Unblocktober: Spotlight on the Severn Trent teams tackling damaging pipe blockages

30th October 2023

They are among the Severn Trent teams tackling pipe blockages day and night to help homes and businesses across the region – and find some bizarre things down our sewers.

The repair specialists swing into action the moment serious issues are reported across a huge network of 97,000km of pipes.

Today, we are highlighting the work of one waste network team who are called out daily to deal with suspected pipe blockages across Birmingham and the Black Country.

It comes as Severn Trent supports the nationwide Unblocktober campaign urging the public to ‘Be a Binner, Not a Blocker’ to protect our sewers - and prevent potentially costly blockages and flooding in their own homes.

We met up with the team as it dealt with a typical incident in Chester Road, Birmingham. An emergency road closure had shut off a small section of the highway, allowing workers to dig up a  section to get to the damaged pipe and carry out repairs. Once completed, swift reinstatement of the road took place.

A letter drop had ensured that nearby households were kept up to date with the works, helping minimise disruption for locals.

Lead engineer Ben Woods, 31, explained how his team had dug down five metres to get to this particular sewer pipe, with safety equipment installed to protect workers who have to go underground.

“You can dig the actual hole quite quickly, but the amount of equipment needed to keep everyone safe at that depth is what takes more time,” he said.

“Someone has to go all the way down to get to the pipe to do the repairs. We may also need to get a camera down there to see exactly what the issues are.

“But it’s a great team effort and we will work ten hours shifts, seven days a week to get the job done for customers.”

Ben added: “These kinds of incidents are pretty common but the causes can change.

“Wet wipes are a big problem as they can clog up the pipes, while fats, oils and greases (FOG) are a big issue around Birmingham.

“And I’ve seen some weird blockages over the years, including a poor pet fish someone had flushed down the toilet.

“People don’t realise until their own toilet is blocked how much of an issue flushing the wrongs things can be. .”

Getting to the root cause of the suspected blockage can involve using state-of-the-art ‘robot’ style cameras, which are lowered into the ground. The pipes may also be flushed through with water as part of the repair process.

That process is carried out by Jetting Operatives like Terry Ray, 61, who was also operating the camera at the Chester Road scene. 

The dad-of-two said: “We lower the camera down and can see what it sees on a monitor in our van. It can spot stuff we can’t see, allowing us to find out exactly what the blockage is.

“Jetting can unblock almost everything that’s down there but sometimes you put the cameras down and you don’t need the jetting.”

Terry, who is also a grandad of five, only joined Severn Trent three years ago, having previously worked in a furnace factory.

He said: “I love this job, I just love being outside in the fresh air.

“Every day is different; every job is different.

“The strangest things I’ve seen down sewers is a tyre…. but nothing shocks me in all honesty.”

Danielle Bond is a catchment lead in waste networks at Severn Trent and helps co-ordinate the repair works, including liaising with the council on road closures.

The mum-of-one, who has worked for the company for 17 years, said: “I own the area of the blockage in terms of investigation and resolution. I make sure everything is running smoothly, including liaising with the council to make sure we get road closures when needed.

“My job is an operational role with some admin and office work, but there is nothing better than coming out on site and seeing what is going on.”

Danielle has also seen at first hand some of the destructive objects dumped down the sewers.  She said: “We had to carry out some jetting of a pipe the other day and a 2L bottle of pop came down it!

“People wrongly think waste is waste, but there are different types of waste. Rubbish like wet wipes are not built to go down the sewers.

“Until I worked for Severn Trent, I never realised how fortunate we are to have such clean water and it is the same with waste.

“There is so much work going on every day behind the scenes to make sure people’s waste is taken away.”

Danielle began as an apprentice in the asset data team, but says her current job is her favourite.

“It is the most enjoyable role I’ve had as you get to interact and help our teams in the field. You also finish the day knowing you have really helped our customers, which is great job satisfaction.”

Severn Trent has been promoting the ‘Be A Binner, Not a Blocker’ message throughout the Unblocktober campaign.

Its staff dealt with a staggering 34,580 blockages in the last year alone, despite their efforts helping prevent more than TEN MILLION litres of fats, oils and grease (FOG) from entering the sewers.