Columbia's dirty jobs: Grease trap cleaner

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 5:01 p.m. CST; updated 11:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Lee, owner and operator of Super Pumper, cleans a grease trap of a Columbia restaurant. Lee opened Super Pumper in 2005 and cleans grease traps and septic tanks of businesses and residences.

COLUMBIA — A 13-year veteran of Roto Rooter, Tom Lee had often dreamt of starting his own business. In the summer of 2005, he did. Lee’s Super Pumper is a business that cleans out company and household grease traps and septic tanks. His territory is statewide, but in Columbia, Lee cleans several restaurants’ grease traps including Taco Bell and Hardee’s. Depending on the location of the trap or tank, Lee uses a semi-trailer truck with a 2,500 gallon tank or a small vacuum to pump out the contents.

Grease traps separate the fats and oils from wastewater before the water reaches the sewage system. Without interception, grease can cause blockage in pipes and pollute wastewater.

Q: Can you describe the process?

A: Lee said the procedures for cleaning both septic tanks and grease traps are essentially the same.

“When I go to them, I pull up, there’s a big manhole lid. I basically back up to it, get my hose out, pull up the lid and it sucks it all out. It’s a very stinky job.”

All of the waste goes to the Columbia wastewater treatment plant.

Q: Why do you do your job?

A: “People with septic tanks are going to continue using the restroom.” And as for restaurants: “As long as they’re open and serving food, they’re creating grease, and they have to get rid of it.”

Q: What does a grease trap smell like?

A: “I’m trying to think of a word that would even come close to describing it. It’s a very distinct strong odor. If you had left bacon grease in a skillet for several days, but worse than that.”

Q: What Columbia restaurant has the most grease?

A: “Great Wall. They have a very big grease trap, like 10,000 gallons.”

Q: What do you like about your job?

A: “I work for myself so that’s always nice. I don’t have somebody telling me what to do and what not to do. Except when I make a mistake and yell at myself.

“I enjoy getting up in the morning and going to the accounts I have. It’s like getting up and going to see friends.”

Q: Does your family ever accompany you?

A: “My children and wife go with me, and friends too ... my daughters love to go. You wouldn’t think a 15-year-old daughter would be interested in going to watch dad suck out a septic tank.”

Q: Have you ever been called on an emergency job?

A: The Holiday Inn Select Executive Center.

“Other companies couldn’t get to them. They called me, asked me how quick I could be there, and I said I’ll be there faster than you can hang up your phone.”

Q: What was the emergency?

A: “Their grease trap line was stopped up and backing up into the kitchen ... It was already partially flooding.”

Q: What might people not know about your job?

A: “Probably the biggest thing is how strong of an odor I can create when I start working. Septic tanks are in the backyard and most people have never opened it or looked in it. Most people don’t know what to expect.”

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Mark Foecking November 9, 2007 | 5:43 a.m.

I've seen him work.

I used to clean the grease trap at an Italian restaurant I worked at. The one with all the palmetto bugs. I know that exact odor, especially on a hot Florida afternoon in July.


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