Life Amid the Grinder Pumps: Residents Adjust to New Oak Bluffs Sewer System

By CHRIS BURRELL

A few months ago, Fran Halamandaris might have shuddered at the thought of a family reunion descending on their old house in the center of Oak Bluffs.

Those were the pre-sewer days when folks in town lived in fear of flushing, worried about failed septic tanks and tidal cesspools and the sky-high cost of pumping out.

But now, Mrs. Halamandaris can hardly wait for tomorrow's onslaught of 23 people and the chance to give the town's new system of sewer pipes, grinder pumps and electrical panel boxes a workout.

They just tied in last spring.

"It will be the acid test," said her husband, Paul, who sat on a porch on Samoset avenue reading the Boston Globe, but still eager to join in with some one-liners if the topic was sewage.

"It's a good thing we have a sewer system now," said Mrs. Halamandaris. "Surely, we would have exploded a septic system."

By the time a few more of the Halamandaris clan had stepped onto the porch after a trip to the beach, they were ready for some sewer talk. One of them pointed to the red light atop the massive electric panel box, sitting at the side of their driveway.

"We were afraid that bell would go off and woo-woo-woo, it would be ‘Emergency, Emergency,' " he said.

It turns out that life in Oak Bluffs - one year after flipping on the switch for the new sewer system - is a little more amusing, a lot less stressful and far less smelly.

"For one thing, the honey wagons are all gone," said Camp Ground resident Fred Sonnenberg with a voice sounding relieved. "They used to pump Circuit avenue, and you always knew when they were there."

Another thing smelling better downtown may be the residents themselves.

"I don't know how many times I've heard leaseholders comment how wonderful it is to do the wash and take a shower in the same day," said Bill McConnell Jr., the Camp Ground's general manager. "Now, everybody's cleaner, and their clothes are better, which we appreciate."

Ken Evans, a Camp Ground resident who lives on Siloam avenue, can still remember the day last year when plumber Andy Farrissey hooked up their house to the sewer pipes: "He pronounced those long-awaited words, ‘Give it a flush.' There was this suspense like the space-shot that sent the first man on the moon."

Eleanor Hohenthal said the difference is enormous. "It's nice to be able to wash and flush and all that," she said.

When the septic tanks started to go bad, it meant the end to dinner parties and the advent of paper plates. "It just got to be horrendous," she said.

"You were conscious of every drop you used. We used to water plants with leftover water from drinks," said Joanne Olson, who lives on Siloam.

Now, sewer users are splurging, buying dishwashers and garbage disposals. Arthur Hetherington, sitting on his porch facing the Tabernacle, just beamed when asked about his new dishwasher. "We use it all the time," he said.

Mr. Sonnenberg said Wednesday night that he just finished helping his neighbor install a new dishwasher.

But if you walk around the Camp Ground and the Copeland District, asking about life above the sewer pipes and grinder pumps, not every porch sitter is brimming with good cheer. Still, even while they're complaining, it's clear that the sewer system is like a tchotchke on the coffee table - excellent fodder for conversation.

"That's our green monster right there," said Rick Myers, pointing at one of the town's 42 electric panel boxes, this one sitting just to the left of his front porch on Samoset.

Back on the Camp Ground, Dave Merrill was still mighty steamed about those boxes. "I try not to think too much about it, but those darned control boxes they foisted upon us," he said. "I threatened to paint my cottage that color so it would blend the other way."

Still, you could detect some shade of pride when he added, "That one controls 21 pumps."

Yes, the grinder pumps. If you stand next to one long enough and wait for some resident to do their business, you can actually feel the earth vibrate and hear it hum.

"There's an ultrasonic sensor in there. When it gets to a certain level, it turns on," explained wastewater plant operator Joe Alosso.

How much wastewater does it take to kick into gear? "That varies from tank to tank," said Mr. Alosso.

Over at Mr. Evans' house, all it takes is a flush and a few minutes of the kitchen faucet running. The sound is a harbinger of the season since Mr. Evans - a year-rounder - shares the grinder pump with Mrs. Olson, a seasonal resident. "In the winter, you hardly ever hear it. Suddenly, there's this culture shock when your neighbors come back and it runs a lot more."

All the grinder pumps are shared, some by as many as five houses. The experience of sharing a grinder is just one more way these already thickly-settled residents can grow a little closer to one another. "There's an intimacy to it," said Mr. Evans. "More talking about very private things."

And with a new sewer system, that intimacy can even extend to in-laws. For Father's Day this year, Mr. Evans said his sons in law gave him a fitting gift - a new toilet seat fitted with a hydraulic delay in the lid so it doesn't slam on the bowl when you put the seat down.

"In the old days of cesspools, you wouldn't have invested in a top-drawer seat like this," he said, giving a G-rated demo of the new seat. "But you have to keep up with the technology in town."