Whatcom’s Dirty Jobs

Story by Matt Benoit, photos by Matt Benoit and Lauren Owens

Roe Studio Trap Cleaning

On a recent morning at Roe Studio, it is not the sound of student voices or running sinks or pottery wheels that strikes the ear drum. Today, it is the sound of a gargled sucking.

Several men, workers from Whatcom’s maintenance department, are doing the once-a-quarter chore of cleaning out what Brian Keeley, director of facilities at Whatcom, describes as“clay sludge” from traps that prevent clay particles and other debris from winding up in the sewer system.

“This is probably the dirtiest job,” says Calvin Vaughn, 29, a Whatcom student and part-time maintenance worker who often assists the maintenance department in various jobs.

The men use a suction hose devise to suck up the clay slurry, a brown, viscous liquid that looks like chocolate milk and comes bubbling and squirting out of a tube into a garbage bag-lined, blue plastic waste can.

“It’s not that bad,” says Alexander Elizavetsky, a Whatcom maintenance mechanic who has worked at the college since 1995.

He says that cleaning the traps located in several Cascade Hall artrooms (done roughly every six months) is, in fact, worse due to the smell they produce. Carl Adams, maintenance supervisor at Whatcom, agrees.

“It stinks to high heaven,” he says.

There are four traps: One for each of the studio’s two sinks, another next to a water basin that’s next to the sinks, and one more in the middle of the floor which connects to the floor trenches that collect the clay material. Adams says the traps are around 24 inches deep and can hold about 100 to 150 lbs of clay.

Another trap, for a sink used in the glazing area of the studio, is not cleaned as often due to the lesser amount of materials that go down the sink’s drain.

Adams explains that workers must take extra precautions when cleaning it, though, as the traps can contain heavy metals and must be treated as hazardous material. Workers wear gloves and goggles, and hand any waste over to the chemistry department to dispose of properly.

Elizavetsky says that with three people, cleaning the four regular traps takes about four to five hours, depending on how much material they must remove. He says they start cleaning at about 6:30 a.m. and try to finish before teachers and students arrive, which can sometimes be hard to do. Elizavetsky also says he tries to avoid being around students after finishing the cleaning, as the condition of his clothing tends to be undesirable. 

After sucking up the slurry, Elizavetsky gives instructions to Jonathan Recabarren to tighten the filled garbage bag to make sure it’s not splashing.

Recabarren, 30, is in his second quarter of working at Whatcom. It’s the first time he’s had to do this particular job, a fact he states with a smile suggesting he’s not immensely thrilled about it.

Wheeling a hand truck under the can, Recabarren heads out the door to the dumpster in the Cascade/Kelly parking lot, where he dumps the bag among all others for Sanitary Services to collect.

Another worker, Vitaliy Pipenko, 52, then takes the metal traps and hoses them off outside.

The men will also use a sewer jetter, a machine that Vaughn calls the “jitterbug.” The machine blows water through a hose into the floor trenches in Roe to further clean out any clay. The pressurized cleaning gives off fumes which Elizavetsky says remind him of cabbage.

Though this job can be messy, the men are quick to point out worse jobs they sometimes must do. For Elizavetsky, it’s plugged toilets. “That’s nasty,” he says. “Especially when stuff is floating.”

Vaughn says that cleaning bathroom graffiti is no fun, either. The paint used to cover up vandalism on restroom dividers is organic and oil-based, and gives off bad fumes. Even though they wear respirators during the painting, he says it can be difficult to transition to something like taking a calculus test.

Still, the men like their work.

“Every day is different,” says Elizavetsky.

“It’s a neat job,” says Vaughn, adding that the trio of Keeley, Adams, and Elizavetsky truly care about making the campus the best it can be.

“They care about the students,” he said. “They care about what they do.”

General Maintenance and Grounds Crew

Whatcom’s grounds crew, a three-man team led by grounds supervisor Jason Lindsay, does a lot more than just mow lawns.

Their duties include emptying all outdoor trash bins and collecting loose trash, which Lindsay says usually takes between 1 and 2 hours. They’ll also rake leaves to prevent drainage clogs, pressure wash (for which they usually suit up in rain gear), and if necessary, even do snow removal from campus parking lots.

But perhaps the most disgusting job they have is the once-a-month task of emptying the ash tray canisters present at each of the campus’s smoking shelters.

Other tough tasks can include digging into the mostly-clay ground the college is built on to find and repair irrigation leaks.

Maintenance crews must also deal with all kinds of tasks, including difficult graffiti removal, sewage backups, and in the winter, the occasional set of frozen pipes.

Carl Adams, maintenance supervisor, recalls one winter when a door to the Pavilion was left open, causing the building’s sprinkler system to freeze and then leak water everywhere once it had thawed. The basketball court surface was ruined in the mishap, and had to be replaced.

Another unpleasant job involved a sewage backup in Kulshan Hall several years ago that sent sewage coming up out of floor drains and into bathrooms and a custodial closet.

“It was not fun,” he said.

But no matter the nature of the work, though, Lindsay likes working at Whatcom.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” he says, adding that not only does he get to work outside, but the maintenance, custodial, and grounds crews make for a great team.


Kulshan Air Filter Changing

Todd Ollila opens a door marked “roof access” on the second floor of Kulshan Hall and heads up the stairwell to the third floor, opening another door and entering a hallway filled with silvery insulation and tons of metal pipes. A year’s supply of air filters, box upon box upon box, sit stacked on top of one another.

Ollila has worked for just over two years as facilities operations maintenance specialist at the college, and is responsible for monitoring the heating and cooling systems for all 10 campus buildings.

Today, he is changing air filters, and says that Kulshan, because of its many science laboratories, takes more air filters than any other building on campus.

And there are many devices controlling airflow in campus structures: VAVs (Variable Air Volume); air handlers (which control cooling and heating); HRUs (Heat Recovery Units, which pull air from the science labs).

There are two air handlers in Kulshan, both of which Ollila must check and potentially change filters in. There are also two air compressor units that supply compressed air to science labs, as well as a vacuum pump and air drier. There is also a boiler room with pumps for circulating hot water, and an outside chiller on the roof for cold water.

All of these can be monitored from either Ollila’s laptop or desktop computer, which has a program that allows him to change numerous variables, including lighting and temperatures, in a handful of campus buildings.

If an alarm to any system goes off, the program will send a text message to Ollila’s cell phone to alert him. On average, he says he gets a couple alarms and/or failures a month. Even when he’s not working, if something like a fire alarm goes off or a freezer stops working, he’s called in to deal with it.

For the air filters, Ollila grabs a box of them and heads to the first air handler unit, which takes air in and out of the building in adjustable amounts, and needs filter changes about every four months. Putting on a dust mask and opening the door, he heads inside and begins switching out the 15 old filters, making sure to label each new one with his initials and the date of installation.

In addition to putting in the filters, which he says takes him a couple of days when he’s doing a whole building by himself, Ollila will check motor belts, grease motor bearings, or whatever other mechanical things he must do to keep things running properly.

The filters in the second air handler are double layered because only outside air, with many particulates in tow, is being sucked into the building. Thus, the second, dirtier layer of filters must be replaced every two months.

Ollila does, from time to time, deal with messier jobs. A winter or two ago, some hot water pipes on the second floor of Kulshan developed a pinhole-sized leak. Water soaked through the second floor ceiling, through the floor of the second floor, and then through the first floor ceiling.

He counts pumping out the sewer pumps in the Foundation Building a few months ago as perhaps his dirtiest job.

“It was gross,” he says, adding that the workers dumped a lot of detergent to help ease the smell, and also wore gloves and rain gear inside the building.


It could be considered easy to take the cleanliness of the buildings on Whatcom’s campus for granted. That being said, it’s possible that being a custodian may be one of the most underappreciated jobs around.

“They’re the greatest group of people I’ve ever worked with,” says Sharon Maupin, supervisor of Whatcom’s custodial department.

There are 10 full-time custodial employees at the college, along with three part-timers (two of whom handle recycling) and one Work Study student.

Randy Cross, 60, has been working as a custodian at Whatcom for the last three years. Assigned to Kulshan Hall, Cross is responsible for cleaning virtually the entire building five days a week, each Sunday through Thursday. His shifts begin around 5 p.m. and last until 1:30 a.m.

Cross enters each room, taking out trash and recycle, straightening chairs, and wiping down classroom tables and whiteboards. He sprays surfaces with disinfectants a couple of times a week, and says he does such as good job at it that bacteria tests in the building’s chemistry labs have actually found very little bacteria to speak of.

“I keep it pretty clean,” he says with a smile.

Cross also wipes clean the building’s window glass, and cleans the floors using a pushable zamboni-like machine. He picks up spare change he finds along the way, calling them his “tips.”  

He’ll also clean graffiti.

“That’s the worst,” he says. “It involves lots of scrubbing and clean up.” Cross says if the cleaning starts to remove paint, he’ll stop and refer it to the maintenance department.

Carl Adams, maintenance supervisor, estimates “at least” 16 hours a week were spent during spring and winter quarters on graffiti cleanup.

Cross also mops and sanitizes the bathrooms, which are cleaned using a sudsy mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide. Interestingly enough, Cross says women’s restrooms tend to be dirtier than men’s.

Out of all the gross or dirty things one could experience as a janitor, Cross says what he finds most bothersome are finger prints on window glass, which he calls “irritating.” Although he’ll occasionally have to clean up vomit if someone’s thrown up in a bathroom, Cross says it doesn’t really bother him.

Maupin echoes Cross, saying that after doing the job long enough, there likely isn’t much that will gross you out, but, as she points out, everyone’s definition of disgusting tends to be different.

For her, it is cleaning hair from floor drains in locker rooms, and other jobs the maintenance and grounds departments handle, such as dealing with backed-up toilets and emptying ash tray canisters from the campus’s smoking shelters.

All custodians wear gloves for safety, but there are even more dangerous possibilities, like finding syringes in campus parking lots, something that Maupin says she can recall happening only maybe two times in her 21 years at the college.

All in all, Cross says he most enjoys his job because he gets lots of exercise in the form of walking, and encounters so many people at the college.

“Everyone seems friendly,” he says.

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