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Sewer Jet Cameras Are Ahead of Their Time

Sewer Jet Cameras Are Ahead of Their Time

I was blessed to have a wonderful introduction to our industry when I was recruited to run the legendary Sreco-Flexible organization.  “Sreco”, as the company is known, is an acronym for Sewer Rodding Equipment Company.   The company was founded by the Crane Family and legend has it that the Grandfather Crane had invented a coupling, allowing operators to assemble great lengths of steel rods for the first time, which replaced the heavy and cumbersome wooden poles previously used to clean sewer lines manually.  “Hand rodding” was now possible for the entire length of a sewer line for the first time, and several generations of mechanical rodding machines were born which were crafted to coil those coupled rods into a bail and pay the rod out via a motor driven machine.  Sreco’s rodders became analogous to sewer cleaner, the proverbial “Kleenex” or “Xerox” in its heyday, as a sewer cleaning machine was simply referred to as a “Sreco”.

I was generously mentored by Pat Crane and others at Sreco including a long list of notable characters who were either salespeople for the company or dealers across the country, who together possessed the Wikipedia of sewer cleaning experience.  Pat was the third-generation owner and hands on operator of the company before he hired me to manage the day to day operations of the company, and he possessed a wealth of valuable knowledge and most importantly was blessed with great curiosity and creativity.  He used this to create a number of innovations, or if they were not exactly his own, he was able to identify those emerging technologies that were worthy of development and he often poured himself into the pursuit of perfecting these technologies for the greater good.

One such innovation that Pat was a proponent of was the jet cam.  Conceptually, a jet cam is a camera on the end of a sewer (or storm drain) cleaning nozzle, which operators could use to “see what they were doing, as they were doing it”.  There are compelling reasons for pursuing such technology.  “Seeing” what one is doing offers huge advantages to operators in assuring that they are aptly addressing the issues at hand.  Pat contended that the world’s operators were working blindly, and as such they couldn’t do the job nearly as effectively as they might do if they could see what they were doing.  Can you imagine a heart surgeon operating on an artery without being able to see what he or she was doing?  First, Pat contended, the world’s jet truck operators spent 90% of their time “cleaning clean pipe”.  Take a moment to absorb that statement.  Most sewer pipeline is actually clean, or clean enough that it doesn’t really require a cleaning.  We know this is true today as years of compiled Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) data verifies, the vast majority of any segment of pipe is clean and clear of any meaningful dirt, debris and obstruction.  Any 300-foot section of sewer mainline might have a single root mass somewhere along its length.   The rest of the length however, may need no attention whatsoever.  If operators could see what was in front of them, they could opt to skip operations where cleaning was not necessary and instead, focus on that short section where cleaning operations are indeed necessary.  Imagine the potential benefit of both 1. not wasting any energy where it is not needed and 2. focusing your available capability, surgically, on exactly the spots that need it most?  Second, we live in an “instant gratification” culture today.  Operators could benefit by seeing how their technique and their favorite nozzle performed.  How many times have we heard an operator say “I like the [Insert your favorite wild animal name here, my favorites include the Warthog, the Root Rat and the Workhorse] best”?   “Nuthin’ cleans like a [wart-root-horse]!” But low and behold, suppose that operator could see that his nozzle was not actually getting all the grime removed, or that his/her technique needed some adjustment to be more effective?  Seeing what they were doing, as they were doing it, would provide invaluable feedback so that worthy adjustments might be made that would permanently enhance all future efforts by that operator and crew.  Lastly, and Pat was genius in this sociological hypothesis, when a supervisor could be empowered to instruct “Go clean that line and bring me back the video to verify it is done”, he or she has effectively assured that the work was done, and well!  It has to be true that despite the best efforts of a hundred thousand truly diligent work crews today, that there just might be some among us who are, shall we say “going through the motions” on any one day?  If our supervisor never even looked at the tape (it was VHS tape in that time) he/she could still be relatively assured that the operator did look at it, and in doing so had to verify his or her work was completed superbly.  So, having access to the jet cam technology meant restoring and assuring a higher level of three important things: efficiency, competency and diligence.  Game, set match, a winning combination!

So why don’t we do this as a standard operating procedure?  A number of companies have tried over recent years and had less than stellar results with their jet cam forays.  Sreco’s program fizzled due to the difficulties for operators to manage a hose powered by hydraulic systems and a cable reel driven by an electric servo motor.  It was always a complicated ballet between paying out enough cable to coincide with the hose reel, and a more complicated affair to combat entangling the hose and cable when retrieving the system back toward the manhole.  Sewer Equipment Company of America has marketed a dual hose affair for a number of years.  They employed two hoses bonded together by a molded webbing.  One carried the water, the other the electrical lines.  But that new hose assembly was extraordinarily heavy, and the diameter was rumored to be constricted in the water line side so that ultimately good cleaning force could not be effectively delivered and repairs of this special custom hose were prohibitively expensive for day to day operations.  The majority of these systems may not have ever seen much use as a result.  Each of the major manufacturers including VacCon and Vactor have in turn tried their hands at marketing this kind of technology.  But I believe all came to the same realization, a lot is going on in a pipe with a high-pressure water spray together with sensitive electronics.  In the balance, poor cleaning efficiencies and possibly poorer vision capabilities meant even the best configurations became tiresome.  As an industry we have yet to develop an elegant solution.  At the last IFAT show in Munich I was asked by Rich Lindner, President of Envirosight, and maker of the acclaimed Quickview pole camera system, to offer my review of a special nozzle that had a generator built into it, in order to power an on-board camera, using no wires back to the mother ship.  At the heart of the generator was a water driven turbine that would create electricity, in turn powering the camera and importantly, high power consumption lighting, a key element to any good CCTV operation.  The hapless inventor was eager for validation.  He had the holy grail, or so he’d thought, a self-contained fully inclusive jet camera unit.  It was indeed complete, actually I was surprised not to find a snake eye style clear eye lid to provide the necessary occasional “blink” to clear the lens of splash and another impediment.  Everything else was there.  Yet the thing was a monstrosity.  It was huge, over 20 kilos as I recall (about 45 pounds, it was massive).  Nobody wants to be told they have an ugly baby, how could I respond?   This nozzle could not clean let alone propel that ingot up a line dependably.  I presume the inventor intended it not as a dual-purpose cleaning nozzle-propulsion system for the camera, but solely as a propulsion mechanism for the camera.  I’d argue we have great propulsion systems for CCTV cameras now, they are called robots, or crawlers.  So, unless we can find a way to accomplish both things simultaneously, a high-pressure water-based propulsion system is not attractive for its faults.   Add to that, downloading the data upon return to the truck is likely a messy affair.  Who would want to do that?  Finally, operators would not repeatedly heft such a huge mass many times throughout the day.  Crawlers are getting smaller and lighter and for good reason.  A Rovver X Crawler made by IPek and marketed here in the US by Envirosight, weighs in around 25 pounds, as does the Aries Pathfinder and the Cues Compact Pipe Ranger.  Truly, this thing was a back breaker at close to fifty pounds.  So, despite a very reasonable proposition: a cable-less, self-powered, fully contained design, it fell short once again of expectation.   I commented “That’s nice” and pretty much left it at that.  In my reflection I’ve come to realize there are cleaning guys and inspection guys and marrying the two agenda’s is difficult to do.

I have heard of experiments using wireless rigs and signal repeaters on the sewer hose.  But there are technical problems associated with this.  Radio transmission is in the form of waves and a sufficient slice of any wave is required in order to transmit a signal effectively.  Imagine that small arc of a wave that remains after it travels through 200 feet of 8″ pipe.  Not enough information to transmit a reliable video signal.  Video transmission is a high bandwidth affair.  And not only the camera requires power, so do the repeaters.

Arguably, the merits warrant continued exploration by our industry into the science of jet cams.  If not inspection during jetting, perhaps inspection immediately following jetting/cleaning operations, executed by the same crews that do the cleaning.  But we are not there yet.  We can be hopeful!

We want to hear from you!  Let’s keep a dialogue going on technologies such as this and advanced which benefit our industry.  So, what do you think?  Let us know in the comments below!


Kenneth Evans
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