Better Through Adversity

Challenges bring out the best in the team at the award-winning Huntsville Utilities as homegrown innovations drive excellence.
Better Through Adversity
Bobby Harbin, a Grade 4 water plant operator, collects a water sample from rapid-mix flume at the Huntsville Utilities South Parkway water treatment plant.

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It’s hard to find a silver lining in the dark cloud of a massive tornado that knocks out all power across a metro area for several days. But Huntsville (Ala.) Utilities learned valuable lessons from the twister that roared through its service area on April 27, 2011.

“We were able to keep the water on throughout the emergency,” says Gary Bailey, water supply superintendent. “And now, I actually think we’re a better water utility for it.” Using emergency generators and working as long as two days straight without sleep, Bailey’s crew kept all its customers in water even though the power outage lasted until May 4 — nearly eight days.

“We worked some long days,” Bailey says. “Until we could get food delivered, we were eating freeze-dried MREs [military Meals Ready to Eat] — they were pretty bad. But it taught us a lot. We’re better prepared now. We have more emergency generators and portable booster pumps.”

For example, crews can now quickly connect portable pumps to hydrants at both the base level and a higher level and be re-supplying water in minutes. “We can fill one tank, then move on to another area and fill the next tank,” Bailey says. “It’s much faster than the two hours or so it would take to restart a booster station by wiring in an emergency generator. We can simply bypass the booster station.”

Among other emergency measures are additional standby generators at the utility’s four water treatment plants and battery backup for the SCADA system so that operators can continue to monitor tank levels in emergencies.

Honored for excellence

Such foresight and preparedness is not surprising for a water utility that continues to win awards for excellence from a variety of entities. Bailey points with pride to U.S. EPA Region 4 awards his utility won in 1992 and 2006.

Several times, Huntsville has won awards from the Alabama Water Pollution and Control Association (AWPCA) for overall plant excellence. In 2008, the utility won all three awards for best system, best surface water treatment plant and best groundwater treatment plant. Last year, the South Parkway plant won the top plant award. “The other plants had won the award three straight years and were ineligible,” Bailey says.

Huntsville’s water infrastructure is set up to handle the area’s rapid growth, propelled by the aerospace industry, the military and the world’s largest research park. Its location along the Tennessee River is a huge plus, as the stream provides a generous supply of freshwater to meet demand that has seen the number of water connections double since 1988. The utility’s surface water plants include:

The 48 mgd Southwest Treatment Plant, built as a 12 mgd facility in 1988 and expanded three times since.

The South Parkway Plant, built in 1964 and expanded several times to its present capacity of 48 mgd.

Varied treatment schemes

Both plants use a conventional flow scheme consisting of coagulation with alum, settling, pH adjustment with caustic, and granular activated carbon filtration for taste and odor removal in summer. Sodium hypochlorite is used for disinfection at South Parkway, gaseous chlorine at Southwest.

The Lincoln-Dallas plant (capacity 9 mgd) was built in 1992 and treats groundwater with air stripping for VOC removal and both conventional and activated carbon filters. Bleach is added for disinfection since the facility is located next to a school. Huntsville keeps the 2.0 mgd Hampton Cove Microfloc package plant (WesTech Engineering) on hand for emergencies but hasn’t used it for several years. Finally, the Williams Well provides an emergency source of up to 4.5 mgd.

From the treatment facilities, water is pumped to customers through 12,810 miles of mains and 32 booster stations (another is being added). Thirty-six reservoirs (tanks) provide 55.8 million gallons of storage capacity. A number of the booster sites use PumpSmart variable-frequency drives (Morrow Water Technologies).

“The drives lessen the impact of water hammer and save energy over traditional motor starters,” says Bailey. “They have been extremely reliable, and Morrow has been extremely supportive during our installation and any problems we have encountered.”

Huntsville’s hilly terrain creates 22 pressure zones. Residential water use varies greatly with the need for lawn and garden watering. The system also serves several large industrial users, including the 35,000-resident Redstone Arsenal, center for U.S. missile defense and rocketry. While commercial accounts use electronic metering, residential customers use standard water meters. Bailey says the utility is “heading toward automatic meter reading [AMR].”

Useful tools

While Huntsville Utilities has won awards through excellent performance, the various tools it has created to improve operation have surely also impressed judges. Working with the Huntsville-based Instrumentation Products Division of the Parker Hannifin Corporation, the utility helped develop a benchtop analyzer for trihalomethanes (THM).

The analyzer delivers on-the-spot results in 30 to 40 minutes, instead of the several days it might take if the samples were sent to a commercial laboratory. It’s a purge-and-trap gas chromatograph that requires no sample preparation. The operator connects a sample to the sparger and pushes a button. Results to parts per billion are displayed and archived.

The device enables Huntsville to monitor THMs in produced water and adjust plant processes if necessary. Bailey says the tool is critical as his plants work to keep THMs within ever-tightening regulatory limits on disinfection byproducts. “It’s pretty innovative,” he says. “You don’t need to be a chemist to operate it. Parker Hannifin worked with us for over a year to develop the instrument.” Along with inline and benchtop TOC analyzers from GE Water & Process Technologies, the instruments enable Huntsville to optimize plant operations.

Huntsville prides itself on doing things in-house. “Except for really large projects, we use our own people — pulling and repairing pumps, rebuilding filters, performing treatment studies for the new plant we plan to build,” says Bailey. “We even build our own booster stations.”

Another example is a mixing system developed for the utility’s ground, above-ground and elevated storage tanks. “The mixers pull water off the bottom, and spray it out at the top,” Bailey says. “It aerates and mixes, and keeps the chlorine fresher in the tank. We’ve installed these as we’ve taken tanks down for painting or repair.”

The utility’s SCADA system includes another homegrown innovation: “Our people installed the SCADA system themselves. They built the pages and use two-way radios and a fiber optic system. The savings over phone lines has amounted to about $28,000 a year, and lightning doesn’t affect the system. We’re kind of proud of it.” The SCADA system also helps operators monitor the pressure zones, watching tank levels and pressure variances and starting and stopping boosters as necessary.

Planning the future

Like many water professionals, Bailey is keenly aware of the need for new talent to replace operators nearing retirement. To that end, Huntsville Utilities created its own apprenticeship program. Apprentices learn both gas and water skills so they can do both jobs in the field.

“We’re into our first year of a three-year program,” Bailey says. “Operators will be dual-certified. It will save on costs and make us a little leaner.”

Huntsville also cross-trains employees in gas and water, and helps newcomers achieve Grade 4 certification. “We hire people in as Grade 1 and place them with an operator until they pass their tests,” says Bailey. “It takes two years to reach Grade 4. We’re growing our own operators. They’ll be ready to go.”

The need for good, new people is critical: “We reach out to colleges and high schools, and go to job fairs.” The utility also brings in high school students to work two to three hours a day in the plant’s laboratory, learning things like corrosion control and water quality. “We hope we can spark some interest that way,” Bailey says.

New talent will be needed before long. Huntsville has completed plans for a new 24 mgd surface water treatment plant that Bailey expects to take three to four years to build. “We’ve had demand as high as 75 mgd, getting close to 80 percent of our capacity,” he says.

"We’re fortunate here, but there’s only so much water to go around, and groundwater supplies are becoming more and more contaminated. The regulations keep increasing and getting more costly, treatment processes are becoming more complex, and our infrastructure is aging. The industry faces a huge problem replacing personnel and getting good, qualified people in the water industry. We need to find ways to attract young people.”

More Information

GE Water & Process Technologies - 866/439-2837 -

Morrow Water Technologies, Inc. - 205/408-6680 -

Parker Hannifin - 800/272-7537 -

WesTech Engineering, Inc. - 801/265-1000 -


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