Little District That Could

With 10 operators to serve 12,000 accounts, an award-winning South Carolina district succeeds with cross-training, advancement opportunities, and high morale
Little District That Could
Rasco updates the safety chart displayed prominently in the Powdersville offices. Safety is a high priority for the district’s entire team.

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Powdersville Water District superintendent Chris Rasco easily sums up the philosophy that has won excellence awards for the district and its employees.

“We’re in business to provide safe, potable water service to our customers,” he says. “We take pride in what we do, and we understand that we hold the lives of our community in our hands.”

Twenty-one staff members, just 10 in the operations division, serve 12,000 customer accounts in this rapidly growing South Carolina district. Powdersville succeeds with a strong work ethic, a desire to be the best, and a training budget that promotes employee development. “We consider our employees to be our number one asset and a key to our overall success,” says Rasco.

 

Purchased water

Powdersville is in the northwest corner of the state, in a protected watershed in the Appalachian Mountains. Formed in 1971, the district purchases drinking water from the Anderson Regional Joint Water System (ARJWS), Easley Combined Utilities and Greenville Water.

All three providers treat the water with conventional filtration: coagulation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. The Powdersville District collects bacterio-logical samples throughout the system, analyzes the samples in a private certified laboratory and routinely provides water-quality reports to its customers.

The district’s operations and customer service divisions serve a total of 35,000 people. Distribution operators are responsible for a 410-mile pipe network that spans portions of Anderson and Pickens Counties.

 

Varied workload

Besides superintendent Rasco, the operations staff includes assistant superintendent Donnie Nabors, compliance specialist Justin Clemones, Class D operators Stan Johnson, Brannon Bridges and J’Tem Bush, operator trainees Levi Owens and Paul Richardson, and meter technicians/operators Todd Dennis, BJ Alexander and Chris White.

The operators work a 40-hour week with 24-hour on-call rotation. On a typical day, Rasco holds a morning department meeting to discuss any customer calls or emergencies that came in overnight, any work that needs follow up and the day’s schedule. He also provides a routine safety reminder. Operators are then deployed throughout the system.

“We continually repair and replace portions of the system that are aging or are trouble spots,” says Rasco. “Our capital improvement plan is updated annually and has greatly improved our system. In fact, improvements have exceeded $5 million over the past four years.”

Clemones and Owens handle regulatory compliance and water-quality issues, dealing with quality management and sampling, system pressure management, fire hydrant testing, cross-connection control, valve maintenance, GIS mapping updates, and meter calibrations. “There is always plenty to do, and our workload varies each day, so we never get bored,” says Rasco.

 

Chance for advancement

Operators are cross-trained in all tasks so that if one of them is out, another can fill in. Cross-training is done in-house, and team members receive hands-on training and through organizations such as the South Carolina AWWA section, the South Carolina Rural Water Association, local technical schools, equipment vendor representatives, and other utilities.

“We budget for education and training for each employee every year,” says Rasco. “We measure the success of cross-training by the individual’s performance. If I send an operator out to perform a task and it is completed correctly, timely and consistently, then I feel we invested our money well.”

The district encourages employees to continue their education and offers tuition reimbursement. Employees can advance by on-the-job training and continuing education classes that prepare them to pass their next level of distribution licensing.

 

High morale

The Powdersville staff members work as a team and are quick to help one another and fill in if a team member has a family emergency or illness. “We are a tight-knit team, and we understand that situations will arise that require unplanned time away from work,” says Rasco. “Morale is always high because we care about one another. Staff members even go fishing and hunting together on weekends.”

Turnover is almost non-existent unless someone retires, and there has been very little turnover in the seven years since Rasco was hired. It wasn’t always this way. “In 2004, the board brought in general manager Dyke Spencer from a larger water company,” says Rasco. “He brought experience and a vision for the future that developed the district from a small rural water company to one that operates like a mid-sized utility.”

The district has upgraded the water system, enhancing daily operations and improving system pressures and storage capacity. Upgrades include:

• New water mains in 2000 and 2002

• New booster pump station in 2003

• Million-gallon ground storage tank in 2003

• Million-gallon elevated tank in 2010

• SCADA system overhaul in 2010

• Three system pressure zones in 2010

• Continual piping upgrades through a capital improvement plan

 

Learning new skills

In 2008, the district completed an initiative to replace more than 9,000 manually read meters as part of an automated meter reading (AMR) program. Training gave the operators an intimate working knowledge of the new system so that they could troubleshoot and repair it in-house without relying on the manufacturer. The system ultimately saved the district more than $500,000 in labor.

On rainy days, the operators assembled meters and meter transceiver units. “We had performed the changeouts piecemeal over the years, but we finally bit the bullet and borrowed money from the State Revolving Fund to finish the project, which took about a year and a half,” says Rasco.

Once completed, the AMR program allowed the district to switch from bimonthly to monthly billing. “It used to take five or six of our employees all week to read the meters, and on many occasions we would have to work weekends just to get the meters read by the billing deadline,” says Rasco. “The AMR has freed up their time to do other tasks.”

The meters are now read by a radio and computer located in a truck. What used to take at least five days of reading by hand now takes two meter technicians one day.

 

Giving back

While always honing its operations, the district is glad to contribute to the larger community. Local schools sometimes ask the district for speakers to tell middle and high school students about the water industry. In addition, district employees attend local school career days.

“We have a series of presentations, such as AWWA’s ‘How Water Works,’ to demonstrate the variety of career paths possible in the water business,” says Rasco. “There are many people out there who don’t know that you can have a successful career in a variety of different paths within a water utility.”

The district also encourages young people to sit in on board meetings to learn about what’s going on. For example, members of the local Boy Scout troop attend board meetings to earn credit toward merit badges.

Besides emphasizing public service, Rasco stresses that employees should understand their jobs, enjoy what they do, and take care of their co-workers. “We can get the job done quicker and safer knowing that we all understand our responsibilities and are watching each other’s backs,” he says. “We all want to see each other again tomorrow.”



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