Rich Del Ben, a third-generation water department worker, snakes though a drain on Allerton Avenue in Redwood City. Working four 10-hour days, he gets weekends to spend with him family.
A Power-Rooter claw with roots wrapped around. Tree roots are the most common issues with sewer pipes in Redwood City.
Rich Del Ben Jr.’s pager goes off. There’s a sewage backup at a resident’s home right off of Whipple Avenue and Highway 101.
It’s the most common issue Del Ben has to deal with — sewer drains clogged due to tree roots breaking through the terra cotta piping that line the residential streets of Redwood City.
“Some of these pipes are over 100 years old,” he said as he pulls on a pair of red clay-colored rubber gloves. “They got roots all over them.”
From his work truck, he lowers a Power-Rooter, a monstrous snaking machine hoisted on a dolly with a meter-long lever and circular metal housing for the snake.
He pushes the rooter onto a driveway on Allerton Drive and pops off a small plate that exposes a four-inch wide hole — the house’s sewer drain.
“This is pretty clean compared to some others I’ve done,” he said before he flipped the switch.
Del Ben, 40, is a born-and-raised resident of Redwood City. As a kid, he and his friends would “pop in” to the creeks at the west end of Woodside Road and catch frogs all the way until they would end up at the Bay.
“Those were great places to fool around, do what kids do,” he said.
His father, Rich Del Ben Sr., also worked for the city in the storm department where he still remains, now as a supervisor; his mother worked as a cashier at Robert’s Market on Woodside Road. His grandfather, Louie Del Ben, immigrated to Redwood City from Italy back in the 1920s or 1930s (Del Ben doesn’t remember), where he worked for the city in the water department as a maintenance worker.
“I didn’t always know I’d be working this job, specifically,” Del Ben said. “But I always knew I’d work for the city.”
Del Ben went played football at Sequoia High School but, right after graduation, he had his first son, Louie, named after his grandfather.
“It was a wake-up call. Everything was out the window after that,” he said, bellying out a laugh.
Two years after that, he had a daughter, Angelina.
For years, Del Ben worked at random, jumping from different construction jobs to working on underground electrical lines doing maintenance.
He decided to take his first civil service test for a job in the city where both his father and grandfather worked. He passed — but didn’t get the job.
“It was hard to get a job back then. They just wanted someone else,” he said.
But Del Ben went back multiple times. Each time taking the test again, each time passing and being looked over.
“Until one day I finally got it,” he said. “I just had to go back enough.”
A familiar nemesis
Del Ben guides the snake down through the driveway’s sewer drain. The drain for this house, specifically, only goes down about 3 feet, but all the drains in this neighborhood go out into the main sewer line along Standish Street.
He pushes the lever forward and the snake slowly dives into the drain. After a minute, it stops.
“It’s hitting something right now,” he said.
He grabs the snake and pushes the lever forward again, slowly this time. The snake rears and arches up like a cobra. Del Ben guides his hand to the back toward the rooter, which shakes for a bit before the snake shoots down deeper into the drain, unclogging the pipe.
A few more times of this and Del Ben decides it’s clear of any debris. He reverses the lever and the snake coils back into its metal home. At the end of the snake, snagged and wrapped around its five-fingered claw is the culprit: baby wipes and tree roots.
Unlike San Francisco’s drainage system that share both sewage and storm water, Redwood City has two separate pipelines.
The storm drains wash out into the creeks, like those among Redwood Avenue, which lead out to the Bay and marshlands running along the eastern side of Bayshore Drive and Highway 101 up to Redwood Shores. The sewage system, 193 miles of old terra cotta pipes and newly placed plastic and clay “PVC” pipes that run throughout the city, is treated separately before being drained into the Bay.
The two independent systems work fine, so long as the sewage pipes remain clear. A backup in the sewage can result in overflow into the storm drains which then contaminates the water leading to the Bay.
Del Ben dealt with this a few years back when a manhole was overflowing onto a street with sewage and was flooding the storm drains. While the team at the storm department had to track down the sewage before it hit the Bay and clear it all out, Del Ben had to call in and fight water with water, using a pressure hose to clear out the blockage in the manhole.
“That was really bad,” he said.
Whereas most flooding like this is uncommon, the city’s terra cotta pipes still remain problematic.
Terra Cotta piping has long been used for sewers, and normally last for up to 100 years, but the pipes aren’t very durable longer than that.
“Sometimes the pipes just disintegrate,” said Assistant Public Works Director Terence Kyaw.
But the biggest challenge to Public Works are tree roots which oftentimes break through the piping and can even shatter the pipes completely.
In cases like this, the city has an emergency system to replace small portions of pipes with PVC pipes. There is also $2 million set aside for replacing terra cotta pipes, but it’s unknown how much piping needs to be replaced, Kyaw said.
“We go bit by bit,” Kyaw said.
The comfort zone
Until then, the Band-Aid solution is workers like Del Ben. He is one of two full-time employees for the city who go around, day and night, to unblock the roots in sewer lines. For nine years, before clearing pipes, he was one of the men who would be swapping and repairing them for PVC.
“Sometimes you get a call around three, four in the morning,” he said. “You just gotta get to it.”
For Del Ben, the job may not be glamorous, but it gives him time for his family.
He works four 10-hour days, which allows him to be at home on weekends to spend time with his three children who still live with him, including a 3-month-old baby boy, Liam.
“Sometimes it’s kinda difficult, with a newborn and everything,” he said, driving down a hilly tree-lined street. “But you just gotta make it happen.”
He finds solace in his work truck, driving it all day from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., checking manholes and clearing sewage pipes. This is his “comfort zone,” he calls it.
Having three generations behind him, Del Ben said he’s proud of his job and has no complaints. In fact, it was a dream job for him since that day when he finally got called into to work for the city.
“From my first day, I knew I wanted to be in this truck,” he said. “I knew it.”