So Long, Low Profile

Customer outreach and customer appreciation form the foundation for excellent water operations at Daphne Utilities in Alabama.
So Long, Low Profile
Fluoride levels are checked at the Trojan Water Treatment Facility.

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In some communities, property owners come home from work to find their lawn torn up by the utility department and start searching for the email address of their local council representative.

Not in Daphne, Ala., where customers are king, and the utility makes every effort to be proactive and talk to them in terms they understand. “We’re not here to run a water utility,” says Rob McElroy, general manager of Daphne Utilities. “We’re here to supply water to our customers.”
That’s an important distinction in the eyes of McElroy and his team of Danny Lyndall, operations manager, and Larry English, water quality manager. “Costs are going to increase. Rates will go up,” McElroy says. “Having customers understand and support us is absolutely necessary. We have to communicate the value of water, in their terms.”

Effective customer communications are just one reason Daphne Utilities has pulled in more than its share of awards in recent years, including rankings as one of the nation’s best small places to work from The Wall Street Journal and Inc. Magazine. Other honors include multiple Awards of Excellence from the U.S. EPA.
“You’ve heard the old saying ‘Good enough for government work,’ says McElroy. “Around here, we buck that attitude. ‘Good enough’ is not good enough anymore.”

Boosting Production

Daphne Utilities serves some 11,000 water customers in the city of Daphne and surrounding communities on the east shore of Mobile Bay. It also supplies wholesale water to one small neighboring area. The utility, founded in 1953, is governed by a five-member board appointed by the city council. Besides drinking water, it provides wastewater treatment at an award-winning 4.17 mgd water reclamation plant and supplies natural gas to about 4,000 customers.
Raw water is drawn from aquifers through a network of 11 wells 150 to 450 feet deep. The water is treated in a battery of smaller treatment plants at or near the well sites, and at a new treatment facility that increased total production capacity to 7.1 mgd. Peak customer demand is 6.5 mgd, and average summer demand is 4.5 mgd.

During treatment, lime is added for pH adjustment and sodium hypochlorite and chlorine gas are used for disinfection. At the main treatment and production facility, disinfection is accomplished through onsite generation of sodium hypochlorite (a MicrOclor unit, manufactured by Process Solutions). Metering pumps (Siemens and Pulsafeeder), chemical pumps (Neptune) and chemical feed systems (Acrison and Coffman Systems) support the rest of the treatment process.
Systemwide, treated water passes through several 100,000-gallon clearwells and eventually to the 200-mile distribution system, mostly 6- to 16-inch PVC or ductile iron piping. Two booster pump stations are equipped with Gorman-Rupp pumps. High-service pumps were supplied by Peerless. Storage consists of seven above-ground tanks and one reservoir. A SCADA system (Dexter Fortson Associates) provides automated monitoring and control. About 60 percent of the system is equipped with radio-read metering (Sensus).

Except for a drought in 2006, water supply has not been an issue in Daphne, where average rainfall exceeds 64 inches per year. What had been an issue was production capacity — adequate wells and treatment to meet demand. For years, the utility struggled to meet demand in summer and often saw every well pump running 24 hours a day for months just to keep up. Without redundancy, any equipment issue created an immediate water shortage somewhere in the system.

The utility remedied that over time with a $6 million capital construction program, which included three new wells and the new treatment facility.

Best Practices

As straightforward as the water system is, the management program behind it is deep and comprehensive, reflecting the philosophy and commitment of the Daphne team. McElroy, Lyndall and English follow a structured process in which they envision what the utility wants to be for customers and employees, then give people the training, personnel, support and equipment to realize the vision.

“We’re one utility. We win or lose together,” says McElroy. “In the eight years I’ve been here, we’ve never had a company meeting where we didn’t talk about that.” The key is what the Daphne team calls “seeing The Matrix,” an analogy drawn from the hit movie of that name.

The Matrix is simply the way things interconnect, much as everything was interconnected in the film. Performance at the plant or in the distribution system relates to customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction relates to customer support. Customer support enables proper funding of the utility, which in turn relates to the sustainability of service and performance.

Employees are crucial to success. “We try not to micromanage our staff,” McElroy says. Managers are directed to grant pay raises based solely on individual merit, not by seniority or through cost-of-living adjustments.

“We want to showcase the employees who are doing it right and that we’d like others to copy,” McElroy says. “Across-the-board pay raises don’t do that. We want our people to grow and succeed, and we encourage them to try things, learn things and risk failure in order to improve. We don’t want people worrying about making mistakes. We’re okay with the small mistakes as long as they help us to grow and evolve into something better.”

Conserving Resources

The staff also stresses improvement, efficiency and innovation. “We hate to waste valuable resources anywhere in our system,” McElroy says. English points out that the utility often operates its wells at night to save on peak electric demand charges.

The utility has operated its own biodiesel plant since 2007, making fuel for its fleet and heavy equipment using used cooking oil turned in through a recycling program. The effort saves more than $10,000 a year on fuel. On the sewer side, a communitywide grease recycling program has helped the utility reduce sanitary sewer overflows by 70 percent since 2006.

McElroy believes these measures are evidence of another key to success — understanding the role of a small-town utility and knowing how to solve complicated problems in cost-effective ways.  “We’re self-reliant and innovative,” he says. “A lot of the professional conferences we attend address issues typically from the perspective of a major city. They often showcase big, expensive solutions to really big problems that don’t always apply to small communities like ours. I don’t necessarily want advice from the Donald Trumps of the utilities industry.”

He encourages associations including AWWA and the Water Environment Federation to reach out more effectively to small utilities: “Statistically, communities our size are the most common in the country. A lot of positive results can happen when, collectively, we improve the way we operate our utility systems.”

Centered On Customers

In the final analysis, Daphne Utilities employees and managers come to work each day focused on customers. Special customer service programs are part of it, but attitude and philosophy are just as important. Visibility and open communication are big parts of the program.

“If we don’t communicate with our customers, we won’t get the rate increases we will need in the future,” says McElroy. “We face increasing regulations that will cause us to spend millions of dollars but won’t produce a single thing our customers will even notice. That’s a huge problem that ‘flying under the radar’ is not going to solve.”

The focus on being seen and communicating value led the utility to launch a different kind of Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) several years ago. Instead of a dry, boring document, Daphne Utilities CCRs look like action movie posters.

“Customers can’t help but open it up out of sheer curiosity if nothing else,” says McElroy. “And remember, a CCR that is actually read has value. A CCR thrown into the trash by a customer who can’t even understand what it is has no value and just wastes your money.” Daphne Utilities won an EPA Consumer Confidence Reporting Excellence Award in 2010 for a CCR designed to look like a 1950s rock-and-roll band poster.

“We are committed to being extremely transparent,” McElroy says. “When we’re working in a neighborhood, we have our supervisors go door-to-door to talk to people, tell them what has happened and what’s going to happen. They hand out business cards and say, ‘Call me, I’m here to provide you answers.’ It really connects with people and costs almost nothing.”

The connection Daphne Utilities has with its community was never more evident than when it built its new treatment plant next to the high school a couple of years ago. The utility decided to use sodium hypochlorite for disinfection, eliminating the risk of a chlorine spill or leak near the school. It decided to call the plant Trojan — in honor of the school’s mascot.

More Information

Acrison, Inc. - 201/440-8300 -

Coffman Systems, Inc. - 813/891-1300 -

Dexter Fortson Associates, Inc. - 205/432-2700 -

Gorman-Rupp Company - 419/755-1011 -

Neptune Chemical Pump Company - 215/699-8700 -

Peerless Pump Company - 800/879-0182 -

Process Solutions, Inc. - 888/774-4536 -

Pulsafeeder, Inc. - 585/292-8000 -

Siemens Water Technologies Corp. - 866/926-8420 -

Sensus - 800/638-3748 -


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