Young And Growing

Troy Bemisdarfer seized an opportunity in the clean-water industry and in just five years has built a satisfying and award-winning career.
Young And Growing
The crew of the Big Bear Area Regional Wastewater Agency treatment plant, atop the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles, includes, from left, Nicholas Josenhans, Bob Sellards, Clayton Hanson, Troy Bemisdarfer, Jeremy Sweeney, Nikki Flores, Robert Schindler, Francis Hobbs and Justin Ploense.

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With a little more than five years’ experience, Troy Bemisdarfer has already made a name for himself at the Big Bear (Calif.) Area Regional Wastewater Agency. A quiet, good-natured 25-year-old, he earned the California Water Environment Association (CWEA) 2012 Operator of the Year Award while still learning the wastewater business.

Bemisdarfer’s determination and drive have gained the attention of his boss and atta-boys from co-workers. Francis Hobbs, a 20-year veteran operator, says, “The kid does real good work; he’s our hope for the future.” Nick Josenhans, who joined in 2011, agrees: “Troy has taught me a lot about what it takes to keep the plant running. He’s made me feel like part of the team.”

CWEA based the award on criteria including knowledge of the job, overall performance, operational responsibilities and contributions to the facility.

Commitment To Growth

Of CWEA’s 9,000 members, more than 5,500 hold certificates. That includes Bemisdarfer, who has California Grade 2 Collection Systems Maintenance and Grade 2 Mechanical Technologist certifications, as well as a Grade 2 Plant Operator license.

“Since Big Bear was my first job in the wastewater industry, I had a lot to learn,” says Bemisdarfer. “So the plant executives sent me to classes and training programs, even to a course at the Waukesha Engine manufacturing plant in Waukesha, Wis., to learn how to be a good generator mechanic.

That’s one of the best things about working here — the chance to grow, build your skills and make a difference to the community.”

Bemisdarfer hadn’t thought much about wastewater growing up in Big Bear, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. In his sophomore year in high school, his family moved to North Carolina, and he graduated in 2007 from Davie High School in Mocksville. He returned to Big Bear two years later and started as a temporary employee at the 4.89 mgd extended aeration treatment plant, which has 15 employees.

Diverse Duties

There, Bemisdarfer and six other operators do just about everything: plant operation, equipment maintenance, general upkeep and biosolids delivery. They share responsibility for operating the plant, and Bemisdarfer takes that on one week out of every month. That entails taking water samples, making sure the pumping system works, checking all the equipment, and generally making sure the plant meets its discharge permit. And, as part of the maintenance crew, he’s responsible for changing oil in the pumps, checking four lift stations, keeping screens clean and other tasks. He relishes them all, seeing learning opportunities everywhere.

“I typically work 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but there’s always something else to do,” Bemisdarfer says. “For example, we have a belt filter press that dewaters our solids, so when we’re running that, depending on our solids level, it can operate 24 hours straight. We send the solids to a compost facility in Redlands. We have a truck we use to do some of the hauling, so everybody here has a Class B commercial driver’s license. It takes about an hour and 20 minutes to get there.”

In-House Focus

Working at the Big Bear plant presents its share of challenges. Built in 1974, the plant uses three oxidation ditches and three secondary clarifiers (all Lakeside Equipment) that the team must maintain.

Raw wastewater enters the headworks and passes through a Link-Belt bar screen (FMC Corporation) and an aerated grit chamber. The water then goes to the oxidation ditches, where nitrification/denitrification occurs, and then is sent to the secondary clarifiers. The final effluent is pumped to a 1-square-mile piece of property the Big Bear agency owns in the Lucerne Valley, 15 miles away in western San Bernardino County. There, a farmer uses it to water alfalfa.

The Big Bear service area includes the entire Big Bear Valley (79,000 acres) and is served by three separate collection systems: the City of Big Bear Lake (47 percent of connections), the Big Bear City Community Services District (48 percent) and the County of San Bernardino Service Area 53B (5 percent). Each delivers wastewater to the agency’s interceptor system for transport to the treatment plant.

The plant team is committed to self-sufficiency and cost savings, for which Bemisdarfer credits Fred Uhler, chief plant operator, and Steve Schindler, general manager, both water industry veterans who are big on training, education and cost control.

Energy Production

As an example, Bemisdarfer points out that the plant has been “off the electric power grid” for the past decade. In 2002, it installed a 600 kW Waukesha Engine natural gas generator (GE Energy) and in 2008 two 250 kW generators (Cummins), all fueled by Southwest Gas. The generators save $15,000 to $18,000 per month in energy costs and give operators like Bemisdarfer the chance to develop new skills.

“We do regular maintenance on them, such as oil changes and adjusting valves, and I’m the one who does it,” says Bemisdarfer, who clearly relishes the challenge. “We also do rebuilds and complete overhauls on the engines as needed, whether it’s changing the heads or putting in new pistons. We tear them down to bare bones and rebuild them.”

The Big Bear team in 2012 built its own lift station from the ground up over a six-month period. Except for pouring the concrete for the wet well, plant crews — including Bemisdarfer — did everything from the wiring to the pipelines to the pumps. Although they hired a mason to do the concrete block work, the operators mixed the cement and handed him the bricks. The result: $600,000 in savings. In 2010, they built and installed a SCADA system, and a few years earlier they built an alarm system for the lift stations.

“Typically these projects are bid out to contractors, but we have a group of very talented people like Troy who can do the job,” says Uhler, who has spent 14 years with Big Bear. “Troy is the kind of kid every plant is looking for. He’s sharp, he learns quickly, he’s a hard worker and he’s very dependable. Other agencies throughout the state come and look at what we’ve done, because we’ve been able to save several hundred thousand dollars by building our own systems rather than buying them.”

New Solids Process

Right now, plant personnel are working on a cutting-edge solids reduction process that is expected to reduce biosolids volume by 80 percent. The process uses heat from the gas-fired generators’ exhaust to heat the slab where solids are dried. Pilot tests achieved 80 percent solids in the material, which is land-applied.

With the current process, the plant would generate on average 2,100 tons of biosolids per year over the next 20 years, or 175 truckloads per year. The new process will cut that to 420 tons per year, equal to 35 truckloads per year over the next 20 years. That sharply reduces truck traffic on the mountain roads, not to mention fuel costs and air pollution.

While Bemisdarfer is grateful for the recognition he has received, he’s quick to credit Schindler as “the person instrumental to our success” and sees him as “the kind of person you want to work for. He started in the trenches 27 years ago down in Oceanside in the wastewater field as an operator in training, and then worked his way up the ladder to become general manager for the last 20 years. It’s great to work for a person who knows the industry, who has done everything there is to do.“

Good Career Choice

In his short time at the Big Bear treatment plant, Bemisdarfer has come to think of water as “a great career.” He tells co-worker Josenhans that this is the right move to make, since water is a finite resource and that people need it now and always will.

Bemisdarfer is particularly high on wastewater, calling it, “one of the biggest growth industries with a ton of room for growth.” He cites Orange County as a community that is taking treated wastewater and putting it back into the water table so that residents can drink it.

Demonstrating his confidence in his job and the industry, Bemisdarfer bought a house last year in Big Bear, about a mile from the plant. As for the operator of the year award, which he learned about at a CWEA dinner around the Christmas holidays, he was surprised, given his relatively few years in the field and the fact that “California is a big state and a lot of people get nominated each year.”

Still, he’s excited about his role in producing clean water — neither he nor Uhler can remember the last time the plant had a discharge violation. “This is a great place to work; we all get along real well,” he says. “I’ve had a chance to get my certifications, learn how to work on the generators and understand plant operations from the ground up. The time has gone by very quickly; it doesn’t seem like I’ve been here for five years. I’m looking forward to being here a long, long time.”  

More Information

Cummins Power Generation - 763/574-5000 - www.cummins.com

FMC Corporation - 866/860-4760 - www.fmc.com

GE Energy - 773/414-3459 - www.ge.com/energy

Lakeside Equipment Corporation - 630/837-5640 - www.lakeside-equipment.com

Pentair - Filtration & Processing Solutions - 262/238-4400 - www.pentairwatertreatment.com



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