Tips for Safe, Effective Jetter Operation

Running a water jetter correctly can help maximize productivity and profits while also boosting operator safety

Tips for Safe, Effective Jetter Operation

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Water jetters can open up lucrative new markets and dramatically improve profitability for savvy, expansion-minded pumpers. But if used incorrectly, these expensive machines can just as easily become a drag on your bottom line through unnecessary repairs and inefficient operation. 

Moreover, you won’t get repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals from disappointed customers whose drain issues took longer than necessary to resolve.

There’s no need to be that guy. Let't take a look at some basic operating fundamentals that will help you maximize the return on this significant investment — and keep you and your technicians safer while doing so.

Of course, there’s no substitute for training provided by a jetter manufacturer, but these basic operating principles will get you headed in the right direction.

“I learned some things the hard way myself,” says Tim Gage, Ohio territory manager for Spartan Tool, who has 30 years' jetting experience. “The more we can teach guys that are just starting out, the less headaches and accidents they’ll have.”

Here are some basic considerations when operating a water jetter:

Safety First

A jet of water pumped as low as 500 psi can cut through skin. Imagine what a jetter operating at 4,000 psi can do, says Brian Gilbert, national sales manager for Harben, who has 12 years; jetting experience. Inattentive operation can result in serious injuries — even fatalities.

“Always wear proper personal-protection gear, such as rubber gloves, a face shield and metatarsal (foot) guards,” he says. 

Gage says putting safety markers on a hose is a great way to alert an operator that the head is about to emerge from a pipe.

“We put a 15-foot section of red hose on the end, so when operators see this different-colored hose (most jetting hoses are black) coming out, they know the end of the hose is close.”

Get the Picture

Before you start jetting, it helps to inspect a drainline with a camera to get the lay of the land.

“If you camera the line, you know what you’re getting into,” Gage says. “If you’re unknowingly jetting a damaged pipe, you could get your nozzle stuck, which could require cutting the hose and then digging out the nozzle.”

While a blockage may eventually stop your camera’s travels, videoing the line could at least reveal unexpected 45- and 90-degree bends and Y-branches. Or a rusted-out section of pipe that could damage your jetter head, Gilbert says.

“You need to know where you’re going,” Gage adds. “You could hit a Y-branch and go off somewhere unexpected. I’ve seen guys start jetting … and all of a sudden the nozzle is coming out of a roof vent.”

Use the Right Nozzle

Always use a nozzle that’s appropriately sized for the diameter of pipe you’re jetting and designed to resolve the problem you’re facing (cutting tree roots or breaking through grease clogs, for example). It’s best to start with a smaller penetrating nozzle and then go to a larger cleaning nozzle, also known as a flushing nozzle.

“If you can’t camera a line before you go in, you don’t want to use a big nozzle because if it gets into debris, you don’t want it to get stuck,” Gilbert says. “You want to feel the line. When you hit a dead end or debris, you’ll know it.”

Furthermore, using a nozzle head that’s much smaller than the pipe diameter greatly increases the risk of the hose twisting up, which can cause serious injuries if the head emerges from the pipe under pressure.

“It’s like a coiled cobra — very dangerous,” Gilbert says. “Use a nozzle extension, which keeps the nozzle rigid so it doesn’t come back at you.”

Don’t Go With the Flow

Whenever possible, work upstream first, against the flow of wastewater, then pull debris back downstream, Gage and Gilbert advise. That way, water emerging from the nozzle tips will flow downstream. If you do it the other way around, the water from the jetter will start to fill up the pipe (at least until you pierce the blockage).

That’s usually a risky situation because when the water in a sewer line has nowhere else to go, it may move down into service lines and come up through toilets in nearby houses.

Start Slow to Go Fast

Gage and Gilbert say it’s better to start jetting at a lower water pressure. That may sound counterintuitive to an inexperienced operator; after all, won’t more pressure get the job finished faster? Not necessarily, Gilbert says.

“Take tree roots, for example, which are like spaghetti noodles,” he says. “They dangle down and if you pass through quickly, they’ll fold up, then drop down again, uncut. So it’s better to go slower — give the nozzle a chance to do its job. Too many contractors have it burned in their brains that time is money. But to do a thorough job, you have to take your time.”   

In addition, working at a lower pressure will conserve water, which will allow you to work longer on a clog, if needed, Gage adds. 

“You don’t need high pressure all the time,” he says.

Get a Clue

Knowing what kind of debris you might encounter can dictate how you jet a line. For example, if you’re pulling back rocks in a 300-foot stretch of pipe, it’s better to work in shorter, 100-foot bursts than to try to jet the whole line in one pass, Gage says.

“If you’re pulling out rocks, they can wedge in the pipe and lock in like a jigsaw puzzle and prevent the nozzle from coming out,” he says. “So it’s better to go 100 feet, pull it out, go in 200 feet, pull it out, and so forth. That way you won’t be trying to pull out all of the debris in one giant pile.”

It also pays to be observant, he adds. If the flow of debris suddenly turns brown and muddy, for instance, the nozzle may have jumped through a hole and out of the pipe.

The Long Run

A typical jetter loses about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of pressure at the nozzle for every foot of hose expended, Gilbert says. As such, for some jetters, cleaning extremely long pipe runs becomes proportionately more difficult the farther you get from the jetter, because the drop in water pressure renders the nozzle less effective.

“You can try changing to a smaller nozzle, which creates higher pressure,” Gilbert says. “Or you may have to pull out and go to the other end and jet backward. That (technique) can work on maintenance cleaning, but it’s much tougher when you’re dealing with clogs.”

Of course, there are many other things to consider when operating a water jetter. But overall, Gage says that operating one properly requires nothing more than common sense, leavened with some experience. In other words, don’t commit some of the blunders he’s seen contractors commit over the years, like bypass water safety shutoff systems (which can blow out pumps), bypass the sensor that detects low oil levels (which risks burning up the engine), ignore routine maintenance protocols, or use hoses with cuts in them.

“You can’t cut corners,” he says. “You have to protect your investment.”


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