Smoke testing causes scares for some homeowners

Becky Vargo • Aug 9, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Smoke coming from unexpected places has been enough to scare some Spring Lake and Ferrysburg residents into calling 911. 

“I was going to start loading my car to go to work (and) the garage was filled with smoke,” Mary Kuehle, who lives on 168th Avenue in Ferrysburg, said Wednesday. “It was billowing up under my car, so I ran in the house and called 911. It scared me.”

Police and firefighters responding to the call quickly discovered that there was no fire and the smoke was actually white, non-toxic material coming through the floor drain from smoke testing. Employees from Prein and Newhof, the Grand Rapids-based engineering firm conducting the tests, were working nearby.

Ferrysburg Fire Chief Mike Olthof said Kuehle’s call was the second 911 call that they’ve had since the test crews started working in Ferrysburg on Aug. 3. The first one was on Riverdale in the Gables Condominiums off West Spring Lake Road.

“It’s better to call and be sure,” Olthof said, noting that he had been notified that morning that smoke-testing crews would be working in the area. “It’s reassuring” to the homeowner to have it checked, he said.

Spring Lake Township firefighters have responded four times to calls for help related to the smoke testing, according to Fire Chief Brian Sipe.

Testing started in Spring Lake Township in early July, and crews have gradually worked their way around the lake and west through Ferrysburg. Once testing is complete in Ferrysburg, the crews will be back in Spring Lake Township.

The calls about smoke inside a home were the result of a cap off a drain or a trap not working properly, Sipe said.

Sipe noted that the fire departments and Ottawa County Central Dispatch are called every morning and told where crews would be doing the smoke testing.

Although Kuehle and her neighbor said they never received any type of notification about the smoke testing, Sipe and Ferrysburg Public Works Director Matt Schindlbeck said every resident was notified through the mail with a postcard in early July. The postcard stated that the testing would be done for each community’s asset management program.

Wally Delamater, the new public works director for Spring Lake Township and village, said the smoke testing is a small part of a three-year, $1 million project in the township. The township’s share of the cost is $105,000.

A similar project is being done in the village for $849,672, but it was started later and is about halfway through the process, Delamater said. The village share of the cost is $84,967. 

The cost of the project in Ferrysburg is about $773,000, according to Schindlbeck. The grant covers almost $696,000 of it.

The majority of the funding comes from a state stormwater and sanitary sewer evaluation grant, Delamater said.

“The bottom line” of the program is to develop an asset management plan, and then develop a plan for repair and maintenance, Delamater said. 

Prein and Newhof representative Mike Oele said the main object of the testing is to check for leaks in sanitary sewer lines outside of the buildings. While the smoke is pushed through the lines, two workers walk around the buildings looking for smoke coming from the lawn or other areas.

Residents should not be surprised to see the white smoke pouring out of the sewer vents on top of their homes.

All of the test information is being documented with GPS settings. Oele said that a report would be generated once the testing is completed at the end of August. 

“We have found several clean-outs missing or broke,” Oele said. Caps were missing on lines in the new subdivision near Spring Lake High School.

Schindlbeck said problems are being fixed as they are reported in Ferrysburg.

Delamater said if the problem shows up on private property, “it is usually your issue.”  What that likely means is that a vent needs to be disconnected from a gutter or some caps need to be replaced, he explained.

Schindlbeck said once the city gets the report, they will review it to look for sags in the pipe, bad pipe and infiltration. 

“It will give us an idea on how our system is operating and what condition it is in,” he said.

Schindlbeck noted that Ferrysburg’s system is fairly new — it was installed in the 1980s — so they weren’t finding too many problems. The biggest problem to date was a 10-by-10-inch hole in a sanitary sewer line on Dogwood Drive, which has already been repaired and is functioning properly, Schindlbeck said.

Crews also check the sewer lines every time a road is reconstructed, Schindlbeck said.

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