A Resurrection

Improved treatment technology, innovative financing and a dedicated team of operators help Chuck Gray put the Mount Vernon (Ind.) water system back on track
A Resurrection
Water superintendent Chuck Gray.

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At Mount Vernon, Ind., the raw water intake pipe was held together with (literally) bubble gum and duct tape, the filtration backwash water went directly into the river, and the city was famous for boil orders, especially the ones on Thanksgiving Day. People wouldn’t even let their pets drink the water.

Correcting it all was the perfect job for Chuck Gray, who got the offer while serving as the city’s street commissioner. “At first I turned it down,” he says. “But there was no one else. I said I’d take it if I could fix everything.” And fix it he has.

Since Gray became water superintendent in 2005, the city has installed new meters, replaced aging dissolved air flotation (DAF) units, and put a temporary intake system in place. Other improvements include eliminating in-plant choke points, installing new booster stations, increasing storage capacity, and identifying and repairing leaks. And the work has been largely funded through performance contracts, where money saved through operational efficiencies pays for the capital improvements — at no up-front cost to the city.

“Call me MacGyver,” Gray says, referring to a television secret agent who could solve complex problems with everyday materials like duct tape and his Swiss army knife. “It seems like I have a thousand things going on at once. I love to fix things.” That included, on one occasion, plugging up a hole in the intake pipe with bubble gum when nothing else worked. “I had a stick in my pocket, chewed it up and inserted it, and it held,” he says.


Old river town

Mount Vernon is one of Indiana’s early river towns, established in 1816 on a bend of the Ohio River. The Water Works serves about 8,000 city residents and a number of customers in outlying Posey County.

Water from the river is drawn into the 4.4 mgd treatment facility. Treatment consists of coagulation, sedimentation in Parkson Lamella plate settlers, flocculation, and filtration in a pair of Trident units from US Filter (now Siemens). These packaged treatment systems consist of an upflow adsorption clarifier followed by mixed-media filtration.

Treated water is pumped into a storage tank where it is chlorinated and fluoridated, then into 100 miles of distribution piping consisting of cast iron, ductile iron and PVC. Some of the older lines date to 1886.

Waste solids are dewatered in geotextile bags placed in dump containers. The current flow scheme represents a considerable change from the old days before Gray took over. “We were the laughing stock of the state,” Gray says. “We had boil orders all the time. Our booster stations weren’t working. There was negative pressure in the fire hydrants — your hand would get sucked in. This had been going on for 30 years.”

Much of the treatment plant’s problems related to the filtration system, which backwashed continuously — a gallon of backwash water for every two gallons treated. Gray estimates water losses at 25 to 50 percent. “We were putting nearly a million gallons of backwash water back in the river,” says Gray. “It was a nightmare.”


Public-private partners

Realizing the size of the challenge, and aware the city was under orders from regulators to remedy the backwash water issues, Gray sought advice and attended a state drinking water conference in Columbus, Ind. It was a productive trip because he heard a presentation by Tom Hogan of Johnson Controls on performance contracting.

Ultimately, Johnson Controls and the city agreed to work together on the city’s issues, using performance contracting to fund the improvements. “We started talking to Chuck,” recalls Hogan. “We looked at the water loss, the old metering system, the booster stations, the boil orders, and the negative publicity. Mount Vernon had become famous for projects that didn’t work.

“It was a paradigm shift for us because normally, we hadn’t worked with communities with less than 10,000 population. But it turned out to be a good working relationship.” Out of those discussions came a three-phase project, in which performance contracting provided the funding in most cases. Johnson Controls acted as a project manager, bidding design and execution out to engineering firms and contractors.


Meters first

In the first phase, at a cost of $1.94 million, Mount Vernon and Johnson Controls collaborated to replace the city’s entire system of 2,375 meters, install an automatic meter reading (AMR) system, and design and install a new north booster station. “Meters are your cash register,” says Gray. “We had every type of meter there is in the ground, and we were losing money. Now we’re able to spot leaks and inform customers before they get a big bill. It’s been a boon to customer service.”

The AMR system is saving even more money. “Before, we had two guys spending 14 days each going around the system taking readings,” Gray says. “Now, one guy can do it in a day and a half. We’re using a Master Meter Dialog 3G system, with a laptop computer and special radio. Our man drives down the street, locates the house on the map, and the meter gets the signal, turns on, uploads the data, and turns off.”

Each meter in the system can store up to 4,000 data points, providing ample opportunity for Gray and the Mount Vernon crew to track usage over time and see trends. “We can also help customers understand their water usage patterns or resolve questions,” Gray says.

Phase two addressed the filtration issue. Gray heard about Trident clarifier/filtration technology, so he visited two units in operation in Tennessee. “I wanted to see them in operation on river water, because we can experience turbidity swings as much as 200 NTU in a single day,” he says. “I asked them how many boil orders they’d had. They said they’d never had a single one, and we were sold.”

The new filters and the old units ran side by side during the transition, which went smoothly. Phase two cost $5.6 million and included a new clearwell, temporary intake line, and other plant improvements. The city first elected to issue bonds to fund the project, but later refinanced the offering using the performance contracting approach.


Things are better

Phase three calls for permanent intakes, a building for the Lamella plate settlers, and new water storage tank (Natgun, A Division of DN Tanks) and pretreatment facilities. Solar panels will power perimeter lighting, and a wind turbine will help fulfill the plant’s electrical requirements. Costs are estimated at $9.9 million.

When all three phases are complete, users will have seen no increase in water rates. “Through performance contracting, we are able to find approximately $22 million in savings and additional revenue over 15 years by improving the operation of the system,” says Hogan. “It’s an ongoing process, and Chuck has helped us identify these savings. There were lots of opportunities here to make things better.”

These days, Gray and his team don’t have to use as much duct tape and ingenuity to keep the water running in Mount Vernon. “Every day is like Christmas Eve,” says Gray. “The plant is a dream to operate. We’re big fans of the new filtration system and of performance contracting. Using the performance profile, the project pays for itself.”

The community and the news media are approving, as well. “We’re getting good feedback,” says Gray. “Before, people were afraid to drink the water.” When the Trident units were dedicated, the city named the building for Terry Cooper, a forward-thinking water board member, and handed out bottles of Mount Vernon city water for people to drink.

“We had great response,” Gray says. “The media actually came out and celebrated with us. Fixing this water system was huge news here.”


Still more to do

Gray, a family man with children and grandchildren, and an accomplished artist specializing in illumination calligraphy and space paintings, makes sure his staff gets credit for the accomplishments, too.

“We have a really good crew,” he says. “I was able to hand-pick my team. We were privatized for a while, and I went back and reinstated some of the older employees and added new ones.” There are 14 on the staff, including the office personnel. Age is not a factor: A couple of his operators just retired in their 80s.

“Jesse Tron was an operator who retired last year after 40 years,” says Gray. “Roland Martin just retired as an operator; he started with us in 1967.”

And Gray is not through yet. Looking ahead, he says, “If I had all the money I needed, it would still take 15 years. Once the plant gets taken care of, we need to address our water mains. Nobody thinks about those things because they’re underground, but we’re going to have to upgrade the infrastructure.”

He says MacGyver will remain Gray’s patron saint, but Hogan gives him more credit than that: “He’s an amazing individual. Brilliantly talented.”


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