Always Learning

Perkins-Boynton Award winner Robert McVicker thrives on new challenges and the opportunity to increase his water treatment knowledge
Always Learning
Robert McVicker, chief operator, performs an alkalinity test using calametric titration (equipment from Hach Company).

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After a career of 40 years, 17 in public water treatment, Robert McVicker still finds satisfaction in new challenges and the chance to improve.

He has done it all, from operating, maintaining, inspecting and auditing military, private and municipal water plants and distribution systems, to producing water with ion exchange, reverse osmosis, distillation and package plants. As chief operator of the 1.3 mgd Kingwood (W.Va.) surface water filtration plant and distribution system, his greatest challenge is running the facility with only two certified operators.

“Making the water is the easy part, but there is so much else to take care of to support it, and that is a lot more demanding,” he says. Still, he has done well, earning several awards, including the Perkins-Boynton Award from the West Virginia AWWA for exemplary operations in systems with more than 1,000 customers.

Consistent performance

The Kingwood plant has met the EPA filtered water effluent turbidity requirement (less than 0.30 NTU) at least 95 percent of the time (100 percent of the time in 2011-2012). In fact, in those years, the plant topped the more stringent U.S. EPA Area Wide Optimization Program (AWOP) goal of less than 0.1 NTU at least 95 percent of the time — instead reaching that level 99.5 percent of the time and receiving the AWOP award for outstanding effort in optimizing plant performance.

McVicker credits several factors for his success. They include his experience in the U.S. Navy nuclear power program and in commercial nuclear electric power plants, as well as supervisory training and experience, leadership skills, mentors, and current operator and co-worker James Marks.

He names his father as a key mentor: “My dad taught me how to be independent. He always said, ‘Don’t ever break your promise or promise something you can’t do.’ My parents worked hard and taught me to do the same.”

Navy man

McVicker enlisted in the Navy after high school, and served eight years. “I passed tests to enter their elite nuclear power program,” he says. “Our commanding officer told us we had passed a program equivalent to passing law school in 1 1/2 years. That environment prepared me for all accomplishments for the rest of my life.”

In the Navy, McVicker operated and maintained a Navy submarine prototype nuclear reactor in Idaho, a job that included producing water. He also handled water chemistry, radiological chemistry and radiological control.

Later, on the nuclear submarine USS Billfish, he supervised operation, maintenance and quality control of the reactor plant, among other duties. He was also the ship’s lead scuba diver. The submarine used evaporators, distillation and ion exchange to produce different water qualities, from potable to ultrapure nuclear reactor grade.

After active duty, McVicker worked in the nuclear power industry and studied engineering technology at Cal Poly University and Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “I went back to school at night while working 10 to 12 hours a day at the nuclear plant to advance my career and knowledge,” he says. “At that time, I never thought I would change careers, as I enjoyed the high level of performance and standards required to safely operate and maintain a nuclear power plant.”

Doing it all

When the nuclear power industry downsized, McVicker moved to West Virginia in 1995 to be near his retired father and start a new career. He soon landed a job as an operator at the Town of Thomas water treatment plant.

“My mom saw the ad in the paper, and it seemed like a career that I could contribute to with my training and experience,” McVicker says. “When they looked at my resume they said, ‘You are way over-qualified, but we can use you because our workers have not been able to pass the tests.’”

He was a quick study, performing operations, meter testing and some chief operator duties. By summer 1997, he passed the Class I and II water treatment operator and Class I to III wastewater treatment operator tests.

“I did a little of everything for the town, including standing in for the city clerk, laying and relocating water lines, fixing leaks, ordering parts, mowing and plowing, building and road repair,” he says. “I was able to improve plant performance from eight hours or less of operation between filter backwashes to over 20 hours.”

Two other operator jobs followed, for the town of Beverly and then Kingwood, where he was quickly promoted to chief operator. Now in his 11th year there, McVicker has settled in nicely. The plant serves 3,000 Kingwood residents and sells water to three community wholesale purchasing systems in Preston County, for a total population of 6,800.

“I like my job, and I get to use my diverse training and skills,” McVicker says. “Once I master something, I get bored, and then I need a new challenge. In this job, I can be involved with anything on a given day, but still have more to learn and improve upon.”

Team of two

Just two certified operators run the Kingwood plant: “We used to have four, but one left for health reasons and the other went to a higher paying job. James [Marks] is a blessing because he came to the water business from a similar professional background and training. Like me, he was a star athlete and team player in high school, then went to work for a large, well-respected construction company. He learned about the benefits of planning, working as a team and doing the work right the first time using best practices.”

McVicker trained Marks and taught him everything about water treatment operation: “I try to clone myself and train operators the way I do things. If you don’t have the background and training, you can’t properly do the job at today’s treatment plants.”

Marks, a 10-year team member who holds a Class II water plant operator license, supervises and handles distribution system fieldwork, meter testing and the backflow prevention and cross-connection programs. McVicker takes care of operation and maintenance, paperwork, regulatory monitoring and administration. They work hard, averaging 60 hours a week. Operators-in-training Patrick Hartman (full time) and Jeff Smith and Rose Turner (part time) handle distribution tasks and help as needed at the treatment plant.

McVicker’s management style is to treat people with respect regardless of their skill level. His training includes the Zenger-Miller supervision, teamwork development, diversity training, facilitative leadership and manager-as-coach training courses. “I can play the parent part, but I can be the kid part too, since I have young kids and I played sports until I was in my 40s,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about myself from those I’ve supervised, and I’ve also learned from my managers.”

Old but fit

The Kingwood treatment plant was built in 1987 and has seen no major upgrades except for the SCADA system. The greatest challenge is operating the plant’s upflow clarifiers.

“We have to control the flocculation blanket, which is very sensitive to changes in water temperature and hydraulic flow,” McVicker says. “When it’s exposed to the sun and snow and ice, it is hard for us to observe the process, and we’re flying blind except for the three sample taps in the vertical walls of the clarifiers. We’re trying to get funding for a clarifier cover and to change out the old lines with larger and better materials, loop the lines together and add more system monitoring and controls.”

Changing conditions keep them on their toes: “There is enough change in routine to make it interesting. We monitor the Cheat River for color and turbidity and do jar testing or use a coagulant charge analyzer several times a day. That tells us the net charge of our water and how much coagulant to add to neutralize it. We don’t make any chemical changes without first doing tests.

“The river is a living, dynamic system that changes regardless of the weather. It can be too clean, and that makes it harder to treat because there is not much to work with in the water. Or all hell breaks loose and the water looks like mud and plugs up the intakes.”

A big storm in June 2012 caused power outages in all West Virginia counties. “The weather forecasters didn’t predict it, but luckily our tanks were full before it hit,” McVicker recalls. “The winds were gusting at 80 to 100 miles an hour, but we made it through.”

The worst storm was Hurricane Sandy in October 2012: “I stayed at the plant to keep the tanks full until the storm hit at 8 p.m. We didn’t run out of water, thanks to vendors loaning us two generators and the Camp Dawson National Guard people giving us some of their reserve fuel.”

Looking to the future

McVicker reports to the Kingwood Water Works Water Board. “Not all small to mid-size systems in the state have separate, independent water board members,” he says. “As a result, these systems are set up to fail in many respects, and they are not properly funded, operated and maintained.”

He would like to see the industry do more to publicize the water field: “The West Virginia Rural Water Association is great, but I would like to see a greater coordinated effort in this area from all the systems and state agencies to bring people to the industry.”

For those looking at the field, he advises: “Unless you have the knowledge and skills to get hired by a very large water system, you are in trouble for good pay, benefits and management. You will have to do more work for less money and with less people. But because others will depend on you to produce quality water, your services will be in critical demand, ensuring a long-lasting career.”

His advice to plant managers is to lead by example. “Demonstrate your knowledge and skills in a constructive and teaching manner for the betterment of your workforce, the company and the water utility business as a whole. Treat people like you care about them and the work they do, and show an interest in their ideas and concerns on a daily basis.

More Information

Chemtrac, Inc. - 800/442-8722 -

Hach Company - 800/227-4224 -

Milton Roy, LLC - 800/693-4295 -

Regal Gas Chlorinators - 772/288-4854 -

USALCO - 410/354-0100 -

US Filter a division of Evoqua Water Technologies, LLC - 815/623-2111 -


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