People Person

Andy Hall has combined technical aptitude with a human touch to build an award-winning career in a fast-growing New Mexico city.
People Person
Andrew Hall (left), lead collections operator, shares a light moment with operators Shawn Sandoval and David Alcon during a break in field work.

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You need a water meter installed, a main fixed, an angry customer soothed. Who do you call? If you’re the Utilities Services Division in Rio Rancho, N.M., the answer is easy: Andy Hall.

Hall, employed by CH2M HILL, is lead collections operator for the water and wastewater utility and its 90,000 customers. He has applied his underground systems expertise, mechanical aptitude and ability to calm frayed nerves since 1996, parlaying a confident yet plain-spoken style into an award-winning career that makes him a favorite of his boss, co-workers and city residents.

Last year Hall, an Albuquerque native, received the 2012 Outstanding Distribution System Operator Award from the Rocky Mountain Section AWWA. The award recognizes exceptional performance, dedication and teamwork — qualities Hall has displayed throughout his time helping to ensure a reliable, high-quality water supply for the state’s third largest city.

Hall also received one of 16 Joseph M. Kaplan Safe Driver of the Year Awards from the National Safety Council for 2012. The award recognizes drivers who have logged at least 15 years or 250,000 miles without a preventable accident.

“I never expected to win either award,” says Hall. “I was so surprised when I got the AWWA award. It was really the great team I work with that deserved it for all the good things they do. I get things done and teach them what I know. As for the Safety Council award, I just focus on driving safely wherever I go.”

Underground skill

Hall took a circuitous route to the Rio Rancho utility. After graduating from Rio Grande High School, he spent two years at Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (now Central New Mexico Community College). Then he got a job as a contractor for Qwest Communications International (now CenturyLink), installing underground telephone and cable TV lines.

One place he served was Rio Rancho, a fast-growing community and economic hub of Sandoval County, in the Albuquerque Basin west of the Rio Grande, which bounds the northeast corner of the city. There he met operators from the water utility, who were impressed with his background and easy-going manner and asked him if he wanted a job. Eager for a change after nine years, Hall quickly agreed.  

CH2M HILL sent him to training programs, and eventually he earned his Level 4 Water Treatment Operator and Level 2 Wastewater Operator licenses, along with a commercial driver’s license. He needs the CDL to operate backhoes for trenching in water main repair, and to drive tandem dump trucks that carry excavated soil, piping and equipment.

A day’s work

Hall’s work mainly involves maintenance. He’s responsible for all water meter installations and replacements, repair of water main and sewer lines, and dealing with Rio Rancho utility customers. “That’s what I like doing best,” he says. “Some folks visit with you; others cuss you out and complain. But that’s what makes the job enjoyable. You’re out in the field working with people, talking with them, explaining why a line broke, and telling them what you’re going to do to solve the problem.”

On a typical day, Hall gets in about 8 a.m. “We can’t start earlier because folks would complain about the noise,” he says. He does safety briefings and talks with his team about anything that might have happened overnight. Then he gets them ready to go out into the field, assigning various repair jobs as they come up. After that, Hall makes his rounds, checking on completed work, taking water samples and figuring out what else needs doing.

While he usually leaves at 4:30 p.m. to drive back to the house he built two years ago in Albuquerque, Hall is one of five lead operators who take calls around the clock. When he joined the utility, it was just Hall and one other operator on call, so he was busy all the time responding to emergencies. Several years ago, he was called out on Christmas Eve to fix a water main break, then turned around and came back to work Christmas morning. As usual, Hall took it in stride: “It’s all part of the job of keeping the water flowing.”

Growing needs

Today, Rio Rancho Utility has 74 CH2M HILL employees, doubling its workforce in 18 years as the city grew from a sleepy suburb of Albuquerque into a major community. Growth naturally means more infrastructure to keep in good order. That includes nearly 400 miles of water main, 200 miles of water distribution pipes, 250 miles of wastewater collection systems, and the pumps that draw water from 1,000- to 3,000-foot-deep wells in the Santa Fe Group Aquifer, then deliver some 50 mgd to homes and businesses.

Key water system components also include filters, reverse osmosis systems that control high total dissolved solids, 10 arsenic-removal facilities in which the city has invested $46 million since 2002, and steel reservoir tanks that hold up to 4 million gallons of chlorinated water.

"My principal work is fixing sewer line leaks, broken mains and faulty meters,” says Hall, unfazed by the challenges. “We all work like crazy to repair leaks and breaks because we know how much everybody relies on water. If a line breaks for whatever reason, we’ll shut down the street, dig up the line, stop the leak, fit the line back together, flush the system and test for bacteria to make sure the water is safe to drink. And we’ll do everything as quickly as possible so homes and businesses aren’t disrupted too badly.”

Calming customers

System mapping completed over the years helps the team locate the right valves and isolate breaks quickly. In a typical year (if such a thing exists) Hall and the operators handle about 900 service line leaks and 30-plus main breaks. The many potential causes include tree roots, careless excavation by contractors, the area’s acidic soil, winter freeze-ups, and deterioration from 50 years or more in the ground. Whatever the reason, the utility relies on Hall to mollify customers.

“We have issues with our infrastructure just like any other municipality,” says Hall’s boss, Cliff Leeper, project director for CH2M HILL, which also provides wastewater support and SCADA services. “That’s why we need someone like Andy who can handle people, deal with the issues and make sure the work is completed in a responsible way. He’s been here a long time, so he’s well versed in our processes and well respected by his peers, co-workers and our customers for his dependability and willingness to help.”

Part of the team

Hall’s co-workers are equally enthusiastic about his approach to the job. Operator Robert Paynter, who has worked with Hall for eight years, calls him “a great hands-on guy who’s always willing to show you new things. I’ve learned a lot from Andy. We’ve fixed mains together and done tons of meter installations and repairs. He’s a heck of an operator in terms of dealing with customers and getting the equipment to work.”

Fellow operator and lifelong Rio Rancho resident Robert Crites agrees. He has worked for Hall for seven years and praises his teaching skills: “He has taught me a lot about installs and operations, so much that I can fill in for him when he’s out for the day. Andy is very patient, and he’ll help out even when he’s not on call.”

Hall prefers to see himself as someone who simply enjoys his job: the stability of working for a good company, the chance to get into the community and help make things right, and the ability to provide for his wife, Robin, an Albuquerque schoolteacher, and their son and daughter.

“I like being out in the field working with our guys and our customers,” says Hall. “Every day is different. Sometimes it’s the weather — we can have temperatures well below zero on occasion. We’ll see pipes breaking as a result, or water meters freezing. Basically, I like people: talking to them at job sites, helping them understand what we’re doing.”

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