MAYODAN — The Rev. John Atkins loaded every electrical outlet in his sanctuary with Glade Plug-Ins, but the heavy perfume of air fresheners did little to mask the smell of raw sewage.
The church stank to high heaven, you might say.
That was about three years ago at the former Mayodan Pentecostal Holiness Church in the 300 block of North Second Avenue — hollerin’ distance from the square of this small town along the Mayo River.
Atkins, who grew up in the church, had put up with the noxious smell for years, phoning town administrators almost monthly, pleading for a solution to the malodor emanating from a nearby sewer system manhole.
Public works engineers and the town manager tried in vain to eradicate the stench, masking it with an orange-scented product as often as possible. But the persistent foul scent would return in full bloom, clinging to parishioners’ clothes as they filed in for Sunday worship.
“We contacted the town and the state. … I mean it was like you were smelling raw sewage,’’ Atkins said. “I literally had people tell me that they were going to have to stop coming to the church because of the smell.”
Enter the soap-maker
Around the same time, local soap manufacturers realized 30,000 gallons of their biodegradable cleaner had degraded slightly and wasn’t up to standard to go on store shelves.
Warehoused too long, the 15 tons of environmentally friendly Charlie’s Soap was just a touch “off” during quality control inspection, said one of the corporation’s owners, James Sutherland.
“I had all of this product to give away, so I went to the town of Mayodan,” Sutherland said of the hundreds of gallons of cleaner he donated to the town.
With the all-natural product, city workers lathered down the town. They soaped up municipal cars, power-washed sidewalks and buildings, and shampooed every surface they could find.
Six months later, Mayodan still had suds to spare.
“They called me and said, ‘We are going to dump it down the drain. Is that OK?’ ” Sutherland said.
The plan was perfectly safe. The cleaning solution’s ingredients are nontoxic and biodegradable, and Mayodan had a target in mind — the offensive manhole on Second Avenue by the church.
Utility workers poured a 55-gallon drum of liquid Charlie’s Soap into the sewer system at a lift station located a few miles above Mayodan, hoping that as the soap flowed downhill into town it would stanch the stench.
And it did. For six straight weeks.
Next, workers added 35-gallons to the system and saw the smell neutralized for three weeks.
From there, they measured the amount poured in the sewer system until refining the daily dose needed.
“After over two years of testing, they found it was one gallon a day keeps the smell away,’’ Sutherland said. “So there’s 14,000 gallons of water that’s running through this line, and one gallon of Charlie’s Soap added per day, or seven gallons a week, will keep the smell down and keep the pastor from having to call the town.’’
Former Mayodan Town Manager Michael Brandt remembers well the frustration the church and the town faced trying to quell the foul smell.
“While I was there, we were basically testing dosing,” Brandt said. “It did seem to be having an effect on the smell.”
Pastor Kenny Daniels sat last week on the front porch of the parsonage of the former Pentecostal Church. On the breezy afternoon, there was nothing foul on the wind.
His congregation now enjoys the building under the new banner, Redemption Point Church, while Atkins has moved his congregation across town to a new building.
“We haven’t had any problems,’’ Daniels said.
Lifting the FOG
That’s no surprise to Robert Stowe, who is in charge of the city of Reidsville’s water and sewage distribution and collection systems. He began testing Charlie’s Soap on the city’s water treatment system on the east side of Rockingham County in December.
A charismatic, banjo-picking, sewer system aficionado, Stowe said that with the soap, he has hit something of a public works trifecta — eliminating fats, oils and greases, or FOG, as utilities folks say.
After introducing the soap into Reidsville’s pump station in the Cambridge community, Stowe saw a dramatic removal of FOG buildup from pipes and chain mechanisms.
“It seems to break it down and clean the equipment,” he said. Stowe explained that metal labels within the sewer system typically become covered in thick gunk that requires cleaning with a wire brush. With Charlie’s Soap, though, he simply hoses the labels off to obtain quicker critical readings.
“It reduced maintenance on our equipment,” said Stowe, who has used two 275-gallon batches in several of the city’s four pump stations.
He, too, has dealt with complaints about putrid sulfuric odors at certain points along the lines. With the soap, the smells are gone, he said, adding that a pour of 275 gallons of the detergent has kept water free of odor for four months and counting.
Sludge from FOG can cause sewer lines to become sluggish or clogged, experts explain.
And most towns pay for regular maintenance of sewage systems by workers, who climb into the bowels of systems beneath streets to pressure-wash them.
It’s not uncommon for municipalities to also hire “jetter trucks’’ to come in and pressure-wash sewer systems multiple times a year. For even small towns, that can add up to roughly $8,000 a year.
“They could spend $4,000 on my product and put a gallon a day in there and not only do they not have to pay for the jetter, they don’t have the smell, and their workers don’t have to get down in there and do a nasty job,” said Sutherland, who fondly refers to his soap as a “jetter truck” in a bucket. “Those guys could be doing something else for the town.”
While preliminary tests look promising, Sutherland said he wants to do more testing to refine his research about the soap’s capabilities. To that end, he is asking 10 towns and cities to test his product. He has four slots open for municipalities that want to participate.
It’s no surprise that the soap is a formidable opponent of grease. During the early 1970s, company founder Charlie Sutherland Jr., a chemist, and James’ father, developed the soap as a safe agent for cleaning textile machines.
Since then, the popular soap, with corporate headquarters in Stoneville, has become a darling of the green scene, boasting high internet sales and high ratings on Amazon. The products also grace shelves of Whole Foods major hardware chains and thousands of specialty shops across the nation.
The chemical transaction that makes the soap clean FOG is not completely clear to the senior Sutherland.
“I wish we knew,” he said. “We have a different way of putting things together. We solved a problem in textile plants and created a cleaner that would solubilize oil.’’
“I’m just thrilled with the potential of this thing,’’ he said.