Acing it in Oklahoma

Strong skills, preventive maintenance and good planning lead to success at the Coffee Creek treatment plant in Edmond
Acing it in Oklahoma
Sand-anthracite filters provide effluent polishing at the Coffee Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

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The Coffee Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in Edmond, Okla., has had near-perfect compliance in 38 years and has won several awards, most recently 2010 Large Wastewater Plant of the Year from the Oklahoma Water and Pollution Control Association (OWPCA).

It all has happened with a staff of five, despite rapid population growth, several upgrades, and various episodes with collection system inflow and infiltration. “When you have only five staff, you have to focus on working smarter, not harder,” says Fred Rice, water resources superintendent for the city. This means preventive maintenance, SCADA monitoring of critical alarms, and ongoing equipment and safety training.

It’s also a matter of teamwork. Kris Neifing, chief plant operator, hired in 2004, supervises two operators, a maintenance specialist and a lab technician and is also responsible for one lift station at the plant and nine lift stations located throughout the collection system.

Rice credits Neifing and his staff for the plant’s track record. “Kris has really pulled everyone together as a team,” he says. “All the credit for what we’ve achieved in the last six years is due to Kris and his staff. My role is like coaching a sports team. You can coach them, but the team executes the plays.”

Says Neifing, “What makes us successful is that everybody has different skills that collectively make us the best we can be. Some are better at maintenance while others prefer operations. We believe that no one knows how to do their jobs better than the ones who do it every day.”

Built in stages

Started up in 1972, the Coffee Creek plant now has a 9 mgd design flow (7.18 mgd average) and serves a population of 80,000. The plant was built in three phases. Phase 1 was a two-stage nitrification system with two primary aeration basins (Philadelphia Mixing), each followed by an Infilco clarifier and two secondary aeration basins, in turn followed by clarifiers. Phase 2 in 1987 added two oxidation ditches and two clarifiers (Lakeside). Phase 3 added identical equipment again in 1994.

Plant and system upgrades have replaced old programmable logic controllers and floats at all nine system lift stations and at the plant lift station with MultiSmart Pump Station Manager units, manufactured by MultiTrode. These provide level control and remote telemetry capability, and phase monitoring of lift station motors. In addition, the Phase 2 treatment train has been rehabilitated, including clarifier structural steel painting, weir replacements and rotor resurfacing.

In today’s configuration, raw wastewater passes through a Dresser mechanical bar screen and a Parkson fine screen, then to aeration basins. From there, the water goes to the clarifiers and then to a secondary aeration basin.

After final clarification, the effluent is polished with one of eight General Filter (Siemens) sand-anthracite filters, then disinfected with chlorine gas and dechlorinated with Wallace & Tiernan (Siemens) sulfur dioxide gas equipment. The plant’s permit requires chlorination/dechlorination between May and September, when the receiving water, Coffee Creek, is used for recreation. Biosolids are treated in three facultative lagoons for one to two years before application to farmland.

Focus on prevention

Neifing’s team consists of lab technician Brian Green, hired in 2003; Tony Henderson, plant operator, hired in 1999; Gary Langley, plant mechanic, hired in 1992; and Bryan Mitchell, plant operator, hired in 2006.

All hold certifications in wastewater works operations and wastewater works lab operations. Neifing is a member of the Water Environment Federation and is the wastewater advisory chairperson and District 1 director for the OWPCA.

Being certified in both wastewater and lab operations means anyone can step into a given job if necessary. “Everyone can do everyone else’s job,” says Neifing. “Everyone has been in everyone else’s shoes. And I have, too. I’m very much a working supervisor.”

There’s a simple reason such a small staff can accomplish so much in one 8-hour operating shift: “Good maintenance practices,” says Neifing. “We don’t run something until it breaks down. We replace it so we don’t have a major problem down the road.”

Besides maintaining the equipment, the staff is responsible for keeping the plant clean. Heavy maintenance and mechanical work is contracted out, as is mowing of the plant’s 40 acres.

An operator is on call during the 16 hours a day when the plant is unstaffed. “We monitor the lift stations 24 hours a day with SCADA, and we use radio telemetry rather than phone lines, using Wonderware (Invensys Operations Management) software,” says Neifing. “We pre-program certain alarm conditions. Critical alarms are auto-dialed out, and the plant’s on-call staff member responds in 30 minutes or less.”

While preventive maintenance is important, Neifing also stresses training. Every Monday the team holds a safety meeting where general safety training is provided. “The city’s risk management department also does more formal training,” says Rice. “They are a separate authority from the plant and can stop work if they feel unsafe practices are going on. I feel that it’s good to have an unbiased set of eyes.”

Rice and Neifing arrange for or conduct training on new equipment at the plant, and they also take advantage of vendor training. “We make sure our vendors have a service center within 100 miles of us,” Neifing says. “That is a criterion we look for when specifying large equipment purchases.”

Diligent planning

Rice believes diligent planning is essential in maintaining good performance. After being hired in 2003, Rice put together a housekeeping plan and a maintenance plan. Neifing and his team also developed a wet-weather operations plan.

Says Rice, “You can mitigate odor control issues, for example, with good housekeeping. Keeping plant areas clean of accumulated sludge helps prevent odor potential. Ensuring proper system operation, such as maintaining a clean-water cap on solids treatment lagoons, also helps mitigate odor.” There is a subdivision half a mile from the facility, but yet odor complaints from neighbors are rare.

The wet-weather operations plan helps the plant manage I&I from above-average rainfall. “Oklahoma is a weird-weather state,” says Rice. “You can go from drought to floods relatively quickly. We do contingency planning for whatever may come at us.”

When the plant experiences high flows from I&I, the operators shut down the aeration equipment. This allows the heavy solids comprising the mixed liquor to settle to the bottom of the oxidation ditches, keeping solids from being washed out of the plant during high hydraulic loads.

The staff also makes use of two flow equalization basins at the lift stations, and one at the plant, to hold the excess water until the flow level recedes and the plant treatment processes can handle the hydraulic load effectively.

Continuous improvement

The plant’s compliance and safety record does not mean the staff is complacent. “We strive to continuously improve,” says Rice. “There is no process out there that can’t be improved, especially on the maintenance side.”

Rice and Neifing frequently attend the WEFTEC conference and other trade shows to check out the latest equipment. This has led to several innovations, such as vibration analysis and laser alignment equipment to help ensure that pumps and motors operate normally with the lowest possible maintenance. Rice and Neifing also read trade journals and network with others in the wastewater treatment business to glean ideas.

“The staff comes to us with ideas, like getting air compressors for maintenance, and suggesting better equipment or ways of doing things,” Neifing says. “We empower them to make suggestions, and we listen.”

Adds Rice, “The city started a program based on the general concepts in the Good to Great book, because we believe that organizations that excel are successful from the ground up. We give our employees responsibility and then hold them accountable.”

Looking to the future

Every year, the city’s engineering department and Coffee Creek plant personnel prepare a five-year strategic plan and budget. That includes decisions on what equipment needs to be replaced. “Our biggest challenge in the near future will be balancing the needs of the system with the community’s growth in a timely manner,” says Rice. “We need to spend money the right way at the right time and for the right reasons.”

The city is now upgrading two lift stations to handle future flows and maintain system reliability. Also in the plans is a headworks upgrade to accommodate a new force main coming from one of the lift stations. That will help in treating peak flows.

Also planned is a complete overhaul of the plant’s Phase 3 equipment, including painting, installation of Stamford baffles (NEFCO) and weir-cleaning devices, motor control center replacement, and sand filter rehabilitation.

The plant is upgrading the SCADA to the latest version of Wonderware and integrating the MultiSmart units from the lift stations into the plant SCADA for real-time monitoring of a wide variety of parameters, including water level, power, flow, and pump status. Two more lift stations will be upgraded in the next two to five years.

Maintaining high morale

The plant has succeeded even in the face of fiscal challenges. A reduction in city sales tax funds, in part caused by a decline in the city’s growth rate, has created a challenge for Rice and his staff in the form of a citywide wage freeze.

In Oklahoma, cities are funded entirely by their share of sales taxes. Plant operations are funded by user rates, but when the general fund derived from sales tax has issues, the burden is shared by all city employees, including the wastewater team.

“We’ve had to look for innovative ways to ensure that we spend the ratepayers’ money effectively,” says Rice. “The Water Resources Department brought in rate specialists to ensure that right decisions were being made when setting rates. This makes the customers feel better and ensures that we have the money we need to maintain system viability and reliability.”

A city wage freeze in July 2010 might have threatened staff morale, but Neifing took steps to head that off. For one thing, he makes sure the staff is recognized. “We had a pizza party after we won the Large Wastewater Plant of the Year Award, and we publicized the award on our website and in the local press,” he says. “We recognize achievements and make sure they know they’re doing a good job.”

There have been no layoffs or furloughs, and none of the city’s upper management took raises. “We lead by example,” Rice says.

The plant also keeps morale high by offering training. “We let them go to conferences and in-state training, and if we can demonstrate the need, we can send them out of state for training,” says Rice. Depending on their interests, staff members are offered opportunities to attend the National Ground Water Association, WEFTEC and OWPCA conferences every year.

“Our focus is always on the staff,” says Rice. “We can have the best equipment and facilities, but the human factor is key and it always will be. No computer can replace a rational thought process from a person.”


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