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Meanwhile in Oz: Vroom, vroom - Street-sweeping keeps Monroe tidy
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Picture a commercial-grade, customized diesel engine mounted on a heavy-duty truck chassis with a specially-designed body and custom cab sitting atop four slick wheels ...

"Vroom, vroom," right?

Well, this 9-ton beauty runs at 5 miles per hour.

It's the city of Monroe's vacuum street sweeper.

On warm days since the month of January, the city of Monroe has been operating its two street sweepers. Street department supervisor Tom Boll, who has 34 years with the city and 10 years as supervisor, said the sweepers have already hit every curb in Monroe once. That's pretty good for the first week of April.

Monroe Director of Public Works Al Gerber, who's been with the city for 20 years and has been DPW for one year, said the city has a mechanical broom sweeper, which is used primarily to pick up leaves and clean up peat gravel after street-sealing projects.

The sweeper used to polish all of Monroe's streets, including its beautiful courthouse Square, is a two-engine vacuum sweeper. Several companies offer street-sweeping machines, but the most famous is Elgin, which is based in Elgin, Illinois. Both of Monroe's street sweepers are Elgin models.

Monroe makes a significant effort to give a good impression to visitors and residents alike.

"The street sweepers are valuable assets for keeping streets clean," Gerber said. "They do a good job ... They've become much more efficient over the years and can pick up fine sediment that would have been left behind in the past."

Boll said spring is the one time of the year that street sweepers get a spotlight on them. While they serve a key purpose, many people consider them a nuisance. This is because they operate at slow speeds, drawing the ire of drivers in a rush.

"Our sweepers occasionally get a vehicle behind them that starts honking their horn," Boll said. "If a person is in a hurry and gets hung up behind a street sweeper, I'm sure it can be aggravating. We are doing things as fast, efficient and safe as we can."

Throughout the modern age, municipalities have paid people to clean streets. In the world's largest cities, keeping streets clean is important to public health. Street sweepers removed things beyond today's debris of cigarette butts, crushed cans and broken glass. At the start of the Age of the Enlightenment, street cleaners were paid by municipalities to remove human bodies, dead animals and other such offal. As street cleaners did this job, they were dodging human waste as chamber pots were emptied into the street from homes. Being "in the gutter" was a bad thing for a variety of reasons.

As society has progressed - at least in the modern world - the quality of debris in the streets and along curbs has improved. You can judge a culture based on its garbage. It's fascinating to look at how humanity has improved the street-cleaning in cities.

The first street-sweeping machine was patented in 1849. The first self-propelled street sweeping truck was patented in 1896.

Gerber said the city of Monroe has two primary street sweeper drivers: Eric Wild and Andy Gerber. Two other employees are trained to operate the machines if necessary. If the weather is appropriate, dry and above freezing temperatures, the sweepers are in operation each day.

"It's fairly good duty," Al Gerber said. "It has a lot of responsibility, because you're operating the machine in traffic."

Boll said driving a street sweeper, especially the mechanical broom, is "strange and awkward." The mechanical broom is configured as a three-wheel vehicle, because its two rear wheels are close together like a dual wheel. The mechanical broom is steered by turning the rear dual wheel.

"It's like a backwards tricycle," Boll said. "It is not easy or simple to drive. You have to know the vehicle, keep your eyes ahead and be aware of what's happening around you. You're always working amongst the public."

The vacuum machine has a reservoir for water and a hopper for debris. The hopper may need to be emptied twice or more a day. The street sweepers are thoroughly cleaned after each day of operation.

The city of Monroe street department has more than 20 vehicles in its fleet, from pick-up trucks to two front-end loaders and a road grader. Street sweepers cost approximately $250,000 and are replaced approximately every 10 years.

A street sweeper isn't cheap, and it might not have a lot of "vroom, vroom," but it keeps the city's curbs clean and tidy.

- Matt Johnson is publisher of the Monroe Times. His column is published Wednesdays.