Beaver Dams, Culverts, and Technical Communication

Every once in a while, I find a fun example of technical communication “in the wild,” which is to say in an environment you wouldn’t necessarily expect or associate with technical communication. This week, I offer up the YouTube videos of a young man named David whose posting handle is “post 10.” His video narrations of clearing out street culverts are excellent examples of verbal and video technical communication. No, really. Trust me on this.

I honestly cannot recall how I was directed to this guy’s site, but once I started watching, recalling my drain-clearing, mud-moving, water-manipulating adventures in childhood, I found the posts fascinating. Over the course of 10 to 50+ minutes, David talks the viewer through the process of raking out or pulling sticks, leaves, and other debris from a variety of storm drains and road culverts around New England.

Typically, his videos start by presenting the viewer with a drainage problem, such as a backed-up storm drain or a flooded street, and then start moving (video camera in hand) toward the likely source of the backup. He will discuss where the water is coming from, who maintains the drain, how often this particular problem has recurred, and when the source of the problem was last addressed. Then he will put his camera in place and set to work with a rake, his bare hands, or both.

As he’s going along, David explains some of the things not to do, such as standing right in front of an underwater pipe you’re clearing because the force of the water can get you wedged up against it or, if it’s large enough, sucked down into it. David includes a note on each of his videos explaining that while he often does this drain-clearing for fun, he has received actual training in how to do it, adding, “I do not encourage anyone to enter culverts, Unclog anything or enter flooded areas as it can easily become deadly without the proper training.” And while he’s very professional and sure-footed in most of his videos, he has occasional live moments of danger, such as finding culverts full of nesting Black Widow spiders or getting attacked by an angry beaver.

During each video, David will share useful information, such as the fact that storm drains are usually situated in pairs across the street from each other; what types of debris it is acceptable to allow to pass into a storm drain; or how much water a pipe of a given diameter can handle per minute. His explanation of why it’s important not to break down beaver dams in the winter is particularly effective. I am not certain how much of this information he shares is the result of his training (from the Department of Transportation, I presume?) and how much is a result of his own interests, but it all helps put together a “story” about how someone in the (usually state-level) Department of Transportation goes about clearing up a problem that causes a flooded road.

The videos tend to end with water flowing out of an area where water is not desirable and properly into a drain. He will sometimes finish by showing a time-lapse of the video he just made so you can see the overall progress of what he did and compare the water levels before and after he started work. Depending on the circumstances (lots of trees around, angry beavers ready to rebuild their dam, etc.), he will estimate a timeline for when the culvert or drain will need to be cleared again or suggest what might be done to prevent future work like his (removing trees, trapping and relocating beavers, or redesigning the drain).

David is not writing, but he is communicating about a technical process, narrating what he’s doing as (or before) he’s doing it. It’s an effective use of storytelling and could be used as a set of Dept. of Transportation training videos. He almost makes those of us who appreciate the value of smoothly flowing water want to pick up a rake and join the process…but get the training first.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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