Joseph Whitters, a second-generation sewer guy and the owner of Drain Busters joins the show to talk about the importance of maintaining sewer systems for homes. Sometimes, trouble with a sewer system can turn into a major problem that may show itself quickly and can be due to a damaged pipe or some other issues. Thus, it is indeed important to make sure that there are no potential issues present in the sewer system.
The show starts off with Joe introducing himself and his company. He shares that his company specializes in drain cleaning and inspection services. He also shares that they don’t just inspect, but also educate clients about their pipe, what material it is made of, what the current condition is, when and how to maintain it, and tips and tricks to get people to move forward with a reliable sewer system. He also shares how long he and his company have been working side by side with Structure Tech.
Joe then begins to share some of the crazy sewer inspections he’s had and answers the following questions:
What percentage of drain lines out of houses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, that you personally encountered, are in good shape?
What is the estimated cost for sewer lines that need repair?
What are some of the things you’ve found in newer homes, like less than 10 years old? What tends to go wrong?
After laying the pipe in the ground on properties that have heavy soil (like the subdivisions), is there shifting and moving around, or does it tend to be pretty stable?
What is a sand rock sewer system?
What’s your take on “flushable” wipes?
Which pipes are best according to the materials they are made from?
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Joe Whitters: My name is Joe. I am the owner of Drain Busters drain cleaning and sewer inspecting. I’ve been in the business since 1996, legally, 1988 child labor law. I’m a second-generation guy, whose father was the original Drain Busters.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. As always, your three-legged stool, thanks for joining us today. On today’s episode, we’ve got a guest who’s been doing business with us at Structure Tech for, what, the last four, five, five-and-a-half years, something like that? We’ll dig into that in a second. But first, let me introduce Sewer Joe, the owner of Drain Busters, which is a sewer inspection company and drain cleaning company here in the Twin Cities. On the episode today, we’re gonna dig into Joe’s mind and his experience, and talk a little bit about sewer inspections, how important they can be at the time of sale. There is a big number that’s attached to sewer lines. Typically, if something goes wrong, you don’t wanna read that report, because the repairs can be very costly. Let’s back up just a second and introduce Joe. Joe, why don’t you go ahead and tell us who you are, where people can find you? Let’s get going with this sewer talk.
JW: Thanks for having me, guys. I’m a long-time listener. I’ve heard every single podcast from the very first one. I’m…
Reuben Saltzman: Oh, my goodness.
JW: Delighted to be on here. I just heard the Bartus episode, not that long ago. My name is Joe. I am the owner of Drain Busters drain cleaning and sewer inspecting. I’ve been in the business since 1996, legally, 1988 child labor law. I am a second-generation guy. My father was the original Drain Busters. At our company, we specialize in drain cleaning and maintenance of drains, unclogging of drains. And in the last five years, really emphasized sewer inspecting, part of real estate work, inspecting sewer systems to educate. You don’t just show up and shove a camera down somebody’s pipe. We will teach you and educate you what your pipe is, the materials, when to maintain it, how the current condition looks, and tips and tricks to get people to move forward with a comfortable sewer system, where they’re walking in and not just experiencing sewer backup, three months after they buy the house, and say, “I don’t know what to do.”
JW: Cool, so how long has it been that you have been working side by side with Structure Tech, Joe?
BO: I would say I would agree with your set up. I mean, it’s gotta be close to five years now. I still remember the original meeting I had with Structure Tech, you know, meeting Reuben in his office. Geez, I had a big burly beard and long hair, and I’m shocked Reuben decided, “Hey, I like Joe.” It must have been the words, because I didn’t look like a very pretty guy back in those days. I was pretty rough and grim. But, no, it’s been a great experience working at Structure Tech. I mean, just meeting, getting to know everybody. When I first started partnering with Reuben, Tessa was in training! Tessa and Matt.
Tessa Murry: Yeah, I remember. I think we… Yeah, we started at the same time you and I, Joe, or maybe you were brought in a little bit earlier than I was. Yeah.
JW: I think you were there. You and Matt were both in training.
TM: Matt came on a little bit after me, but yeah, right, kind of around the same time. Pretty close.
JW: Yeah, can’t say I’ll ever forget that one inspection I showed up with, where there was the big pit in the backyard, where you almost…
JW: Remember, during the winter time…
TM: Oh, yeah.
JW: I found you, and you were just almost terrified that you were gonna fall into this big random pit in the back.
TM: Yeah, you warned me about that. Thank you.
JW: Yeah. [laughter]
BO: Joe, I wanna comment on one thing you said. You were talking about how, “I was kinda rough around the edges.” I’ve never met a single person who’s crossed your path, who doesn’t absolutely love Joe. I mean, you are… People are like, “I get such great information from Joe, it’s not even funny. And I didn’t even know there was so much to know about sewer drains but, my God, he is like the best person to talk to you about this type of work.” So…
TM: He’s the number one guy in the number two business.
JW: That’s awesome.
TM: Right, Joe?
JW: No, you guys have all heard my one-liners walking into houses, and probably my favorite one-liner is walking in and saying, “Hi, how you doing? I’m Joe and here to do your home’s colonoscopy.” And the second I say that, 85% of the people will usually, they’ll snicker, or laugh a little, because it’s true. That’s what we’re doing.
RS: That’s awesome. That’s a new one that you have not used in my presence, Joe.
JW: Yeah. [laughter]
RS: That’s good stuff. Good material. And part of the reason, Bill, that everybody loves Joe… I mean, they love them on first sight, but Joe has an uncanny ability to remember every detail about people. We’ve talked about this internally at the team. I mean, Joe will meet somebody the first time, and he’ll get this detail from them, and he’ll see them again three months later, and say, “Yeah so, how’s your dog Fluffy’s broken leg?” Or whatever it is, it’s like I try to do stuff like that myself, but I do it by writing notes about people. But Joe just… It’s in there. It’s a steel trap. How do you do it, Joe?
TM: It’s not just people. It’s like every sewer you’ve ever inspected, Joe. Like you, if someone… If anyone wants to know details about their specific geographical location, you can probably tell them without even having to do a sewer inspection.
JW: You know, and I attribute that to being a kid who was stuck working with Dad. The doing my trade is just embedded into my head, the relationships you build with customers… I mean, it’s actually kind of funny. I just had a 90-year-old lady give me her entire receipt collection, because she’s gonna be put into a nursing home soon, where we were advertising we would clean her sewer for $34.95.
RS: Oh, my goodness.
JW: I think just, building that relationship that my dad really instilled to me. Make it personal. Get to know the people, and when I can make somebody choke up a little bit just on that tearful moment… It’s crazy, the steel-trap memory. The very first time I ever met Reuben on a job site, it was actually Reuben, and I think George was inspecting the house, sewer clean-out access was inside of a little unfinished closet. And I remember doing the inspection with a really poor camera quality, compared to what I’m using now. It was a decent camera back in those days, but now we definitely use high-end stuff.
RS: You’ve got a good memory. I remember that one. I remember George and I were chatting for a little while afterward, and we were kind of like, yeah, so is this gonna be the guy? Like, do we partner? What do we do? We were like, yeah, I think he knows what he’s doing. He’s got the right background, the camera. I think we could get past that. We could convince them to upgrade some day.
RS: It didn’t take you long. It took like a couple of weeks, I think, before you…
JW: Yeah. It wasn’t long. The first one I remember we were doing SD cards, we’d have to record it onto an SD card.
RS: Joe, I remember you used to take your cell phone.
RS: You’d take pictures of your camera because your camera didn’t have recording ability.
JW: It even have it.
RS: We’ve come a long way.
BO: What percentage of drain lines, main lines out of a house that you encounter actually are in good shape? In the city? We’re talking about the inside Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where the housing stock is, to be frank, the oldest that we have in our area.
JW: Yeah, so we’re talking 80-plus year old homes. Minneapolis, Saint Paul area, we’re seeing 30% of the homes are still in decent shape. We’re not someone who calls out and says, “This needs to be replaced. That needs to be changed out.” We need to see the facts to know that it’s there. I’m not gonna call a pipe bad because it’s old. We have to see definitive signs, either in cracked pipe material, bad joint connections, pitching and grading sags where we’re seeing pipes go underneath water. That’s the great thing is, I’ve been yelled at by sellers saying, “You’re costing me thousands of dollars,” and I say, “Well, sir, did you watch the video?” I’m not gonna call anything out that I don’t have high definition footage to prove that why I’m calling this out, so… We’re seeing about 30% of homes that are showing signs that they’re still in good shape, they’ve never saw tree root intrusion, the pitching looks good, and it’s all conditional on how that pipe aged to the yard and the people that maintained it, moving in the past.
TM: So what about the other 70%, Joe? Do they need to be replaced or dug up or what?
JW: You know, so calling out things, so we may call a pipe out for having issues, cracks, deterioration, offset fitting dimensions. Every case is a case by case basis. So we may call something out and then you have… Our job is to recommend that you have a consultation with an excavation company. I’m not gonna show up on a real estate sewer inspection and say, “You have to replace all those pipes.” That’s not my job. My job is to warn my… Educate or warn potential buyers of risky factors and say, “You know, have this consultation with a sewer excavation company or have this consultation with a pipelining company.”
JW: We’re a little stricter on a real estate inspection than we are with the current homeowner. If there’s a crack in the top of a sewer pipe that isn’t in the path of the water, when I’m working with just a homeowner who’s not selling their house, I will warn them, “Hey, this is not something we wanna see,” but if it’s part of a real estate deal, I’m going to be encouraging that they look at bringing in a pipeline company for a consultation. Kinda to elaborate more on that, when I’m working with a homeowner, I’m gonna let him know, “Hey, this is something we don’t wanna see, this is a risk that your pipe is showing signs of damage. You will have to address this.” Real estate deal, it’s kinda like selling a car, you know? What’s the sewer? The sewer is the transmission of the house.
RS: If you got a slipping transmission, obviously you want to have that looked at if you’re selling a brand new car.
TM: Joe, on average, what would you say like the estimated cost is for these sewer lines that need repair?
JW: Yeah. Obviously, I’m not a guy who does it. I’m not digging the sewers, and I think that’s what’s given me credibility as an inspector, is I’m not the guy who’s giving the estimates on-site or giving people the impression. I’m the unbiased because I have no vested interest in the next step. I get paid the same whether that pipe needs total pipe replacement or whether it just needs a maintenance drain pipe. The average cost… What I hear is from talking to big excavation companies, talking to pipelining companies and talking to realtors who give me the feedback after they’ve had to get repair work done.
JW: I’ll even look at estimates for some clients and say, “Yeah, that looks like a fair price.” So let’s break it down. Sewer dig replacement… Most digs from general ranges, what you could be looking at is $3,000-$5,000 will fix about a four to six foot chunk of the pipe in ground, no tree in the way, no obstruction that they have to work with. Easy dig. $3,000-$5,000 gets you, six to eight feet worth of pipe, maybe. Pipelining is a different story. That is priced based on linear footage.
JW: Most of the, I would say, guys who specialize in pipelining, it’s $100 a linear foot. As long as a camera can get through the system, they’ll pretty much tell you that a pipelining sleeve can be installed, 63 foot pipe, now $6,300. And we don’t dig excavations street wise. That’s the really important aspect of inspecting a sewer, especially in these older neighborhoods, because when you have to excavate the street, you’re talking higher cost, you have to pay for the street replacement generally. However foot deep it is, it’s about $1,000 per foot deep to dig in the street. Some of those repairs can start in $8,000-$12,000 range to dig up the last two feet of pipe.
TM: Wow. Yeah, that’s something I would wanna know if I was buying a house.
BO: So a little story, a friend of mine who lives in Saint Paul, he got a letter in the mail because Saint Paul was inspecting pipe connections through a main, and they found a disconnection where his main line was attaching to the main, and they sent a letter and said, “You gotta address this. You can do it or we’ll do it, but somebody’s gonna address it,” and they tipped him off. Usually, Joe, you’re tipping somebody off and it starts at the homeowner’s side, but in this case, it was the city who did it to him. Have you heard of that happening before?
JW: Yeah, so a lot of municipal cities, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Edina, Richfield, Bloomington, every city maintains their pipes. Years ago, they didn’t maintain them very well. People would have to install those great big giant twist valves to shut the sewer off at the city sewer backup. Now, all these companies will be water-jetting their sewers, inspecting their pipes. Saint Paul recently did a major pipelining sleeve project on their own city sewer. If the city feels comfortable, I think that should push a lot of buyers to know that it’s not a band-aid solution when the city is doing it as well.
JW: But to get back on point, the city will send out a letter, it can say, “While observing our own pipe we indicated some pipe damage on yours. We recommend you get this taken care of.” And now cities are even… Especially inner city are starting to offer programs to help people update this aging infrastructure. Saint Paul has a sewer assessment program where they have actually allowed people to do sewer repairs with not a ton of money out of pocket, on a loan through their property taxes stretched out over a number of years.
JW: So when you’re talking a 15 or… Let’s just say average dig, $7,000 dig, they can space that out over 20 years worth of property taxes with around $300-$600 dollars out of pocket, and as long as your house has not had delinquent property taxes, you’re automatically approved for this program.
BO: Just one more reason to live in the great city of Saint Paul.
BO: I advocate for it on a regular basis.
RS: You know what I would like even more than that, Bill? I’d like it if my city sewer didn’t need to be replaced. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
BO: Ladies and gentlemen, these are words from a man who lives in a suburb where the infrastructure is 14 months old.
BO: He will eventually continue to move farther away so his infrastructure is always new, or he will enjoy what I enjoy, which is repairs.
RS: No, I kid. Bill, I just had that done where my whole street was repaved, and you can bet that was a big bill. All the homeowners got that. Yeah, I am not living in a 14-month-old development.
BO: Pretty close, though.
RS: Closer than you. Well, I’ll give you that, closer than you. So Joe, we talked a little bit about where you started out. I realize we didn’t really talk much about where you are today with things. At the time that we started partnering up together, we were the first home inspection company that you really partnered with, right?
JW: Oh, exactly. And when we first met, I was 99.5% strictly doing drain cleaning. We’d bring a camera out to find out why we would struggle to get through a drain system, to find out why our full-size blade won’t get through when we have to run a smaller blade, or to try to help a homeowner understand, “Why am I cleaning my sewer every six months when my neighbor can go four years?” Some neighbors never have problems. So now, flip the script, now we’re at the point where I would say that the base of my work is almost 65% of my work is now sewer inspection.
JW: It’s been absolutely amazing to see that it’s really been a sticking point in real estate to have a sewer line check. I like to joke, but I’m being dead serious that I tell people, “Sewer inspecting is kind of in that same… We’re just tailing in with where radon is, radon’s something, everybody’s starting basically to do on most homes.” Sewer inspecting is tailing the same way. We’ve made the niche now where, especially older homes and even newer homes, in my opinion, should have a sewer inspection. I feel that we’re there, we’re getting there, and more people are more knowledgeable and they’re… It takes one bad experience to say, “You know what, I’m gonna be checking a lot more sewers.”
RS: No, that runs counter to what I had been telling people for a long time, and you finally changed my mind on that, Joe. ‘Cause I used to tell people, “You’re buying an old house, get a sewer inspection. You’re buying a newer house, less than 10 years old, don’t waste your money on it,” but you’ve convinced me otherwise. ‘Cause I remember there was a time where every time you would run across a house less than 10 years old and you’d find a completely destroyed drain, you’d send me that video, and eventually I was just like, “Alright, Joe, I get it. You’re right, they all need inspections.” What are some of the things you’ve found on new homes, like less than 10 years old, what goes wrong?
JW: So the great thing about… Okay, let’s talk about a home that’s three years old or newer. Most builders have a warranty on these sewers. A lot of these guys who install the sewers, they don’t inspect them, they don’t know what’s… They’re hooking it up and assuming everything’s gonna be great because it’s brand new piping. So I just did one within the last six months where a brand new building, nobody’s ever lived in this house, it was eerie running the camera through because I can’t really see staining marks where water runs. And at the very end of the sewer pipe, there was a massive sag and a hole in the pipe where rocks had built inside the sewer on a home that nobody ever lived in, it was a manufacturer error.
JW: And errors are gonna happen, people do make mistakes, nobody’s perfect. And I would say 99.2% of the time, they’re gonna be great on a brand new build, but there’s always that human error quotient where something could go wrong. And this was a project we had just recently seen where, now, I can recommend to somebody doing that inspection, “Hey, this drainage should be under a warranty from the builder and the builder’s contractor.” So now, you’re not negotiating a $10,000 repair, you’re contracting that builder’s contractor who installed the sewer and it’s gonna get taken care of. It’s probably an easier process than trying to negotiate doing it over again. However, that can be hard to say.
JW: Newer homes, the things that we look at is what kind of land was that house built on? Was it a more of a softer land, a marshy land? Sewer pipes can have pitching issues. Plastic sewer pipes in particular, is one of the lightest materials from a density standpoint, it can be a higher to have that sewer pipe start to bow and produce a dip. For instance, I’m in a 1983-built home in the city of Eagan, I did my own sewer inspection. And I pushed the camera down, I had 10 straight feet of underwater pipe, and I recommended that my sewer line get replaced.
JW: The seller who sold me the house was shocked that I was calling on him for a sewer to be repaired, and then he was even more shocked when I sent his agent the paid invoice that I actually fixed the sewer and I’m not just trying to negotiate money. So we can see them on old homes, new homes, newer builds, brand new construction, you just don’t know what might show up. And it pays to spend the money for… Around the cost of an emergency drain cleaning service call to know that you don’t have any…
BO: Emergency really isn’t the key to that, right? It’s just plain bad. And can you fix bad, or… You have to repair bad, you can’t just leave it alone, right? You’re not gonna push your camera through and unclog bad, it needs to be repaired, right?
JW: Yeah, we’re gonna see a high proponent of things where drain systems are functioning, but really need to be repaired, and we do see people that even though I recommend a repair, they don’t take our advice. Eventually it’s gonna be bad, it just depends on how I word it on my report that I wanna protect my buyers and make sure that they’re doing the necessary stuff to get their pipe up to par so that it doesn’t bite them in the rear end on the long term.
BO: One of the things I used to talk to people about when it came to chimneys, we’d talk and, “Oh, I’m never gonna use the chimney anyway, so I don’t care what it’s like.” And I said, “Hey, that’s great, but the chickens always come home to roost at some point.” Now, at least if you know ahead of time what you’re dealing with, you know what you’re gonna have to deal with later when you turn around and sell. Because somebody might want to use that. And chimneys are way different than drains, obviously. But having the data is never a bad thing and it’s best to collect that data before you actually own the property.
JW: Believe it or not, it’s exactly what you said, Bill. We see it where I will tell people, “My biggest concern here is resale value.” You’ve got a line that is clearly defective or is showing concerns that… What happens if your job gets outsourced in three years and you need to turn around and resell? Now you’re gonna feel that on that end as well when you try to sell. It’s a problem now, we recommend you have the proper consultation with the correct professional to get this corrected.
BO: I have a follow-up question to the new construction.
BO: A lot of these subdivisions are going into marginal property. Property that’s heavy soil, that holds a lot of water, and you see these properties being developed all year long. Is there any concern laying this pipe, like, in the winter time? There isn’t frost that you’re laying the pipe in, but maybe some things freeze up and then thaw out, and is there shifting and moving around after that pipe is in the ground? Or is it pretty stable once it’s in the ground?
JW: You know what, that’s a great point because grounds are different during different times and seasons. Here in Minnesota we have frozen ground value. I have a job that I serviced about two-and-a-half years ago with Structure Tech where we found a new home that was about two years old, newer home, in a lot that was surrounded by homes that were 85 years old. And within the first two year timeframe that line went 100% under water just from sagging, and even the home inspector on site that day, he had cited that he could see it just in the foundation of the home itself had settled quite a bit in that first little bit there. So it can easily be said that you’re paying more for repairs in the winter time because the ground is frozen; the same thing could be said about when it’s installed into the ground, the changes when that soil softens a little bit in those warmer climate months, that could make these drains have issues in new construction, so it’s never a bad idea to inspect ’em.
TM: I was gonna ask, Joe, about just some crazy stories, but I don’t know how we want to segue into that, ’cause I remember there was a house in, I think it was in, like, on West 7th, Joe, that we were at, and you told me that the sewer line went straight down under the house. And then it was… Your camera went into this big cavern, and there was, like, no city sewer main that was visible, and you could not tell where the sewage was going, and that stuck with me. I was, like, what does someone do in this situation when they’re buying a house? What’s the fix for that? And do you see that a lot?
JW: Yeah. So we’ve got a certain type of a sewer system called a sand rock sewer.
RS: Sand rock, okay.
JW: So sand rock sewers are known to be in the area around West 7th Street, leading from 35E all the way down to where the Xcel Energy Center is, and then believe it or not, there’s also a sand rock sewer over by the private school that’s right off the river… DeLaSalle, DeLaSalle High School. They are on sand rock sewer right there with that high school and the brothers’ wing is behind there. So what a sand rock sewer…
TM: You mean Minneapolis?
JW: Yeah, in the Minneapolis area as well.
JW: So sand rock sewers, they are sewers that were built in the area that has a very hardened rock foundation; they’re right by the river bowls, so essentially it’s like lime, or very hard scale rock. It’s not like soil; they can’t just immediately put a sewer pipe straight in. They actually have to drill through a very hard top layer to get it down to a softer layer down below to be able to bring a horizontal pipe over. So some of these homes… My house, Eagan, Minneapolis, Bloomington… Sewer pipes are on average 8-12 feet deep. These pipes have to travel anywhere from 25 to as much as 55 feet straight down in some cases before it can even make a horizontal turn. And it’s not soil, so when they drill… Some people, I swear, would have to bring in oil drilling machines to bore the hole, and guys would have to lay in special sections of pipe set-by-set and set them into place; very difficult to install because these things were so deep, and it’s not a supportive foundation, it’s a hard rock so there’s no support to that pipe.
JW: Eventually a pipe could get a crack in it, and the weight-bearing pressure of not having the soil packed around that pipe can cause that pipe to literally just collapse, which is what we’re finding on West 7th Street. There are homes where the sewer is no longer attached. The sewer is working; half the people don’t know that their sewers are not attached, so when you’re running water it’s draining outside the actual spectrum of the pipe itself, and it’s draining down a rocked cavern in the exterior of the pipe. It’s not polluting anything, so therefore people are not enforcing that it be dug up and replaced. When I see those on sewer inspection videos I have to let the people know, “Hey, you’ve got a sand rock sewer that is disconnected. I’m not gonna say it won’t work, but I won’t give you any sort of promises if I can’t see what it’s going into.”
BO: So, what’s the concern?
JW: The biggest concern there is… A sand rock sewer has got what’s called a drip top, so basically that’s the shaft that drops straight down and then you hit your horizontal. At the bottom of that horizontal there’s usually a little bigger hole area there. When I’m inspecting some of these pipes, I see that everything is actually disconnected, and there’s chunks of broken pipe laying there. If it’s dry, I’m assuming the water’s getting through the rock there. I’m seeing some where literally it is a big swampy wet mess and I can’t see anything. I’m seeing signs that there’s a restriction to that draining flow; those are the ones that are the most high risk. Let’s say, for instance, your sewer backs up. The traditional sewer, you call a drain cleaning company and you run a cutter blade, we follow that pipe right to the same sewer; we bore it all out and the drain works great. In a sand rock sewer, if that pipe is disconnected in any way, shape or form, your cutter blade and arc cable goes into a big giant hole, and we have no way of getting it back into the pipe, and we have no way of unclogging that system. So now you’ve got a sewer that basically can’t be maintained if it clogs.
JW: In that same regard, let’s talk about sand rock sewers where a sand rock sewer is a hardened rock; we’re not seeing tree roots now; we’re not seeing roots growing into the pipe system to clog up the drain where you have to clean it. So in a lot of cases some of those drains are very low maintenance, as long as people can avoid those products they claim are flushable, sanitary products, female products, paper towels, dental floss. If they can keep those out of the drain system they can keep that drain from clogging up, but is it right that it’s technically your pipe’s disconnected? It’s not supposed to be that way.
RS: What’s your take on those flushable wipes, Joe?
JW: I am not a fan. If you look underneath the bottom label of those packages, they usually have a little disclaimer on there that says “one wipe at a time.” And I think scientific studies will show that the people who are making these claims that they’re flushable are saying on a brand new home with plastic pipes containing no rust and corrosion, have no tree roots, sure, it might glide through the system. It has the ability to catch on maybe some of the joint connections, but overall, flushable wipes need to be kept out of the system. I think they’ve overtaken the feminine napkin as the number one thing that we need to keep out of a sewer system.
RS: Mmm, sure. Well, and I’ve heard a lot of municipalities complain about these things, because it’s not just your sewer line. They get into the municipality, and I don’t know what goes on after it leaves my house, but there’s some type of central plant where they take all this stuff and they filter all of the hard stuff that can’t be treated, and I guess those flushable wipes just destroy their system.
JW: Yeah, they’re the… I’ve talked with people who actually, that’s their job. I had a guy hire me to clean his sewer and he said that’s my job, there’s random filter stations throughout the city and we have to go climb down in with shovels and we pull off wads of that stuff, washable wipes, we find drain guys’ broken cutter blades, their broken cables. He goes, “I have more cutter blades than you probably own at your company.” And I said, I don’t doubt it, these cutter blades are designed to actually break over long periods of time, that’s how we can clean a sewer without breaking the pipe, is our blade is technically considered somewhat disposable, so…
TM: You know what that reminds me of? I saw an image of just a mass of those wipes in a sewer system. Have you seen images of the floating trash islands in our oceans?
JW: Yeah. Believe it or not, if you were to research on the internet, research the word fat burgs, F-A-T, B-U-R-G-S, fat burgs, you’ll actually pull up some of those stories of what people are pulling out of the sewers in the New York system and things like that, when all these things coagulate together, they’re called fat burgs.
TM: Maybe you research this after you’ve eaten your lunch or dinner.
BO: So I can imagine a point where a city sends a bill, you get your sewer bill, and then there is this assessment line item that says “removal of flushable wipes.” And they put it in bold and they make it very clear that there’s an additional cost to getting rid of these kinds of things. Maybe after that type of education, monetarily, people will begin to not want to use them.
JW: Yeah. It was crazy, during the toilet paper crisis, 2020, I actually was in the paper, I got interviewed by somebody at the Star Tribune about the toilet paper crisis. People aren’t able to buy any toilet paper, they’re resorting to flushable wipes. Well, I told them, first off, they’re not flushable. If you are someone who… You are addicted to using them because they’re comfortable or providing you that sense of cleanability that you just don’t get from toilet paper, maybe you need to invest in a Diaper Genie, something you can dispose it sanitarily without putting it down your sewer system. So it is pretty crazy how that stuff works.
RS: And you always educate your clients after you go out and you clear their drains, and then you kindly tell them what caused these problems, right?
JW: We try to be nice. Me, personally, that’s what everybody tells me, I’m too nice of a guy, Joe. I am trying to not be that guy. Like the truck picture you’re showing, “I told you not to wash that.” I’ll tell them, “You know, it would be in your best interests to consider keeping these types of products out.” Or I’ll explain, “This is why we only give rental properties a 30-day warranty on your sewer cleaning versus a homeowner where it’s six months.”
RS: So Joe, I bet you got some crazy stories, what’s some of the craziest stuff you’ve ever found, and we’ll try to keep it clean, as clean as we can, knowing that this is the topic, but what’s some of the craziest stuff you’ve ever come across?
JW: One of my favorite things as an inspector is when we get to see a rodent. We have seen quite a few of those, I know you’ve seen a ton of those videos, you even posted on the Structure Tech site, best of sewer inspections and showed quite a few of the mouse encounters that we’ve had. I’ve got a few new ones which I need to send you. One of my guys just found one the other day, and it was a great image of it, those are always fun.
JW: Some of my favorite stories actually involve drain cleaning. So when I was probably 22 years old working for Dad, before my dad had passed away, I was called to an emergency service visit to a rental property in Columbia Heights, toilet was clogged, it was the only toilet they had, and my dad says, “Joe, you go take it.” So I went out and I showed up, and the landlord had met… The property owner had met me on site and said, “Yeah, there is a toilet clog here, we need to figure out what’s going on, it’s their only toilet.” And then this was probably 7 o’clock at night, I go into the bathroom and, sure enough, toilet is clogged.
JW: Run my toilet auger down and there’s this little boy watching me from the doorway. This little boy, he’s really interested in what I’m doing, and he’s not making a peep, just really looking at me round the corner. As I pull my toilet snake auger out of the toilet, a big, giant hunk of ham comes out of the toilet. And this little kid starts bawling, this kid is crying. And I looked at the property owner and said, “Well, I guess we don’t have to assume who flushed that down the toilet.” And the dad of the kid goes, “We thought it was really odd he ate all of his ham, because he never eats all of the ham.”
JW: Toilets usually provide some of the best stories. We’ve pulled credit cards out of people’s toilets, cell phones out of toilets.
RS: Oh, my goodness.
JW: I had a guy, and this was back in the first generation of next telephones that were waterproof, the big brick kind, where they had the two-way paging through the phone. And this guy goes, “I work for the power company and I flushed my phone down the toilet. I need to get that phone out. In order to get a new one from the company I have to provide them with the phone.” But, how do you know the phone still in there? These things are waterproof, so he calls his phone and you can hear it vibrating in the toilet. I was just so intent on getting that phone back for him and he instantly put it in a Ziploc bag and says, “I’m not touching this, I’m turning it back in so I can get a new phone. I’m done with this phone, I will not sanitize this.”
RS: Oh, that is fantastic.
JW: To hear a phone vibrating in the toilet, that was an interesting scenario.
BO: I’ll be honest, I don’t understand how half of what’s in a toilet actually goes through that pipe and disappears.
BO: Forget the extra stuff you put in there, just the normal stuff.
JW: Just the normal. And how you can get some of that stuff in there. Last goofy toilet story here, a home in Richfield had hired me, and I’m talking with him on the phone, he goes, “Oh, my toilet’s clogged and I know what’s in there.” And I’m like, “Okay, what do you have going on?” He goes, “Well, my wife had gotten an upset stomach and she lost her dentures down there and those were really expensive dentures that I had to pay out of pocket for, I need to be able to salvage those dentures.” And I said, “Well, why don’t we just take a hammer to the toilet, and then we can physically remove them?” “Well, here’s the deal, I just put on one of those power assist toilets, it was about a $1200 toilet, I don’t wanna do it.” And I said, “Alright, well, what I could do is I could remove the toilet from the floor, carry it outside, flip it upside down, I’ll run a reverse spin on my toilet auger so it doesn’t drill into the denture plate and we’ll push it out the hole it came in.” Sure enough, I pushed that thing out and it was very covered in number two.
RS: Oh, my goodness.
JW: The guy says, “My wife is going to have to boil these and reuse them.” And I had said, “Really, there’s no warranty? There’s nothing we could do?” “No, there’s nothing I can do. I paid out of pocket for these.” So the next time I had to go service their sewer line to remove tree roots and I happened to see his wife, I thought, well, you’ve heard of the term a blank eating grin?
JW: I thought, that is what they call that. I could not look at the lady the same again. She had that grin, and I’m like… Dedicated…
BO: I got news for you. Her husband couldn’t either. Their relationship took a very bad turn.
BO: It’s a little like The Help, if you’ve seen the movie The Help.
JW: From a sewer inspection side, this story actually involved Reuben’s dad. We did a sewer inspection in the border of Hopkins and Diamond where we found no sewer pipe left under the road, with cracks in the street. There was a massive void underneath the street because the sewer had broken once, it was a sewer that does a drop-down connection and the… All the dirt had been falling down the city sewer and just rinsing away, and it produced a large, gigantic void. We must have been very close to a major sinkhole on the street, and it happened to be a street that there was many different cul-de-sacs that came off of it, and it was only a one way in, one way out type of street.
JW: After we had performed the inspection, I told the realtor, “You might wanna go down to City Hall and let them know about this. Here is a flash drive of the sewer recording.” Within two hours of doing that inspection, the city condemned the road, wouldn’t let anybody leave that area, they were… Anyone who was on there, their cars were stuck there until that homeowner dug up that sewer pipe, and they replaced all the dirt that had lost down the city sewers.
TM: Oh, my gosh.
JW: It was a… Awesome that they did that sewer inspection because it would have avoided a major sinkhole.
TM: Wow, that’s crazy.
RS: Wow. Nice find.
TM: Yeah. Didn’t you have one, Joe, where you found a similar thing and the agent that was representing the buyer ran out to move his car after you found it?
JW: That’s the one.
TM: That’s the one?
JW: Yep. Ran out and moved his car and he was parked right in front. I’m like, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t park it.”
JW: So he had to go move his car.
BO: Joe, I’ve gotta ask you before, ’cause we’ve been talking about sewers for a long time, I just wanna make sure we touch on materials. Can you run through what types of materials you see and where you rate them in terms of good, bad, the ugly?
JW: Yeah. So… And a lot of this… I get asked by a lot of realtors, what are the dos and don’ts of wanting to do a sewer inspection and just on experience from inspecting all these pipes, clay tile and cast iron are the most common materials seen in older pipe systems. If a home was built before 1959, chances are it has cast iron or clay tile.
BO: And maybe a combination of both?
JW: And maybe a combination of both. We see checker boards here, it’s where there’s 10 feet of cast iron, then it goes in a clay tile, back to cast iron, back to clay tile. I think guys got paid by the amount of pipe they laid, I really don’t know, but in the genre after 1959, we’re gonna start seeing materials that are concrete, we will see materials that are very bad, which is Orangeburg, and then right around 1981, but more definitively by 1985 was when plastic really started to come into play. Starting it off, the best type of pipe material that we’re gonna see least numbers of tree roots, broken sewers, things like that, plastic. Plastic has a higher propensity for sagging. So there’s certainly risk factor with plastic alone.
JW: The worst type of pipe is Orangeburg. Orangeburg is a pipe material that was scattered throughout random areas during a war-time era. That’s why they came up with this alternative pipe method. It’s a pipe that’s literally made of pitch pressed wood, so essentially sheets of paper slathered in tar, sheet of paper slathered in tar, sheet of paper slathered in tar, till it’s about 20 layers thick. They would form it into a form of pipe. Those types of pipes were estimated to be a 50-year pipe in the best of scenarios and even the Wikipedia information, you will find that Orangeburg piping under the Usage tab, will tell you that they were known to fail in as early as 10 years.
JW: Those were homes, 1965, early ’60s to the mid-6’0s range that we’ve seen in the city of Richfield, we’ve seen in the St. Louis Park, Bristol, North Saint Paul. Inner cities, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, very rare, if almost impossible to see it. I’ve seen Orangeburg out in the Shakopee, out in Prior Lake. That’s the type of pipe material that usually, if I see it, I always recommend that they consult, they have a consultation with the city to determine if that pipe has to go. Some cities will push that that pipe is removed. Some cities will say, “We don’t want that pipe in our ground, but we’re not gonna force you to dig it up.”
JW: That’s a type of pipe that you know is very bad. So ranking, in my opinion, best to worst, plastic for its low maintenance purposes, you really don’t have to clean, especially anything after 1995, very low maintenance type of pipe. Clay tile is my second favorite pipe because it’s proven to last a long time under good maintenance and under good conditions. Cast iron would be next. Cast iron, strengths of it is its durability, it’s the strongest density material. Its negative aspect is it’s a very poor surface wall pipe. And then you look at things like concrete. Concrete’s a good pipe but does allow tree roots, and it does deteriorate at its joint connections, very common to see some deterioration factor at the joint filling. It’s just like how concrete driveways kinda deteriorate around edges. It’s more susceptible there. And then obviously, I hate Orangeburg.
BO: I’ve got an Orangeburg story. We had Orangeburg at our cabin. So up north on Rainy Lake, they put in a municipal sewer system that included drilling through rocks, and I think they used Orangeburg because it was a little more forgiving of maybe being able to bend it if they needed to. I don’t know exactly why they did it, I’m just hypothesizing. I’m coming up with my own reasons why. Anyway, the whole system was made of Orangeburg and underneath the bathroom, which is in a crawl space which you couldn’t get to, there developed a sag in the Orangeburg, which kept sagging and then the more water it held the more it sagged and then eventually it just fell out of its joint connections, because they’re kinda just pressed together, and there was a mess. Thankfully, it’s all gone, the cabin, all that pipe is gone, and I’m gonna go with something better and more durable, but it was one of those, “Hey, can we use this toilet,” and it’s like…
JW: You know, Orangeburg piping is compared… When I’ve talked to digging… Actual sewer excavators, they tell me that when they dig that stuff up, when it fails, it’s comparable to wet cardboard.
JW: That’s a very bad type of pipe material when it goes bad.
BO: Yeah, I can vouch for their comments. These kinds of things are never glamorous, but they kind of make or break your Christmas holiday when you have 35 people coming to your house and the water is not flowing out the way it’s supposed to.
JW: Sewers don’t back up on Tuesday afternoon, they just don’t. When you have nothing going on that night, they’re backing up on Friday night, Saturday night, when company’s coming. At the most inconvenient time, they do it on Christmas. Sewers have a mind of their own, I mean…
JW: Joe, if anybody wanted to get ahold of you, the best way to contact you?
JW: So we’re still somewhat old school, we love phone calls. Our business number is 9529259583, or we do have a website now where you can actually book online appointments. Our website is www.mndrainbusters.com. So www.mndrainbusters.com. There are many other Drain Busters and none of us are affiliated, we are not a franchise. If you just went to drainbusters.com, you might find a guy in Pennsylvania, or maybe even in California, but we are the only Drain Busters in the state.
BO: Yeah, you guys think about putting together like a LinkedIn group or a Facebook group, just to sort of keep in touch with the commonality of a name and obviously a business?
JW: I’ve talked to a couple of the other guys at Drain Busters, but just random, I tried to see if I can buy out drainbusters.com, and that guy was like, “No, no, no, I’m good, I’ll keep it.” Okay, it is what it is, you know. But just generally, I am part of a Facebook group where it’s plumbers and drain guys, and we all talk about weird things in our trade, that people give each other really hard time, I can’t name drop them because they’re very bold around there at times. But there is some legit, real-time talk between plumbers, drain cleaners throughout all of the United States and Canada as well. We have people from Canada and a few members from Australia who are in our Facebook group.
BO: Very cool, very cool. You know, the best part about life seems to be the communities you live in. It’s good to see that you have connections. Well, everybody, I think that’s gonna be a wrap for today’s episode. As you can see, the main line coming out of your house is a fairly important piece of your whole functionality, shall we say. So if you ever have any concerns, I’m sure Joe would be happy to bring out his equipment and give you as you say, give your house a colonoscopy. Thank you, Joe, we really appreciate your time today. And thank you everybody for listening. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Catch you next time.