On Top of Ops

Team members at the Palm Coast Public Works Utility Division are high achievers, earning operations awards while providing high-quality water
On Top of Ops
Palm Coast Water Treatment Plant Operation staff includes, from left, maintenance technician Kevin Hollingsworth, trainee Allen White, operator III Tom Martens, trainee Edward Frankie, chief operator Donald Holcomb, lead operator Michael Morris, utility systems manager Jim Hogan, chief operator Peter Roussell, chief operator Fred Greiner, lead operator Ryan Bellerive, and operator III Grant Newlin.

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From placing first in the national Top Ops competition four times since 2006, to implementing a water recovery program, the Palm Coast Public Works Utility Division keeps coming out on top.

Challenges for the operators at the utility’s three water treatment plants include dealing with droughts and balancing the need to supply high-quality drinking water while meeting environmental standards and minimizing costs. Their success comes from hard work, a can-do attitude and supportive management.

Developed by ITT Community Development Corporation starting in 1969, Palm Coast has grown rapidly, with a 2011 population of 77,000. The water utility began as a private, independent entity, but the city purchased it in 2003.

 

The Water Buoys

With the utility division now part of the city, the water treatment operators were eligible to compete in the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Top Ops competition. The Palm Coast Water Buoys, as they’re called, have competed every year since 2004 and have placed in the top three nationally every year since 2005, taking first place in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

The Top Ops competition, held yearly at the AWWA annual conference and exposition, is designed to recognize excellence and professionalism through a contest that lets operators showcase their talents. Since the technical questions cover all areas of water operations and are comparable to a water operator certification exam, the teams have to study and prepare (see sidebar).

“I put a team together in 2004 and came up with the Water Buoys name,” says Jim Hogan, utility systems manager. “We began competing in 2004, and after losing to archrival Deltona the first year, we came back strong in 2005 and won second place in the national event. That really got our confidence up.”

The team’s name made sense, given the city’s location on the coast, the team members’ affinity for boating, and their work at a water plant. “Some of the guys thought the name was kind of corny, but it stuck,” says Hogan.

The competition has helped operators become better at their jobs. “By studying for the tournament and keeping up with the latest technology, I think it has definitely helped me,” says Peter Roussell, chief operator at Plant #3.

Hogan adds, “It has helped us keep up with the latest information on membrane technology, which we have at our plants. We enjoy the camaraderie with the different teams. It’s a game, but everyone takes it seriously, and we are very proud to have represented Florida so well.”

Another benefit is better public relations for the utility. “Our city is very supportive of our efforts, particularly our mayor and city council, which gives us a proclamation when we win,” says Hogan.

Fred Greiner, chief operator at Plant #2, observes, “When we win an award, the city puts a flier inside the utility bill. That helps increase customers’ confidence about their water and the people who treat it.”

 

Best-tasting water

The product at Palm Coast is also a winner. The utility has received accolades for its great-tasting water, beating six utilities in northeastern Florida in 2011 to win the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association Best Tasting Drinking Water award. They also won this award in 2007 and 2009.

Each competing utility collects a gallon of water within 24 hours of the tasting. Engineers and utility operators act as judges, and the winner receives a trophy. So, what makes Palm Coast’s water the best tasting?

“That’s a secret,” says Hogan. “We all take pride in performing our day-to-day activities. The Top Ops team gets all the glory when they win, but while they’re away, the rest of our operators are working diligently to make good-quality water.” Hogan also credits the high-quality water from the aquifers, and the lime softening and nanofiltration processes. “At 33 years, our lime plant may be old, but you don’t see that many out there that look as good as ours, no matter how old they are,” he says.

 

One philosophy

Twenty-five staff members and three water plants, along with four water-quality technicians, meet quality specifications for water that serves 77,000 people over 140 square miles. The source water is a confined surficial aquifer with 39 wells and the Upper Floridan Aquifer, with eight wells.

Each plant has a chief operator in charge of the overall facility and the well field, and a lead operator who assists and is in charge of all shift operations. A maintenance technician floats between all three plants. There is a also a lead water-quality technician.

Hogan’s management style empowers his staff and allows them to excel. “I am lucky to have three highly competent chief operators, and I give them a lot of latitude,” he says. “They have taken ownership of their facilities, and they do an absolutely phenomenal job of running their plants.”

Hogan conducts monthly water-quality meetings attended by the chief operators, the water-quality lead technician, and an environmental specialist, who handles all environmental compliance issues. Hogan is also in charge of water distribution system quality, and holds a monthly meeting with those staff members.

Safety training is a priority, and Roussell leads that effort. “We have a training syllabus and we get everyone together at least monthly to review topics like hazardous chemicals and heat stress,” he says. “We have a good safety record.”

 

Three quality plants

The team oversees high-performing facilities. Plant #1 was built in 1979 with a capacity of 2 mgd, and expanded in 1982 to 6 mgd. It uses conventional lime softening and filtration, along with aluminum chlorhydrate coagulant. Storage capacity at the site is 3.5 million gallons and includes a 2.5-million-gallon ground storage tank.

In 2010, the plant began using ammonium sulfate in the chloramine disinfection process, as it is safer than anhydrous ammonia or ammonium hydroxide. The plant also installed a sulfuric acid feed system for pH control. This eliminated “cementing” of the filters caused by calcium carbonate scale. The following year, the plant installed a PAX active mixing system (PAX Water Technologies) for one of two elevated tanks to enhance water quality by eliminating thermal stratification. Plant #1 draws water from 31 wells.

Plant #2 was commissioned in July 1992 with an initial capacity of 2 mgd. It uses a nanofiltration membrane process to soften the water. New membranes installed as part of an upgrade in 2004 had larger capacity to allow more permeate flux. Plant capacity is now 6.384 mgd.

Since there was sand in the raw water, the plant’s pretreatment system was modified with sand separators, extending the life of the prefilters and membranes. The chemical feed system was modified to inject sulfuric acid at the concentrate discharge rather than at the feed. This lengthened filter runs by reducing calcium sulfate formation and cut costs for prefilter replacement and sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide feed.

“After the improvements, it’s estimated that the facility saved about $100,000 in the first year alone,” says Hogan. Storage capacity at the plant is 2 million gallons, and the plant draws water from eight wells.

Plant #3 was commissioned in June 2008 as a nanofiltration facility with two 1.125 mgd treatment skids. Rated at 3 mgd, the plant is expandable to 9 mgd. The facility started with eight wells. Work began in 2010 on 12 more to add source water production and allow rotation of the existing wells to eliminate over-pumping.

 

Water recovery

The operators’ major challenge is dealing with droughts for much of the year (a rainy season begins in June). “Droughts are seemingly an annual occurrence, and then we get torrential rain during the summer rainy season,” says Hogan. “The drought in 2011 was particularly bad.”

During a drought, the staff closely monitors the well water levels. When the level in a well drops, the output of that well is reduced and it is rested as much as possible. The goal is to keep the overall groundwater level as high as possible to help prevent saltwater intrusion — from the brackish aquifer below, and laterally from the Atlantic Ocean.

Water insecurity led the utility to implement a water recovery program at Plant #1 and Plant #3, and a plan is in place to implement zero liquid discharge at Plant #2. “For so long, people have taken water for granted,” says Hogan. “The droughts in Florida continually stress the resource, and we have to manage that and protect our water sources the best way we can.”

Dan Tomlinson, the utility’s retired Top Ops coach, came up with the idea to produce more water while eliminating waste by taking concentrate from the membrane softening process at Plant #3 and blending it with raw water from Plant #1 before it is fed to the lime softener. By doing this, the plant could recover Plant #3’s drinking water byproduct rather than discharge it to surface water.

The city met with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to discuss the permitting feasibility and to promote the idea; the department suggested a pilot study, which showed that the finished water produced from the blended raw water met all the primary and secondary drinking water requirements.

Recovering Plant #3’s byproduct as drinking water at Plant #1 also supplements, and effectively reduces, groundwater pumping. FDEP granted a clearance for the idea, and Plant #3 started diverting the concentrate flow to Plant #1 in April 2011.

 

Big savings

“The project is a huge success,” says Hogan. “We have eliminated concentrate discharged into the intracoastal waterway, and consequently, we are recovering about 115 million gallons of water a year that would have been wasted. When combined with the 1.2 mgd to be recovered from Plant #2, this results in 1.5 mgd of water recovered.”

Plant #1 is recovering the filter backwash by bringing the settled supernatant recovered from each backwash back to the headworks for treatment. The plant loses about 2 percent of the total water produced through evaporation and water contained in the wasted sludge. The sludge is used by local contractors, who mix it with equal parts of sand and shell to create a road base material.

Plant #2 is developing a method to also recover all of its concentrate water and reuse it as source water. The plan is to treat the concentrate with on-site lime softening and ultrafiltration. Bench scale laboratory tests and two pilot tests were conducted in 2010-2011 to prove the new process.

The project is now in the design stage, and the zero liquid discharge (ZLD) facility is scheduled to be online by May 1, 2013. “This project, along with innovative technology, represents an important step toward environmental sustainability and good water resource management,” says Hogan.

By eliminating the concentrate discharge and recovering the lime-softened and ultrafiltered supernatant, the plant will effectively recover 100 percent of the water. It will enable postponement of additional groundwater wells and will recover 1.2 mgd of water that otherwise would have been wasted.

“ZLD was one of three alternatives that were short-listed and looked at closely for recovering concentrate water,” says Hogan. “The other two, constructed wetlands and an exfiltration trench, both proved economically unfeasible. Fred Greiner was instrumental in running the pilot for the ZLD project and developing the full-scale treatment.”

 

Labor of love

It’s clear that the Palm Coast team members love what they do. “I especially like the fact that we stay proactive in public education,” says Roussell. He enjoys the Job Functioning Program, where students who will soon join the workforce take part in hands-on activities at the plants.

“We let them take samples, run tests in the lab, and document the results,” says Roussell. “We believe public education is key, to give students an idea of where their water comes from.” Says Greiner, “This is the only utility I have worked for. I started as a trainee and worked my way up. I love the education part of it, and seeing how my job positively affects the environment.”

Operator III Tom Martens enjoys the job’s variety: “It’s not the same old thing every day. I might have a problem at the well or the plant itself. Plus, the technology is constantly changing. They give you the tools and the help to stay ahead of it.”

Hogan loves his job of 31 years for the challenge and for working with the chief operators and developing careers. “I have tried to instill a sense of quality and excellence in my chief operators and staff, and it’s gratifying to see them continue this with their people,” he says. “I’ll be retiring in a few years and will definitely miss working with them, but I’m very confident that they will carry on the winning tradition.”



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