CASA GRANDE -- In spite of driving around the city at an average speed of 5 mph, Robert Bartelson never wearies of his job.
Bartelson works as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Casa Grande. He's been driving a street sweeper for 13 years and relishes the work.
His days begin early — really early. In the summer, Bartelson is at work at 5 a.m., unless he's covering for a vacationing co-worker, in which case he starts at 3 a.m. In the winter, he gets to sleep in, not starting work until 6 a.m. Daylight matters when you're cleaning the streets.
Recently, Bartelson covered the downtown route, not his usual route. At 3 a.m. as he headed up Florence Boulevard. He said it was pretty much just him and Casa Grande police officers driving around. Sweeper drivers hit Florence Boulevard every Monday and Friday, starting early to avoid traffic. The street is cleaned from Pinal Avenue to Henness Road.
They swoop in and out of the skinny downtown streets on those mornings, too, including around the roundabout at Jimmie Kerr Boulevard.
Paved alleys in the downtown are also routinely swept.
"The business owners seem to really appreciate that," Bartelson said.
"Once people are coming to work and businesses opening, the city doesn't want us downtown in the sweeper," Bartelson said.
The downtown streets challenge the drivers, he said, because there are tight turns and decorative tree planters that extend into the streets. But, Bartelson enjoys mixing it up and getting as close as possible to the barriers so the downtown streets sparkle when he leaves.
Once finished downtown, he headed into a residential neighborhood, where the sweeper sucked up leaves, a bit of trash that had blown in and plenty of dirt from earlier wind storms.
By the end of his Friday shift, Bartelson had cleaned about 32 miles of streets. He logs the sweeper's mileage at the start and end of each route.
City workers sweep streets five days a week, year-round. It takes five weeks to cycle through and get the entire city swept, Bartelson said.
Three city employees work as full-time sweeper operators, but when someone is on vacation, another city employee fills in so sweeping doesn't fall off schedule. They have the city divided into five zones and each driver carries maps of those zones, to ensure they don't miss any streets on the assigned day.
The city has 310 centerline miles of streets. In a year, the three trucks sweep an average of 19,272 miles — the equivalent of four round trips from Casa Grande to New York City.
"We do everything twice," Bartelson said. That allows the drivers to check if the truck dropped any dirt along its route and to pick up spots where perhaps a car was parked on the sweepers' first pass.
It pays off, he said. "We rarely get called back on complaints."
Besides their weekly routines, sweeper drivers are on call to assist the fire and police departments with emergency calls.
"I had to sweep up a bucket of nails that fell off a truck once," he said. "The sweeper pulled them right up, but I had nails in my tires for weeks."
The primary purpose for sweeping streets, he said, is drainage. If the curbs are kept free of debris, when monsoon rains hit, the water moves better through the city and less flooding occurs at intersections.
The second reason is beautification — keeping Casa Grande looking grand.
The current fleet of sweepers — Elgin Broom Bears — "are workhorses," Bartelson said. Besides the three sweepers that run every day, the city has an older sweeper which is used as a backup unit in case an Elgin has to go to the shop.
Workhorses indeed, but they have a top speed of about 55 mph. Since they rarely are driven on a highway, that's not really a problem, he said.
Each sweeper can load up 3 cubic yards of dirt and trash before it has to be emptied. Typically, Bartelson has to empty the truck about three times per shift, but has had to empty seven times in one day. The dirt literally piles up. The city has multiple off-load sites scattered around on city property so the drivers don't have to drive all the way across town to empty their trucks.
Each sweeper also carries 350 gallons of water, which sprays out when the brooms are swirling. Like trash dump sites, there are several places around the city to refill the water tanks. In some cases, drivers fill from fire hydrants. All of that is recorded and the water usage reported to Arizona Water Co.
A tank of water is generally depleted every 90 minutes, so filling up is a regular part of the drivers' days.
At the end of each shift, the drivers go to the city yard and spray their truck's brooms and hopper and do a visual inspection to make sure no parts got damaged on the route.
Arizona's monsoon season is perhaps the toughest time for sweepers, because there's extra dirt blowing in almost daily.
If it actually rains a lot on any given day, the sweepers may not run full routes, Bartelson said. On those days, the drivers perform routine maintenance on their rigs. There's plenty of maintenance to be done. A gutter broom lasts only about a week and a half, he said, and has to be changed out by the driver that often. The main broom, on the back of the truck, lasts about six weeks.
The city's public works staffers have aligned sweeping schedules to be opposite garbage and recycling pickup days as often as possible. That way, the sweeper drivers don't have to move the containers or swerve around them to clean up streets.
Bartelson enjoys cleaning residential neighborhoods, where he can check out the way people landscape their yards or decorate for the holidays.
And, he likes getting to know some of the people on his routes, even if it's mostly just waving to them when they're in their yards or driveways.
"The residents of Casa Grande are really nice to the people who work for them," he said. "I've had people bring me a soda pop or a bag of peppers or onions from their garden."
He's kept an eye out for missing dogs or cats when asked by people. And, more than once he's called the city's animal control staff to pick up packs of dogs running loose.
"We're the eyes and ears of Casa Grande out here," Bartelson said.
He says he's never swept up anything too crazy, but the brooms have grabbed plenty of tools that fall into streets.
"We can get a tool box of tools from the hopper," he said.
Bartelson worked at other city jobs for five years before he started driving a street sweeper. He remembers well his first day on the job when he met the guy who drove the street sweeper. At that time, there was only one sweeper operator in Casa Grande.
"I said, 'that's the job I want to do,'" he said. "But everyone told me there was only one sweeper and no one ever quits that job, so I'd never get it. But, here I am, driving a street sweeper.
He pans the people who tell him they don't know how he can do the job he does, claiming it must be boring because it's repetitive.
"It doesn't get boring to me. I love this job. It's the best job, by far, I've ever had."