Adaptation is the Key to Survival in the Wastewater Industry

Guest blogger Jeff Kalmes offers treatment plant operators advice on staying relevant in the water/wastewater industry.
Adaptation is the Key to Survival in the Wastewater Industry
Adapting with advancements in technology is the key to survival in the wastewater industry. The new primary sludge pumps and caustic pump system at Jeff Kalmes' plant are all controlled by SCADA these days.

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Treatment plants all over the country are modernizing at a rapid pace, and there will come a time in your career as an operator when you must adapt to survive. There’s a real temptation to resist change, but the operators who embrace new opportunities, learn new skills and strive to understand modern processes are the ones who will keep their jobs.

I’ve seen this before. As a rookie operator in the late 1980s, I watched in amazement while construction companies completely changed the small 1.8 mgd wastewater treatment plant I worked at from an extended aeration plant to an activated sludge plant, tripling its size in the process. Since I was just beginning to learn how the original plant functioned, it was an easier adjustment for me than it was for the senior operators. They had trouble with the changes; with the new tasks being asked of them.

There were new license requirements, new testing procedures and new equipment. As if that wasn’t enough, the guys had to switch from working four 10-hour days to working five eight-hour days in order to staff the plant 24 hours per day. The schedule alone was a major life change.

To work the off shifts, operators now needed a Massachusetts Grade V combined license, requiring those older operators to test and move up. The updated plant also saw limits for TSS and BOD become stricter and more frequent.

To add to that, we became a composting facility, which was extremely difficult to manage. There were odor complaints, and we went through many trials and errors with compost amendments. It was 1988 at that time, and there wasn’t anyone to help us figure out static pile composting. Everyone else was using windrow compost. The initial upgrade was completed in 1990, and by 1992 we were shut down from the composting odors. Finding the right mix of sawdust, wood ash and wood chips helped us recover.

We also had to learn about different types of sludges, since the new upgrade had added primary settling tanks and sludge holding tanks. We had to adjust to moving these solids around the plant, and to dewatering. Part of the adjustment was understanding how to blend primary sludge and return activated sludge (RAS) to form the correct blend that we could dewater on belt filter presses. We soon learned a 60 percent primary sludge to 40 percent RAS was the best combination.

The learning process went on for years. I saw operators come and go during that time, and the plant was starting to show its age. Around 2005, we started seeing signs of wear and tear throughout the plant. The ammonia from composting rotted out the compost building and destroyed nearly all the equipment. Pumps were breaking down and we couldn’t buy the parts to fix them anymore. The aeration tank blowers were breaking down from continuous use and were inefficient. The list went on and on.

The next year, we saw even more change heading our way. We got a new superintendent and she started making plans to modernize our aging facility. The belt filter presses were replaced with rotary presses, and we had plans to become an advanced tertiary plant for phosphorus removal. SCADA was installed, and with that came the computers.

Most of the older operators did not embrace this upgrade and interacted as little as possible with the new technology. As more and more equipment came online — things like primary pumps, turbo blowers and a CoMag phosphorus removal system — and programming ran all the new equipment, those operators had to either learn or move on. Several chose to retire, but a few of them managed to hang in there.

Operators at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant in Massachusetts now run two Fournier six-pack presses instead of the single six-pack they ran previously.

We’d modernized to the point where people weren’t needed nights or weekends. Cameras were installed and security gates constructed. SCADA was fine-tuned, and all the redundant alarms were removed or adjusted to correct tolerances. All the off-shift employees were moved to day shifts and retrained to perform all the things it took to run an automated advanced treatment plant.

We had to learn to maintain data points that sent information to the SCADA system. Oil and grease programs were designed and incorporated. A regular maintenance program became a part of our procedure. Later, we even started using iPads when we were on call to troubleshoot and maintain the plant. While we were fortunate to receive millions of dollars to upgrade and modernize, the learning curve of the new plant was extreme, and the change operators went through was dramatic.

I think this type of modernization will prove to be the norm for most treatment plants across the nation. Operators will be required to learn specialized skills that will be mandatory to operate increasingly more technical treatment facilities. A willingness to adapt has worked in the past, and it will continue to be the key going forward for treatment plant operators staying in the industry.

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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