeve before it waggled out of line.
I knew I would be steady enough to do it, however, if I just sat down on the old pipe.
Nobody had to tell me that was bush-league, something a regular member of the Northbrook Public Works water crew would never do unless hard-pressed.
I looked back, and most of the pipe was richly decorated with muddy little rocks and lumps of clay and wet sand. It looked like a giant Stuckey’s Pecan Log, dipped in dirt.
I had a decision to make.
It was easy.
There’s the right way to do things, the wrong way to do things, and the fat old man way to do things.
Sometimes, I don’t even try to fool anybody. I know who I am.
I was not always so ineffectual, however. There was a time when I was strong and vigorous, sharp-eyed and quick-witted. Well, relatively.
Oddly enough, Weidner remembered me that way. Kind of.
Several times in the first hour or so of work, he had looked at me funny. I avoided his eyes, assuming he was some kind of nut case.
Finally, when he was ensconced in an end-loader, scooping out the parkway for our scheduled water-main leak repair, he could stand it no longer. He yelled something to this effect at one of the other three crewmen: “That guy tried to dry his shirt on the window of the truck. He worked with us the night of the microburst. We were soaking wet all the time. ”
Oh, yeah. I forgot.
May 18, 2000, 5:30 p.m. I looked out the office window and saw what used to be somebody’s roof flying around in circles over West Lake Avenue.
This is new, I thought.
I tried to call Northbrook Public Works to see what kind of damage there might be, but the lines were down. So I drove over, and saw Fred Sieber about to head out in a cherry picker.
“How bad is it, Fred?”
He peered around furtively to see if any bosses were watching, then said, “Jump in and see for yourself, if you want.”
As it turned out, Sieber, Weidner and I worked our way through Northbrook until midnight, clearing felled trees from darkened streets and sidewalks, often in steady rain, in the wake of the village’s worst windstorm ever.
I used the public works radio once to relay word to my wife that I was delayed. She was more than eight months pregnant then.
So if anybody was a nut case, it was me. She told me so.
I just reread the story from that night, and I still like it. It came out the day before our daughter did. I still like her, too.
Back to the pit
I saw Weidner do something very cool. One of the other guys realized that the big slowly-leaking water main was partially blocked by an old AT&T duct, an 18-inch, square cement conduit full of telephone wires (Weidner would later tell me, “You don’t want to hit that thing. We’ll be all over the evening news).”
So, in order to be able to pull dirt exactly parallel to the duct, to get close to it without nicking it, he needed to adjust the position of the front of the end-loader a few inches.
He raised the side-braces, and lowered the bucket to the ground, curling it in. He used the bucket and arm to pick the end-loader up off its front wheels, and danced it to one side using the rear wheels, before letting it back down again.
It was like watching an elephant shimmy to one side while holding its body up with its trunk.
It was one of several magical things I saw the crew do. Pete Vavalle could stick a giant T-shaped valve key into the blackness of a flooded manhole and hit the valve right away. X-Ray vision.
Andy Roiniotis used a scary-fast Stihl TS 400 masonry saw to cut a quarter-inch ring off a 12-inch water pipe. No saw guide, no saw guard, no saw slip.
“Not bad for free-hand,” he shrugged to my amazement.
And Al Schmitz restored a balky hydraulic pump using little bits of things that he found, MacGyver-like, in one of the trucks.
A great nation
Weidner’s wonderful bucket-pushup, however, didn’t completely solve the problem. There were spaces near the pipe still blocked by various annoying conduits. The guys decided that instead of using a smaller bucket on the end-loader, they’d call in the Vactor 2100.
The Vactor 2100 is commonly known as a sewer sucker, and uncommonly known as a Positive Displacement Sewer Cleaning Machine.
If the guy on “Home Improvement” designed a vacuum cleaner, it would be the Vactor 2100.
It costs about $330,000. Worth every penny.
One person can operate the Vactor, but it runs smoothest with three: one managing the controls that move the arm from which the big sucking pipe is suspended, one to manipulate the pipe, and one to shoot a high-powered stream of water to keep everything tumbling toward the Vactor maw.
I was on water-hose first, and I admit that much of the time I just played the stream blindly while, dumbfounded, I watched the Vactor eat.
Mud, clay, gravel, water and sand noisily hurried themselves into the tube. The Vactor never gagged on any of it.
This, I thought, is what makes America great.
An expensive but efficient machine that eats like a pig, then waddles away, evacuates, and does it again. Without shame.
“We’ve only had the Vactor for about 10 years,” Roiniotis, 62, said. But he didn’t long for simpler days when this kind of work was done with shovels. Nobody else did, either.
We all like the Vactor very, very much.
The excavation revealed that the old pipe already had a repair sleeve on it, so the thing to do was to cut out the entire suspicious section of pipe, all the way past the nearby “hub,” or connection to the next pipe. We lengthened the trench, and hand-shoveling had to be done all around the pipe that would be removed.
Down into the 7-foot pit by the side of Dundee Road went Weidner and Schmitz.
After about a half hour, Schmitz asked, “Awright, Irv, you want to come down now?”
I stuck a shovel into the material around the old pipe, and it went in about an inch.
I grabbed the shovel in both hands and raised it over my head, then rammed it in. Two inches.
I switched shovels.
I pounded my right foot on the top of the new shovel. Three inches.
Hard Illinois clay, compressed by tons of gravel, is as yielding as an IRS auditor.
About 15 wasted minutes later, Roiniotis said, “It might be about time for you to come back up. People are waiting to have their water turned back on.”
After somebody stronger finished my job, Roiniotis, Schmitz and Weidner used a tool called a snapper to cut the pipe so we could replace it. It is very similar to pipe-cutters plumbers use, employing a bicycle-like chain with blades attached to the links that cut when the chain is tightened.
This chain, however, could turn the wheel on a bike big enough for one of the guys on Mount Rushmore.
When we cut out the bad pipe, we finally could see that under the old sleeve, it had a “split,” an ugly, rusty old gash.
It’s the kind of damage that variances in pressure can cause, crew chief John Schwarz said.
A “shear” — a break all around the pipe — is usually caused by underground shifting, he said. Splits, and more usually, fist-sized holes, come from water pressure variation.
Pressure challenges have been more common in Northbrook since mid-December, when the new, bigger water tower on the west side of town came on-line, and the old Ferris Bueller one on the east side came off. It’s added about a third more pressure to the system.
In January and February, the crew fixed 18 pressure-related breaks, plus 21 shears. That’s not too bad, considering the village averages just under 100 total breaks a year, and more occur in the winter months.
But the crew members now live in terror that as soon as they turn the water back on after a repair, it will hammer into another weak spot and cause another leak. That’s happened several times, they told me.
When we finished the job, Vavalle slowly opened the valve on the way into the repair, and Schwarz opened a hydrant on the other end, to reduce the stress on the pipe. Vavalle took about a half hour to finish opening the valve, to keep from doing any damage. It worked.
In the seven hours it took to fix the water main, only the Vactor had lunch.
“We don’t eat when the water’s turned off,” Roiniotis said.
I stopped for half a sandwich when we got to the Public Works garage, where one wag said to me, “Man, you look terrible.”
I said something about the mud spatter on my shirt, and he said, “Wrong side. Turn around.
“What were you doing? Sitting down on the job?”