Sewage Secrets: Leif Percifield Does Not Like It Raw


Last week, Runnin’ Scared brought you news of Leif Percifield, a Parsons grad student who’s working diligently to develop a phone app, DontFlushMe, that could prevent 27 billion gallons of shit from flowing into New York’s waterways yearly. A lot of this raw sewage enters the City’s harbors as overflow — concisely, when the system gets backed up and people continue to flush. So Percifield’s basic idea is this: He wants to hook up sensors to the plants where this excess travels, that would send text alerts to people notifying them of potential overflows. That way, they can change how they use water, preventing pollution. We had a chance to catch up with the Bushwick resident and chat a bit about his aqueous ambitions.

So how did you become interested in this, er…topic?

I was doing aerial photographs of the Gowanus Canal in early 2011, for The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, and the quality of water became very apparent. It just became clear that the sewage system and actual sewage itself was a real big issue.

What was the next step?

I just started just researching, understanding the issue of sewage in these overflows and the sewer system in New York and stuff like that. My interest was figuring out how I could make a difference — or how individuals could act. I looked at the approach for what it would be like to understand what the sewers are going through and what the overflows are like. I decided to see whether the City had a system, and it became very clear the City did not have a data system.

What was your first idea?

It kind of started with the idea of a sensor in a sewage system. I’d been doing a lot of work with re-programmable computers, and I did some research with how I would connect the sensor to a system. I was looking for a cheap and simple way that could be replicated — something that, if I posted the instructions online, people could buy the parts and do it themselves. I started using these cheap and disposable cell phones that you can buy on eBay for about $10 or $15. They work great, but they don’t work underground, so there’s another model I’m working with that uses an antenna.

Are they expensive?

Originally, I was hoping that they’d be less than 100 bucks, so they wouldn’t be disposable, but cheap enough. After prototyping and dealing with batteries and external issues, it looks like the sensors might cost about $500 each to make. Most of that is actually an extra manhole cover antenna. That antenna itself is about $250-300 dollars, but it’s kind of the critical step to get the information from underground.

What do people say about your idea?

Most people are really receptive to it, because they’ve either heard about the sewer problem or they’re really excited about doing something about it.

How many sensors do you want to install?

I would hope I could do 10. That’s a good number. There are quite a few places around New York that could really benefit from this.

Runnin’ Scared has got to know: What’s it like being in the sewer?

I was astounded by the volume of sewage! It was pretty unbelieveable. There are about 490 of these locations — where overflow is processed — and I was astounded by the volume that just flows through on a dry day.

What’s the smell like?

Surprisingly, the smell is not as bad as you would imagine. It’s very acrid. It’s not as foul smelling.

See any alligators?

I have been looking for the aligators! You’ll be the first person I call when I find one.

What about mole people?

There aren’t any mole people that I’ve seen yet. It’s surprisingly warm because of all the hot water that a lot of people use in showers and stuff like that. If you could find a place that was dry, it would probably not be a bad place to hang out in the wintertime.

And rats?

There there are lots, I’m sure…