Smoke testing going smoothly, city says

Published 10:29 pm Friday, July 24, 2009

The Department of Public Utilities will continue its smoke testing efforts through the end of the calendar year if all goes as planned, its director said, but things look good so far.

“The good news is we’re not seeing large numbers of failures for the areas that we’ve tested,” said Albert Moor II, director of public utilities.

The smoke testing program is designed to identify areas where the sanitary sewer system is in danger of overflowing. To do the smoke testing, crews seal off segments of the sewer lines and push smoke into the sewer pipelines with smoke blowers. Crews then look for smoke where it shouldn’t be — seeping up through the ground, through cracks in paved surfaces, or inside houses.


Email newsletter signup

“The key to this whole program is to keep rainwater out of the sewer system and keep sewage out of the storm drain,” Moor said.

So far, the department has tested more than 175,000 linear feet of sewer drains, Moor said. That has included the Elephant’s Fork area, where crews started, as well as a large portion of downtown.

The deficiencies found, Moor said, have mostly included damage to cleanouts, where the public system connects to pipes leading to a residence or business. Cleanouts can become damaged, for example, when a homeowner hits them with a lawnmower or by a vehicle driven through the yard.

“We’ve found a couple other oddball things,” said Craig Ziesemer, the assistant director of public utilities.

When deficiencies are found, the department works to correct them right away, Ziesemer said. Some other testing methods might have to be employed to determine the exact nature and location of the problem, but smoke testing is an inexpensive way to get preliminary results, he said.

“It gives you a broad look for the least amount of money,” he said.

Suffolk’s smoke-testing program is part of an agreement among Suffolk, 12 other Hampton Roads localities, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District. The purpose of the agreement, like the purpose of the smoke testing, is to reduce sanitary sewer overflows in the area.

Moor said all defects found so far are on the public side of the system.

Residents in the affected areas are being notified by door hangers, on the city’s Web site and through reverse 911 messages. Although the smoke used in the tests is virtually harmless, residents are advised to ventilate their homes immediately should any smoke get inside. A representative from the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue is on site during all smoke testing to help mitigate false fire calls from concerned citizens, Moor said.

The department hopes to be finished with smoke testing by the end of this year. If it lasts beyond that, testing likely will be discontinued for the spring, because the ground must be relatively dry for the tests to work as designed.