Eye on the Little Things

Darrin Boyer’s love for the microscopy of wastewater treatment helps translate to exceptional treatment performance for the City of Plano, Ill.

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When Darrin Boyer looks intothe microscope, he likes what he sees. “I’m fascinated by the different protozoa, the population densities, the most prominent filamentous,” he says. “You can really tell the health of the plant. I take a look every other day for about an hour or so; not because I need to, but because it’s really interesting.”

Boyer, who’s been in the clean water profession for 31 of his 50 years, is superintendent of the Plano, Ill., Water Reclamation Facility, a 2.4 mgd biological nutrient removal plant about 45 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Started up in 2006, the plant’s designer, Walter E. Deuchler Associates of Aurora, Ill., won the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois Honor Award for plant improvement projects.

And Boyer, who is as modest as he is recognized by his profession, recently won the William D. Hatfield Award for excellence in wastewater treatment from the Illinois Water Environment Association.

“He’s one of the best operators I’ve ever worked with,” says Mark Halm, project manager with Deuchler Associates. “This was the first biological phosphorus removal plant in our state, and Darrin was very much involved in equipment selection and plant layout. He has a good overall knowledge of nutrient removal. This plant design was done collaboratively.”

Growth spurt

Plano lies in a rapidly growing suburban area: Its population doubled to more than 10,000 between 2000 and 2009. Developers of subdivisions in the city paid for much of the $14 million cost of the plant upgrade.

The improvements included new headworks and blower buildings, extensive upgrades to the biological process, a new secondary control building housing mixed liquor distribution to the final clarifiers, water reuse pumps, plant drainage/scum pumps, the internal return pumps, and UV disinfection. A package treatment unit was converted to an aerobic digester, and the new design incorporated a centrifuge for biosolids dewatering.

The old activated sludge plant had very little instrumentation for process control and therefore very little data collection, historical trending and monitoring capabilities. Working with its electrical engineering subcontractor (Intelligent Design and Construction Solutions) and system integrator (Complete Integration & Services), the Deuchler design firm and the city chose a PlantPAx plantwide automation system from Rockwell Automation. The system features intelligent motor control and networking for better system diagnostics and process control, data collection, and remote monitoring.

Today, about 850,000 gpd of raw wastewater enters the facility through a pair of automatic 6 mm Parkson bar screens and an aerated grit chamber. The layout is equipped with a flow equalization tank and a fermentation process for volatile fatty acids.

After preliminary treatment, the flow passes through a new biological nutrient removal system consisting of anaerobic and anoxic selectors and aeration tanks for nitrification. Treated flow is split between two Walker Process secondary clarifiers, then passes through the UV disinfection unit (ITT Water & Wastewater – Wedeco).

Plant effluent cascades down a natural re-aeration channel. It meets Illinois standards for reuse and recycle, and the flow is diverted to nearby Cedardell Golf Course where it irrigates greens and fairways. Any unused water remaining in the irrigation pond is discharged into Big Creek.

Waste solids are aerobically digested and dewatered to about a 20 percent cake on the centrifuge, provided by Alfa Laval. Contractor Stewart Spreading hauls the cake to area farms where it is spread on land as a Class B biosolids.

The new plant is one of the positive developments in the recent growth in Plano, Boyer believes. “I think overall, the growth has been good, as long as it’s well managed,” he says. “It used to be we didn’t have

enough parks for our Little Leagues, but now we do. If growth is taken care of and planned, I think it improves a community’s quality of life.”

Big change

Boyer prepared well for the changeover from the old activated sludge system that used to serve Plano in less dynamic times. He has spent the last 17 with the City of Plano and holds a Class 1 wastewater certification, a Class A potable water certification, and a Collection System certification with the Illinois EPA. In addition, he has completed numerous training programs with Southern Illinois University, Penn State University, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He attributes his detailed knowledge of biological nutrient removal in large part to special courses he has taken in Colorado from instructor Ron Schuyler, engineer and microbiologist with Tetra Tech RTW (a Tetra Tech company). “I’ve taken half a dozen courses out there,” he says. “Schuyler gives a fantastic class.”

In fact, Boyer could be the poster child for continuing education in the clean water profession. Almost immediately after graduating from high school in 1979 and joining the Plano water reclamation facility staff, he began taking classes to improve his technical and management skills.

“As soon as I was eligible, I wanted to get certified,” he says. “I started taking classes. Our city encourages continuing education, and it has paid off. This field is ever changing. If you don’t keep up your education, you’ll get behind.”

Boyer credits Ralph Pfister of the Yorkville-Bristol (Ill.) Sanitary District for inspiring him, both as a professional wastewater manager and as Boyer’s instructor at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. “He’s heavily involved in the field, and I’ve always respected what he does,” Boyer says. “When I received the Hatfield Award recently, Ralph was in the crowd and came up and patted me on the back. That was fun for me.”

Boyer’s dedication to continuing education has paid off in improved operations at his treatment plant, and it has earned him the admiration of his colleagues. “Darrin is very knowledgeable, especially about anything that’s new,” says Don Lawyer, operator at Plano, who has worked with Boyer for nine years. “He worked closely with our design engineer to make sure we got the plant we needed to meet the phosphorus limits.”

Lawyer says another of Boyer’s strengths is his interaction with the city and town board, and his communication with his staff. “He makes sure we get what we need,” Lawyer says. “And he makes sure everyone knows what’s going on. We’re a small staff, and everyone knows how to do everyone’s job.Further, Darrin’s not afraid to get out there and get dirty. He’ll jump right in there with you.”

Solids handling operator and maintenance specialist Don Haggard has worked on Boyer’s team for six years and credits his boss with a willingness to try new things. “He’s innovative,” says Haggard. “Recently we’ve experimented with the city’s leaf pickup program, mixing leaves with our biosolids in our sludge handling building to see if we could reduce our waste stream and produce a product that could be used as compost by the city.”

In Haggard’s view, that’s the way Boyer operates — trying new things with an eye to reducing cost. “The compost plan is just one of the examples,” he says. “Whenever we purchase equipment, like a large wheel loader we acquired recently, Darrin is always analyzing how it might be used by other departments in the city to save on expense.”

Plano Mayor Bob Hausler appreciates Boyer’s efforts, too. “Darrin is invaluable to our city,” he says. “He’s very conscientious and is always trying to find better ways to do his job and make our city a better place.” Hausler is happy that Boyer is on his team as the city plans for future growth. “We’ve annexed new areas,” he says, “and in order to build those out, we’ll have to expand treatment. Having someone like Darrin on our staff means we don’t have to worry about it.”

Showing the kids

Darrin Boyer’s enthusiasm for his job, and for the microscopy of wastewater, carries over into his efforts to educate the public about clean water. He hosts area school children for tours of the Plano treatment plant. Using the microscope, he shows them the workings of biological treatment and helps them understand the natural processes that protect the area’s environment.

“We have been doing this program for about 10 years now,” Boyer says. “Nine fifth-grade classes visit the facility every year. It’s during a time when their studies are involved in working with microscopes. The students and teachers are amazed at the activity they see. I take what I’m looking at under the microscope and project it on a large TV screen. Every year the students and teachers tell me they are very thankful for the experience.”

“About half the time, the students write letters back to me about their visit. The teachers put the letters together and forward them. The students talk about what they’ve learned about clean water and say they’ve talked to their parents about what they saw at the plant.”

Any chuckles? “Yes,” recalls Boyer. “I remember one little girl who wrote to say how much she enjoyed what she called ‘the creepy-crawly’ and how it helped make a nice clean place for the fish to live.” The ‘creepy-crawly’ was a microscopic view of a live rotifer he enlarged to full screen.

Boyer’s colleagues and city officials don’t need to be concerned about having their wastewater superintendent around for the next challenge. Boyer, who is from the area and is married with two children, isn’t going anywhere soon. “I’m comfortable and I love this job,” he says. “The city respects and supports us.”

In fact, as he looks into his microscope every other day, Boyer sees beyond ordinary plant activity. “It’s a window to the future of your plant,” he says. “The permits are approved, and our plant is OK’d for doubling again when development resumes.”

When that happens, Boyer will be able to take even more pleasure from his work. “I love to be able to see clean water leaving the plant,” he says. “I take great pride in that.”


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