How the Times Have Changed: Surviving 30 Years of Modernization

As you old-timers know, there was more bull work back in the old days.
How the Times Have Changed: Surviving 30 Years of Modernization
The Billerica Treatment Plant's current activated sludge diffusion system.

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Anyone first entering the wastewater field should consider themselves lucky if they’re hooked up with an old-timer — someone who’s been on the job for decades and has seen first-hand how things used to be done. These wastewater veterans have witnessed the history of your treatment plant. They’ve struggled with outdated equipment, cleaned up untold amounts of sloppy messes and they’ve managed to stay safe doing it.

I’ve been on the job since 1986, when I started working for the town of Billerica’s wastewater treatment plant in Massachusetts. I came into the industry untrained, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I just needed a way to make a living. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection did all the training back then, and I took my first class that fall. My first assignment was to draw a basic schematic of the flow diagram, but I had no idea what flow even was! At work the next day, I walked through the plant and learned for the first time where the water goes as it passes through the pipes. Like so many other operators, I was hooked on wastewater treatment after that.

We had to manually cover our final clarifier back in 1976. The RAS pump was mounted outside and was prone to freezing. I'd hope this wouldn't be designed again for use in the Northeast.

As you old-timers know, there was more bull work back in the old days — pulling apart pumps and cleaning the volutes and impellers. There was always a mess to clean with those old piston pumps. We wrestled with valves that didn’t work, and we continuously raked the bar racks manually. Our industry has a certain yuck factor, but as treatment plants have modernized, that yuck factor isn’t what it used to be.

Back then, everything was manual, meaning we had to open valves and operate pumps. We didn’t have visual data, so we ran our plant on data that was either one day old or five days old. We used our TSS samples and our BOD5 results to tell us how the plant was doing. Meanwhile, that water had already passed through the plant and — at least in my case — was somebody’s drinking water. I hope I did well!

Our No. 2 primary sludge pump recently was removed from service after 26 hard years.

My plant treated 1.6 mgd at that time. The flow entered the plant and went through a comminutor before moving on to a single-course, 2-inch bar rack. After that, the flow split and went through another 1-inch bar rack and into aeration tank with large hanging mechanical mixing blades. After aeration, it traveled into three circular clarifiers with square weirs located within the circular tank, which was very unusual. As the water left there, it went to chlorination and out to the receiving water. We were an extended aeration plant back in those days, offering very basic treatment.

This is a shot of our filter press loaded with solids, which was taken sometime around 1989. 

Today’s work involves staying much cleaner — doing things like calibrating probes in the field, running basic dissolved oxygen temperature and pH on grab samples. We spend more time making sure our equipment is sending good data to SCADA so we can analyze it and make minor adjustments to our process.

The tools of the trade are now automated. We still have our days when we get dirty, but they’re fewer and further between. Manufactures are designing efficient equipment that’s easy to work on, and it’s connected to SCADA so we can see any problems.

While I’ve been at the same location for almost 30 years, it’s definitely not the same wastewater plant. I’ve been here for all the upgrades. I’ve watched the pipe go into the ground and I’ve seen how things are connected. It has given me a good understanding of how to direct or redirect flow patterns in the plant.

I watched as my small 1.6 mgd plant grew into a 5.5 mgd plant with tertiary treatment. We now have primary settling tanks, new turbo blowers for the aeration tank, density baffles and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) technology in the secondary clarifiers. There are Lutz-JESCO chemical feed systems, a Fournier press for dewatering and the first full-size CoMag system in the world. To top it all off, we have a new SCADA system to help run and manage it all.

This is the new Fournier press that replaced the belt filter press in 2005.

Nowadays, with SCADA involved in so many plants, operators must learn new skills like reading computer screens and analyzing what they’re seeing. Data is now so abundant that we can see issues before they become major problems. We can even access our plants remotely via iPhone or iPad to turn pumps on or off and adjust chemical settings. The list goes on and on.

But no matter what era we’re in, and no matter what kind of treatment plant you’re running, the hazards remain the same. We’re all aware of the dangers of this profession. Operators face challenges from waterborne disease, electrical hazards, drowning, confined spaces, oxygen deficient areas and chemical hazards. Even in today’s age of technology, there’s a need for proper safety training.

Operators nowadays get better training than they did 30 years ago, but it’s still important to listen to and learn from the old-timers. Newbies, the time will come when you are the storytellers passing on plant history to new hires. Stay safe out there and appreciate your modern tools. Keep them clean, and keep your plants running smoothly until the next crop of operators shows up.

About the author
Jeff Kalmes is a Grade 7 operator and plant supervisor at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the 2008 NEWEA Public Educator Award, the 2011 WEF National Public Educator Award and the 2015 NEWEA Operator of the Year Award. You can reach him at


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