The Life of Poo
January 14, 2016 11:43 AM   Subscribe

The San Francisco sewer system is an amazing feat of engineering. Almost entirely gravity-run, it directs both stormwater and wastewater into a combined system of pipes that flow to wastewater treatment facilities. In the Life of Poo, you can type in an address in San Francisco and see where your toilet waste flows.
posted by parrishioner (44 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
How lucky to live in San Fran and be able to follow your crap on its journey to recycling...Alas, I have but a septic tank and must use my imagination to track my waste products.
posted by Postroad at 11:49 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aren't all sewer systems "almost entirely gravity-run"?
posted by fairmettle at 11:51 AM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh man, so many cheap shots at how human feces is handled in San Francisco.

Why San Francisco Is Still Covered In So Much Human Feces

Finally, San Francisco Is Dealing With Its Poop Epidemic

BART to shield filthy escalators with $12 million investment - the BART (think SF's subway system) regularly has its escalators shut down due to being clogged with human feces. "BART escalators are notorious for breaking down due to an excess of human excrement."

And finally:

The Streets of San Francisco Are Covered in Human Shit

Anyway, nice to know most of the human excrement in SF makes its way to the sewers.
posted by GuyZero at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm unconvinced. I work downtown and most days it smells like 98% of the sewage stays right here.
posted by mikesch at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


It shows waste from my house stopping at the ballpark. I'm sure in reality it keeps going on another half a mile to that place with the big buildings that smell bad and have water-themed tile mosaics.
posted by aubilenon at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


So all the waste from the middle of the city ends up at 10th and Bryant? I mean that's not really that inaccurate if you've ever been under the freeway there, but shouldn't it connect to a sewage treatment plant?
posted by zachlipton at 12:16 PM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


fairmettle: "Aren't all sewer systems "almost entirely gravity-run"?"

We have these Archimedes' screw poop escalators that pull the sewage from the pipes that run under the river up to the level of the North Side so that it can run down to the treatment plant. They live in these little round brick huts along the river trail and I'd run past them for years before I thought to ask someone what they were.
posted by octothorpe at 12:17 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


Here in Milwaukee, we turn our waste into the pride and joy of the Cream City: milorganite.

Every year the city has a program wherein the public can enter otherwise off-limits buildings (Doors Open Milwaukee) and the sewage plant is a huge draw.
posted by Fister Roboto at 12:20 PM on January 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


fairmettle: "Aren't all sewer systems "almost entirely gravity-run"?"

There are also less glamorous pump stations, square brick buildings that tend to be in lower-lying areas that keep the sewage pumping. Unsure if they use the screw based action or not.
posted by k5.user at 12:21 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I work with a lot of wastewater engineers, they are going to love this.

(like proctologists, they are a fun group but you need a strong stomach to listen to their stories)
posted by emjaybee at 12:28 PM on January 14, 2016


How did you guys get your address look ups to work? All the addresses I've tried result in an alert box that scolds me about putting in SAN FRANCISCO address only. I AM!!
posted by danny the boy at 12:28 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


they are a fun group but you need a strong stomach to listen to their stories

The Day I Learned You Can See A Smell.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:34 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Cool site. But can we talk about combined sewers? Maybe combining wastewater and stormwater in a city that doesn't get much rain makes sense, but in cities that do get a decent amount of rain and/or snow, it's actually pretty stupid, because after a good rain, the treatment plants are inundated and simply release raw sewage into whatever body of water they're on. As cool as Boston's Deer Island treatment plant is (really! You can even take a walk around the place - and don't forget to bring a picnic lunch to go with the views of the harbor and downtown), that was only half the battle in cleaning up Boston Harbor. The other half was reducing stormwater flowing into the sewers (when we bought our house, our gutters drained into our street's sewer; when we got the gutters replaced, they made the downspouts drain into our yard)
posted by adamg at 12:36 PM on January 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


Huh. I thought for sure it would end up at Van Ness & Grove.

But in all seriousness, this is very cool and a great way to get people to think about what they flush.
posted by smirkette at 12:37 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


How did you guys get your address look ups to work? All the addresses I've tried result in an alert box that scolds me about putting in SAN FRANCISCO address only. I AM!!


It did that for me when I said "72 Streetname", but when I said "72 Streetname, San Francisco, CA" it worked.
posted by aubilenon at 12:45 PM on January 14, 2016


How did you guys get your address look ups to work? All the addresses I've tried result in an alert box that scolds me about putting in SAN FRANCISCO address only. I AM!!

I had to put ", San Francisco, CA" on the end of my address. I don't know why I had to do this.
posted by zachlipton at 12:48 PM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


The gravity system is great, except when we have a flash flood like a couple of weeks ago and the poo came UP through the sewage drain into my garage. I now own sandbags. Lots of sandbags.
posted by lubujackson at 12:56 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


On a related note, amusebouche and I lived in Scott Kildall's sublet on Mission. As memory serves, our poops were always trouble-fee and comfortably sent on their journey. A++ Would poop there again.
posted by qwip at 1:11 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Scott's a friend and I love seeing his stuff pop up here. I think the last project of his here was the Duchamp chess set. He just got a new gig with SETI.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:16 PM on January 14, 2016


I'm a little disappointed that this wasn't an animated film in the vein of "The Inner Life of the Cell", with the camera following colorful bits of stuff through the system, and dramatic music.
posted by Kabanos at 1:30 PM on January 14, 2016


Here in Milwaukee, we turn our waste into the pride and joy of the Cream City: milorganite.

My Dad is an enthusiastic proponent of Milorganite and got me to start using it, it works really well. However, until you mentioned it, I had no idea it was recycled shit from mid-westerners. I don't think I'll be sharing that little tidbit with anyone who eats stuff out of my garden. "See these awesome tomatoes? you wanna know the secret? human feces! you want some more?"
posted by Dr. Twist at 1:36 PM on January 14, 2016 [8 favorites]


The Water Dept here in SF has a tour once or twice a month on a Friday where you get to visit reservoirs and sewage treatment plants. It's free and I highly recommend it.
posted by njohnson23 at 1:46 PM on January 14, 2016


"BART escalators are notorious for breaking down due to an excess of human excrement."

Public restrooms, public restrooms, public restrooms, public restrooms. More public restrooms. Sometimes people gotta poo.
posted by aniola at 1:48 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


Here in Augusta we are so proud of our wastewater treatment that it it the first thing you see when you fly into our city!
posted by TedW at 2:01 PM on January 14, 2016


Alas, I have but a septic tank and must use my imagination to track my waste products.

I am on septic too, but since I live close to the same river that supplies drinking water to the cities downstream, I am pretty sure I know where it ends up (I drink from that water supply as well, so I am not just inflicting my waste on others).


The gravity system is great, except when we have a flash flood like a couple of weeks ago and the poo came UP through the sewage drain into my garage.

If you don't pump your septic system regularly the same thing happens. In my house a bathtub is apparently the lowest point of egress in the house.
posted by TedW at 2:06 PM on January 14, 2016


fairmettle: "Aren't all sewer systems "almost entirely gravity-run"?"

Williamsburg, VA is so flat (and occasionally below sea-level) that it has a series of lift stations to keep the sewage flowing. I happened to live in the building that was closest to one of those pumping stations.

WANT TO KNOW HOW I KNOW THIS?
posted by schmod at 2:30 PM on January 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


Ah this makes me all nostalgic.

My Dad, a civil engineer worked for the government mostly with waste management. Part of his job was going to dumps and other waste facilities. Several times he ended up combining needed visits with a family holiday when he had to go away from the city. These were mostly camping holidays. One year (I was around 7) I begged to go with him instead of staying at the campground. I wanted to see what my Dad did!

That day we visited two sewage plants and a dump. Got the full on tour of those places including right out on the gangways in the middle of huge pools of poo. I remember clearly that one had no rails! I think the workers thought it was amusing to have this little wide eyed and fascinated yet horrified kid walking around with them.

That was the last and only time I asked to go to work with my Dad. It did give me a great story for my 'So what did you do over the summer' essay when I got back to school though.
posted by Jalliah at 2:32 PM on January 14, 2016 [11 favorites]


But can we talk about combined sewers?

San Francisco's system is not that bad. There is a network of large storage vaults to capture runoff from most storms for treatment. Only large, sustained storms overflow the retention vaults and discharge directly into the bay/ocean (1-10 times per year).

In terms of total pollution, San Francisco's combined system emits less than a separated sewage system because stormwater outside major rain events gets secondary treatment. So even ignoring the infrastructure costs, it's not clear that separating the sewers would be worthwhile.
posted by ryanrs at 2:56 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I had to put ", San Francisco, CA" on the end of my address. I don't know why I had to do this.

Regardless of that, What I want to know is: when you aorked out the correct method, did you feel flushed with success?
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:16 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


In terms of total pollution, San Francisco's combined system emits less than a separated sewage system because stormwater outside major rain events gets secondary treatment.
Yes. Treating runoff along with the sewage is a real benefit... even if, as noted frequently above, it's often a distinction without a difference.

As for the fragrant downtown (FiDi) street drains, it's mostly landfill (previously) so there isn't much slope. Sewage takes it's (um...) sweet time progressing through those pipes. Runoff from rain can only help it along its way.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:21 PM on January 14, 2016


Life of Poo

"Tao of Poo" is funnier.
posted by The Tensor at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


That day we visited two sewage plants and a dump. Got the full on tour of those places including right out on the gangways in the middle of huge pools of poo. I remember clearly that one had no rails!

I was once on a tour of the Los Angeles Terminal Island Water Reclamation Plant. They have a bunch of the uncovered poo pools, and I noticed a few life preservers mounted around the facility. I asked the guy who was giving the tour, "Has anyone ever fallen in one of these?" He looked at me silently for a few seconds and just as I began to think he hadn't heard me, he said "I fell in once." He grimaced as he remembered. "I lost my bearings. Ended up swimming all the way to the bottom before I realized which way was up."
posted by jjwiseman at 4:39 PM on January 14, 2016 [8 favorites]


Scott's a friend and I love seeing his stuff pop up here

For this thread only, maybe think about rephrasing that...
posted by happyroach at 5:15 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


"I fell in once." He grimaced as he remembered. "I lost my bearings. Ended up swimming all the way to the bottom before I realized which way was up."

That is some serious nightmare fuel there.
posted by TedW at 5:16 PM on January 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


BART has public restrooms, but they've been closed for years because Al Qaeda. So we may have to use shit-covered escalators but at least we're safe. "Those who would give up essential Hygiene, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Hygiene nor Safety."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:02 PM on January 14, 2016 [10 favorites]


That is some serious nightmare fuel there.

Just be glad he didn't fall into an aeration tank[PDF]. The bubbles displace enough water* to lower the density enough to submerge the face, and the flow is strong enough to sweep even a strong swimmer underwater.

*well, mostly water.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:38 PM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


... serious nightmare fuel ...

Is this where I do the Cornish Beach Joke? "He wasn't swimming, he was just going through the motions"?

No? OK then. As you were.
posted by Devonian at 2:18 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Working on the control system for a wastewater treatment plant...

Me: Why is the incoming sump filling with reddish water?
Operations Engineer: Oh, that's the animal testing facility up the road having a clean out

I didn't last long on that contract.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 3:36 AM on January 15, 2016


If you've got sewage coming up into your house from heavy rains, you probably don't have a house that is up to code.. There should be a backflow valve on your sewer line to prevent just this. It a one-way valve that prevents anything from coming back in, and I thought mandatory part of code everywhere.

Schmod - where in the burg were you, as those little stations are everywhere.
posted by k5.user at 8:18 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you've got sewage coming up into your house from heavy rains, you probably don't have a house that is up to code..

The vast majority of old houses in San Francisco don't meet every element of the current building code. Especially when it comes to plumbing.
posted by GuyZero at 9:09 AM on January 15, 2016


The Water Dept here in SF has a tour once or twice a month on a Friday where you get to visit reservoirs and sewage treatment plants. It's free and I highly recommend it.

Why.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:18 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Poop there it is.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:37 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Water Dept here in SF has a tour

Cacophony Society did it better, heh.
posted by ryanrs at 2:29 AM on January 16, 2016


A++ best of the web. Thank you.
posted by Munching Langolier at 4:04 PM on January 16, 2016


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