Lexington's street sweepers keep roads free from dirt, dead skunks and $50 bills

Holland Buck, a street sweeper driver with Lexington's Streets and Roads Department, refilled his truck with water from a fire hydrant recently near the Clays Mill area.
Holland Buck, a street sweeper driver with Lexington's Streets and Roads Department, refilled his truck with water from a fire hydrant recently near the Clays Mill area. Herald-Leader

It is 8:30 a.m. on a moist sunny morning in July — time to climb up into the cabin of the street sweeper and start washing and vacuuming the gunk off Lexington's streets.

It's not just dirt, of course. There are rocks, discarded chip bags and grass clippings blown out into the streets by those heedless about the capacity of sewers.

The goal of the street sweeper is to clean the streets so they are less cluttered and fewer pounds of waste seep into the sewers. Occasionally there is a briefcase, a camera, a wallet, a driver's license — anything "from $50 bills to dead skunks," street sweeping supervisor Ken Kelleysaid .

You might not give much thought to the city's 10 street sweeping machines as devices of wonder, but if you happened to be downtown just after the July 4 Bluegrass 10,000 foot race, you would have seen them at their best: cleaning up paper cups and other detritus, returning the race route from trashed to pristine within minutes.

When it comes to big-event trash, street sweepers also clean up after home football games at the University of Kentucky.

The street sweeper itself is a machine that appears to have been designed by a giddy 10-year-old. It is, beyond a shadow of a hunk of street dirt, fun to ride in.

The street sweeper has two seats, two engines (one for driving, one for sweeping) and two steering wheels. The driver sits on the right side, to be closer to the street. It has big mirrors and a video camera and huge windows. The street sweeper can drive at regular speeds, but when working, it runs at a speed of 4 to 5 mph, with brushes, suction and water working all at once.

Its 500-gallon water tank is filled by neighborhood fire hydrants, often two to three times a day. The waste collection bed holds eight cubic yards of waste, about 1,616 gallons. A button on the control panel lets the driver know when it is getting close to full, the way a vacuum cleaner lets its owner know when it's time to dump the dusty contents. The street sweeper is dumped at a holding center out Old Frankfort Pike, and then it is sent to the landfill.

Holland Buck, who has driven the street sweepers for 10 years, exits the street sweeper on one occasion to pick up some dropped branches from a tree in the Southland neighborhood and hand-feeds them into the sweeper. A button on the controls allows the sweeper to increase its power to pick up bulkier items, such as small animals.

"It's not as easy to do this as everybody thinks it is," Buck said, one of the city's 12 street sweepers.

Many Lexington neighborhoods are in tax districts that include street sweeping services, but some do not. Regardless, the sweepers operate seven days a week.

On this morning, Buck is working the area around Southland and Stratford Drive, taking special care to clean up the intersection around Rosemont Garden.

Some maneuvers require pulling a U-turn or backing up to sweep a particularly pesky mass of mud or dried-out grass. Some streets are wide, with limited on-street parking, and thus easier to clean. Downtown's Hagerman Court, located off High Street and shaped like a particularly malleable piece of pipe, is a challenge.

Lexington is divided into street sweeping districts, including downtown, Bryan Station/Winchester roads, Eastland, Palumbo Drive and Liberty Road, and the Beaumont center area.

The downtown area gets swept every day, usually in the very early morning. Man o' War Boulevard is swept at least twice a year.

The recent abundant wet weather has left the street with a coating of slippery mud, which is as much fun to sweep up as it is to drive in, Buck said.

"It doesn't want to pick up mud," he said of his machine. "We may have to hit it a couple of times."

About mechanical street sweepers

The first mechanical street-sweeping machine was patented in 1849. The air inside the street sweeper creates a swirling effect and then uses the negative pressure on the suction side to scoop up debris. Sweeping streets lessens stormwater pollution.