On The Job: Skill, Hard Work Ensures Water Gets To Your Home

By Warren Tenney

When someone asks Sal Correa what he does for a living, he answers this way: “You know the water you drink? I make sure it gets to your house.” That’s a pretty good description. Sal co-leads a 7-member City of Chandler team that replaces aging water distribution pipes, repairs breaks, and installs fire hydrants and new water meters. Sometimes his crew lays water lines to new subdivisions.

Sal is a Lead Utility Systems Technician who organizes his crew’s workload and talks to Chandler residents about the work being done on their streets. He drives backhoes, digs holes and wields pipe-cutting saws. “I get muddy,” Sal said. “I like what I do.”

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Each day, Sal walks into work at 5:30 a.m. ready to coordinate each job with Chandler’s traffic and police departments. There is always something that must be done to secure the 1,230 miles of pipes in the city’s water distribution system. He orders equipment that may be needed from vendors and calls Arizona Blue Stake, which maps underground utility lines and helps prevent workers from disturbing other underground lines, such as electric or gas. If a job means Chandler residents will lose their water for a while, Sal makes sure they are notified within 24 to 78 hours in advance.

Sal’s first priorities are emergency breaks. Some can be underground breaks that fracture a length of pipe and send water seeping up through crevices in the street and sidewalks. Neighbors lose water pressure and dirty water comes out of their faucets and they call the department. Sometimes these breaks are more spectacular and blow out a hole in a main pipe sending water gushing 30-feet in the air. These types of emergency breaks are the hardest. Traffic must be redirected, the leak brought under control, and the break tracked down – even before unhappy customers are notified about why they suddenly have no water and how long they will be without it.

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Sal said most breaks – even large ones – can be fixed within three to six hours. Neighbors are always given a window of time that accounts for unforeseen problems, such as a fix that may not hold or trouble tracking an entire break. Most of the time Sal and his crew can finish well within the window, making customers happy again.

Replacing aging water lines and fixing breaks and repairs can mean working in a hole 3 feet deep or 7 feet deep. Anything below 5 feet requires the crew to shore the walls with an aluminum brace to prevent the hole from collapsing. Sal and his team members enter and exit the hole using a ladder attached to the shoring. Everyone shares the hardest parts of the job, the digging and pipe cutting, so one member of the crew is always resting while another is working. (That’s why residents often see one or two workers watching, while one is working.) During the hottest summer days, Sal makes sure members of his team use a canopy for shade and that each member works in short spurts. When Sal suspects a member of his crew is getting overheated, he’ll send him into a city vehicle to cool down in the air conditioning.

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Nine years ago Sal was cutting a pipe with a 12-inch-blade motorized saw, a job he had done hundreds of times. This time the pipe dropped and pinched the end of the blade, which suddenly kicked back and pinned Sal to the wall of the hole. The blade cut deeply into Sal’s mouth, causing damage that required two surgeries and numerous root canals. The accident left him with a thin scar from his lip to his chin that is just visible through his short-cropped beard. He went back to cutting pipe in those street holes as soon as possible. “After I got back in there, my coworkers said, ‘You’re not allowed to touch saws anymore, get out of there’,” Sal remembers.  He admits the first cutting job after the accident was a little terrifying. “I tried not to show it, but yes, it was.” Since that accident Sal said he has cut thousands of pipes. 

In 2001, Sal sold everything he had and followed his wife’s parents from Chicago to Arizona. Sal wanted more opportunity for himself and his wife, Gladys, and a good place to raise their 5-year-old son. Sal started working for Chandler as a meter reader. He took courses to be certified as a Utility Service Operator I and II in the water distribution department and was then promoted to crew leader. Sal’s son, Damien, attended Northern Arizona University on an academic scholarship, just graduated with a pre-med degree, and is waiting to hear from the medical schools where he applied for acceptance.

Damien’s academic pursuits left Sal and Gladys at home with Bella the Boxer and two toy Yorkshire Terriers, Blu and Jax. Sal gets home by 4 p.m. every night and has dinner made by the time his wife, a health care administrator, arrives home. Late last year, the couple joined a neighborhood co-ed kickball team.

Sal is tough when it comes to his job, but gets a little teary-eyed when he talks about the parents and the seven siblings – including a twin – he left behind in Chicago. He is the youngest, visits the city twice a year and still misses them. One sibling has just moved to California. He hopes more family will move west, because Sal said he’s staying in Arizona’s sunshine.

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org

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