Late nights, broken lights and clogged drain pipes

Mike Ashcraft

The life of a night shift maintenance crew

Bob Criner, a third-shift All-Campus Preventative maintenance worker, cleans an air vent in Nixon Hall. Mike Ashcraft | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

Television host Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel’s hit program, “Dirty Jobs,” scours the country — sometimes literally — to find and jump into some of the filthiest, messiest and nastiest professions the United States has to offer.

From digging through excrement to wading through heaps of trash and other debris, Rowe attempts to highlight the blue collar souls whose work often goes unnoticed. These workers make it possible for the rest of us to live in comfort and without nasty smells always filling our nostrils.

Kent State has plenty of jobs just like the ones Rowe explores that most students probably don’t know about it, like cleaning or fixing a giant air conditioner in a dorm, crawling through underground tunnels to service pipes or even fixing the locks on a building’s doors.

Without the work of the men and women employed at Campus Environment and Operations, the university would come to a filthy, chaotic and stinky standstill.

The most disgusting, trying and sometimes thankless jobs of them all are arguably the ones performed by the second and third shift maintenance workers, otherwise known as the All-Campus Preventive Maintenance crew. These men and women sleep while the sun is out, get up in the early evening, head for work and don’t stop until the sun begins to rise again over the Kent campus.

“All-Campus Preventative Maintenance are the guys that are here 24/7,” said building maintenance manager Bob Winkler. “The reality is they could be out on a rooftop in the middle of the night resetting the freezestat on an air handler that supplies heat to a building, and the next minute, they’re up to their elbows in poop trying to snake out a main drain so your room quits flooding.”

Director of operations Tom Dunn would rather students not know he or his department exists. It’s not that Dunn has reason to hide; it’s just when students or faculty discover that his department is there, it’s usually because there is some sort of problem on campus.

Dunn has been at Kent State for 29 years, beginning as an undergraduate student and working his way up through the ranks of management. Dunn is responsible for overseeing all maintenance operations, plus custodial and grounds. His work entails everything from clearing ice and snow, cleaning buildings day and night, as well as electrical, mechanical and structural problems. Dunn’s staffs also help maintain athletic fields and events, student activities and concerts.

The job isn’t through when students are finished with classes each day, and the conditions are seldom ideal. Bad weather, dirty and confined environments, long hours and sometimes nasty waste are regular obstacles when trying to get the job done.

“It’s just something I’ve done my whole career,” said Dunn. “We need to get it repaired, fixed or cleaned — whatever the case may be — it needs done. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could find a drain to clean.’ It just comes and it’s just part of our job that we have to get done.”

Dunn acknowledges that it takes a certain type of person to perform such tasks as snaking drains or maintaining an air conditioning unit.

“Not everybody can do everything that we do,” said Dunn. “In some cases, you have to desensitize your nose. In some cases, you have to get used to the heat. My grounds staff gets used to the cold. While everyone else is warming up, they’re out there shoveling and chipping away at ice. Some of it is something that they learn, some of it is something that they adapt to.”

For example, his staff cleans out the grease pits in food preparation areas around campus. Places like the A&W stand in the Student Center or Rosie’s Rations in the Tri-Towers Rotunda have pits in the floor that collect grease from fryers and sinks.

“Grease traps are just that; they’re traps that are designed for all the grease to go into so they don’t go in the drain,” said Dunn. “But when you open them up, man, that is a nasty smell. It is bad.”

The maintenance crews also snake drains. Winkler said the nasty nature of this task requires Campus Environment and Operations to take a long hard look at who they award jobs to.

“We require a lot of experience when we hire these folks,” said Winkler. “One of the questions we ask them is if they are familiar with cleaning drains. If they’re not, it’s a rude awakening.”

Dunn said workers hate the task because it is the dirtiest job on campus.

“They’re nasty. When you’re cleaning the main, you use a snake, which is a three-quarter inch flexible pipe,” Dunn said. “You’re going through there, and if the clog breaks, you may be wearing something.”

Drains can be clogged in a multitude of ways. Backed up toilets often stem from residents stuffing too much toilet paper into the commode before flushing, Winkler said. Clogging the toilet with paper towels is another problem that ACPM frequently deals with.

“In the M.A.C. Annex, that area plugged up so many times with paper towels that we took them out of there and put electric hand dryers in. Talk about nasty. It floods the whole entire floor,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine something being nastier than one’s clothes being covered in feces. Third-shift ACMP worker Matt Perry agrees, but argues that cleaning shower drains is worse.

“The women’s showers are the worst,” Perry said. “There are times where I’ve literally pulled out clumps of hair. There are a lot of nasty things in this job, but the sight of those giant wet hairballs is one thing that is enough to make me gag.”

Small buildings that are affectionately known as “poop tanks” collect waste. Human waste flows to the tanks from buildings and eventually end up in strategically placed pits around the campus. Usually, the maintenance crews don’t have to deal with these pits unless there is a problem and when the “once-a-year-cleaning time” comes around.

When that time comes, a worker has to reach into the pit and clean it to the best of his or her abilities. These cleanings normally take place in the summer, sometimes at the hottest points of the year.

“It can get pretty ripe in there,” said Perry grinning.

When there is a problem with a pump in one of these poop tanks, workers are pretty much guaranteed to get their hands very dirty.

“If a building can’t gravity drain, it has to go be pumped,” said Winkler. “A lot of the times, that’s down in the pit, and the belts and the motors and controls are all down in there. When they break, you’ve got to go down in there and fix them.”

“It’s not much different than sticking your hand and putting it right down into a toilet.”

Perry also has to clean and repair pipes located in the five-mile underground tunnel system beneath the campus. The conditions aren’t horrible underneath some of the newer buildings on campus. Under some of the older facilities — such as Rockwell Hall — the tunnels are actually crawl spaces, and are usually filled with dirt, water, mice, rats and carcasses of dead animals that met unfortunate fates underground.

“It’s really not fun at all,” said Perry. “Somebody has to do it, though, and those are just the conditions we have to deal with sometimes.”

Contact career services reporter Mike Ashcraft at [email protected].