It’s an everyday routine. You push the lever and the water swirls down until it disappears. You walk to the sink, wash your hands and return to work.
On board an aircraft carrier there are thousands of Sailors going to the bathroom day and night. Since it is a normal part of people’s day, not many stop to think about how waste processing works, they just assume that it will. But, who responds to the call when something goes wrong?
The enormous task of ensuring the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) has flowing plumbing for its thousands of residents is the responsibility of the Sailors, formerly known as Hull Technicians (HT), who are assigned to the ship’s Habitability Shop.
“We’re number one in the number two business,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Courtney Wanamaker, a native of Rainier, Ore. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”
With 197 toilets on board, and five Collection, Holding, and Transfer (CHT) tanks (holding up to 136,000 gallons of waste), the ‘number two business’ on board Nimitz is an enterprise that requires a lot of work and attention. Not only are the habitability shop Sailors responsible for nearly 100 miles of CHT piping, but also the majority of other pipes on board. They also work on ensuring the steam system is able to get Sailors hot water in order to keep galley food warm and provide hot water for showers.
“Our job involves fixing the ship’s pipes and maintaining the sewage system on board,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Charles Grissom, a native of Desoto, Missouri., “Basically, if it’s a pipe we technically own it.”
Most of the piping that runs through the ship has been here since Nimitz was built 41 years ago.
“Because of the age of the system, if you have a 4-inch pipe there’s probably only about an inch and a half opening with all the years of calcium build-up on the inside,” said Grissom. “So, anything that isn’t poop or single ply toilet paper is going to cause issues.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Toby Martin, a native of Point Pleasant, West Virginia said he was disgusted during his first day on the job when he had to pull hygiene items and paper towels out of a toilet.
“You get over it really quick,” said Martin. “Do I really want to stick my hand in poop? No. But it has to get done for the good of the ship and her crew.”
Many of the jobs habitability Sailors carry out have a high priority because they affect the whole crew and ship operations in one way or another. Sometimes whole systems have to get shut down so that they can repair a pipe. Because everyone uses these pipes every day, they don’t get to rest until the job is done.
“A job could take four hours, 12 hours, or even 36 hours. It all just depends on how big the job is,” said Wanamaker.
A simple clogged drain will take relatively no time at all to fix, while a crack in a distilling unit will take much longer and effect more of the crew.
Because of health concerns associated with human waste, the work area is sanitized with betadine after the repair has been completed. After the area is cleaned, it is inspected by medical personnel to ensure there are no remaining health hazards that could affect the rest of the crew.
Medical department also performs yearly checkups with Habitability Sailors to ensure they haven’t gotten sick and gives them shots to prevent any possible illnesses. Along with the shots and checkups, there is certain protective equipment that needs to be worn during work for safety. Tie-back suits and chemical gloves keep uniforms clean, while face shields and safety goggles make sure the eyes don’t come into contact with any bodily waste. In spaces that have loud machinery hearing protection may also be necessary.
Although they are happy to do their duty, many of the repairs that the habitability Sailors perform are easily preventable by Sailors disposing of things the way they’re supposed to. Anything that isn’t bodily waste or single ply toilet paper does not belong in the plumbing system. Anything other than that makes their job more of a challenge, and keeping trash out of the plumbing also supports the material condition of the ship.
“If people came and lived a day as one of us, I know they would think twice about what they’re putting in our pipes,” said Grissom. “It just makes more work for us when people don’t throw things in the trash or get their repair parts petty officer to get them toilet paper.”
These Sailors play an important role in assisting the ship in completing her mission. They make sure Sailors are able to have access to showers, warm food, and bathrooms so they can return to their jobs and help Nimitz flush out the enemy.