Guarding Wastewater Workers

Hydro Products provides pathogen defense for sewer cleaning operations.

Guarding Wastewater Workers

The Vanguard Pathogen Defense System is built to remove dangerous pathogens from sewer cleaning equipment before they can be brought to the surface, potentially harming workers and the community.

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T.J. Suiter got his start in the sewer and drain industry over 30 years ago when he started a pipe cleaning and inspection business in Denver. The company specialized in residential and commercial work for the first few years before moving into municipal work.

During his off hours, Suiter volunteered with a couple organizations, including a local hospice. It was there that he began learning about the pathogens he could potentially be exposed to from patients, how they can transfer and, most important, how to handle them to keep himself and others safe. It was a unique situation, working with raw sewage by day and with terminally ill patients by night.

With new knowledge of pathogen transfer, Suiter started thinking about the dangers posed to those in the wastewater industry. The same pathogens that hospice workers wore gloves, gowns and face shields to protect themselves from coming in direct contact with were in the wastewater stream, splashing around and getting on workers. And they were often left behind in puddles on the street or yard. So he decided to do something about it to help reduce exposure and protect his team.

The result was the Vanguard Pathogen Defense System.

Municipal Sewer & Water recently caught up with Suiter to talk about his company, Hydro Products, and the Vanguard System.

MSW: What is the Vanguard System and how did you develop the technology behind it?

Suiter: The Vanguard System is purpose built to do one thing: keep dangerous pathogens in the sewer where they belong and not emerging to the surface prematurely where they have the potential to harm sewer maintenance crews and people living in the community.

The word “Vanguard” means “advanced guard” or leading edge of an assault in a battle. This cleaning system is exactly that. Not only does it immediately reduce the pathogen load where it is the most concentrated on the jet hose, but also strips off grease and sharp objects like glass or hypodermic needles that may have attached themselves to the hose during the jetting process. This physical and water-spray barrier helps remove them from the jet hose as it passes through the center of the cleaning collar. This aids in the effort to keep these and other dangerous objects in the manhole and away from the operator. In addition, the hand-held spray gun can clean off most everything else that was exposed to the raw sewage in the area.

My first business was a pressure washing and steam cleaning service. I was able to integrate my knowledge of pressure washing technology and being an inventor to build my original system. One of my gifts is the ability to surround myself with those who have more abilities than I do and get their assistance in their various areas of expertise. 

MSW: What challenges have you faced in gaining acceptance of the system’s value and effectiveness?

Suiter: The Vanguard System was officially offered to the market nearly 10 years ago. It took off quicker than expected because customers really saw the need for it. It picked up more steam after our customers started talking to other agencies about their positive experiences with them. The bottleneck was on my end because sewer maintenance teams really wanted to see the system in person, which involved quite a bit of travel across the country doing demonstrations. That is when I started involving dealers to help show the equipment in person.

The major turning point came when I was introduced to the portable ATP (adenosine triphosphate) tester. This testing system is typically employed by hygiene companies or health departments to detect bacteria and other living organism loads on various surfaces for hospitals, veterinary clinics, restaurants, etc. The rating scale ranges from 0 to 9999 to test for cleanliness. The lower the number, the cleaner the surface. The addition of this equipment for demos was an absolute game-changer for us. When we show up at the customer’s job site and show them the before and after ATP count on their own equipment by employing our system, they quickly become believers. We typically reduce the ATP count by around 98% right in front of them.

After purchasing the equipment and using it for a while, they often wonder why this type of equipment was not commercially available sooner. We have an amazing reorder and retrofit rate for other vehicles in our customers’ possession once they experience the benefits themselves.

MSW: Can the system be adapted to fit any jetting or jet/vac truck? What about trailer jetters and inspection vans?

Suiter: Yes, we have different Vanguard System configurations for combo trucks, jet trucks, CCTV vehicles, and yes … even trailer-mounted units. Depending on the system we are mounting it on, there are various install kits we offer to accommodate any make or model of vehicle. The system comes standard with a hand-held spray gun to help clean a wide variety of surfaces, like boots, gloves, tiger tails, vacuum tubes, crawlers and even SSOs.

MSW: How has the system evolved to better meet the needs of municipal wastewater crews?

Suiter: When the system was first introduced, it worked perfectly in the comfort and warmth of our office on the test bench. However, like any invention, a few problems came to light and had to be addressed after it was released into the harsh “real world” environment of sewer maintenance. The biggest change was the introduction of our cleaning collar several years ago which made the system super easy to deploy within seconds from the operator’s station. This made it remarkably simple for the operator to use with little distraction from their routine. We also made several design corrections and modifications over the first few years to replace vulnerable or underperforming components. We have moved through that adjustment season a few years ago, and now have a thoroughly tested, reliable and easy-to-use product.

MSW: Does the cleaning solution have any adverse effects on the collections system or the surrounding area?

Suiter: No, not at all. The cleaning solution is made of compounds that are regularly dumped into the sanitary sewer system every day by hospitals, laboratories, schools, veterinary clinics, etc., in much higher amounts than we would ever use. The solution was custom designed for use in the wastewater environment, and safe to use for the operator and the maintenance equipment when used in accordance with the directions.

MSW: What’s the biggest threat to workers who come  in contact with wastewater, and are you seeing an increased interest in worker health and safety since the pandemic began?

Suiter: The increased awareness of dangerous pathogens across the globe has shed a spotlight on what can, is, and will continue to happen in our fight against microbes. It has certainly boosted demand for our product to help add an additional layer of protection for cities, their workers and citizens in the community at large. Although COVID-19 (and now all the variants) continue to be a health threat in our world, it is only one of several concerns in wastewater. Notably, when compared to several other current biological hazards found in wastewater, COVID is dwarfed in severity by several others. The ever-increasing levels of numerous antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria compounded by mutating virus strains can be extremely dangerous and are significantly rising as noted in several medical research papers. COVID-19 has overshadowed many things in our society and wastewater safety in regard to other pathogens is no exception. Increasing levels of CREs (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae) are on the rise. These are bacteria strains that are immune to most of our antibiotics. A recent study by mBio released in February 2018 showed that pipes outside hospitals are teeming with CREs at levels nearing 80%. In 2020, Rutgers published another study in the journal Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology, which showed similar results. They found that these biofilms often contain harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and can withstand standard treatment to disinfect sewers. These are most concerning to the safety and health of wastewater workers in my opinion.

MSW: Is the Vanguard System effective on viruses and is your disinfecting solution on the approved EPA/CDC list for COVID-19?

Suiter: The system has been independently tested and is shown to remove up to 98% of pathogens in an independent lab study many years ago. The system targets all organisms affixed to the jet hose and strips them off. The main ingredient in our cleaning solution is a blend of quaternary ammonium compounds and a few other effective cleaning products. Quaternary ammonium compounds are at the very top or really close to it for killing COVID-19 virus.

MSW: Do you sell direct to contractors and utilities or go through distributors?

Suiter: We have many wastewater equipment dealers across the U.S. and Canada and now in Australia that rep our product line. Typically, we receive phone calls directly from public works directors, sewer maintenance supervisors and people in upper management looking to protect their team as well as the public. Our dealers are fantastic, as they can install the equipment locally if the customer doesn’t wish to take it on in-house. They also can quickly respond in person to provide one-on-one service and personal support.

MSW: Are there product line expansions in the company’s future? What else does the future hold for Hydro Products?

Suiter: We are constantly developing new and innovative ways to help protect workers in this vital sector of service. Let’s face it, dangerous pathogens will be here long after we are gone from this Earth, so we have to do what we can to stay one step ahead to help keep the community healthy and safe, not just for our own sake, but for future generations. We are working on another product line that is already protected by a couple of our currently issued patents, and we will be releasing it next fall.


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