Water Management And Energy Savings Drive Down Costs In West Virginia

A regional utility in Virginia implements water management and energy-saving programs for greater reliability and lower costs.
Water Management And Energy Savings Drive Down Costs In West Virginia
The Spring Hollow Water Treatment Facility in Salem, Va.

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The Western Virginia Water Authority hasn’t been around all that long, but you’d never know it upon first review.

Formed in 2004 from the former utility departments of the City of Roanoke and Roanoke County, the authority is often cited as a model for regionalism. It uses innovative water management to provide excellent service to 158,000 people.

In 2011, the authority signed an energy savings performance contract with Honeywell to increase meter accuracy, improve leak detection, reduce energy costs and improve carbon dioxide emissions, with minimal impact to its operating budget.

The upgrades will help the authority save more than $1 million a year in electricity and operating costs and add about $1.5 million in revenue through increased water meter accuracy. The authority has replaced all 58,000 meters with wireless meters. An advanced metering infrastructure network was installed, HVAC and lighting upgrades completed and 17 pumps replaced with high-efficiency systems.

These water management and energy saving initiatives have benefited the treatment plant operations staff: By setting competitive and sustainable rates, the authority can better support infrastructure maintenance and improvements to provide customers with reliable long-term water service.

“The treatment plant operators feel a sense of pride with what we are doing,” says Gary Robertson, executive director of water operations. “When they know you’re investing in the system, they do a better job.”

Combining resources

In 2004, the Western Virginia Water Authority was the first such organization in the state formed from two existing organizations to treat, deliver and administer water and wastewater. The result has been more dependable water and wastewater service, better drought protection and emergency backup. Other advantages include lower costs, more efficient planning and greater rate stability.

Droughts in 1999 and 2002 were the catalyst for the merger. “The droughts made it clear that the City of Roanoke did not have enough water capacity,” says Robertson. “The cost of developing new sources and the cost of wastewater treatment convinced officials that we needed a regional approach. Also, Roanoke County needed help with debt service, so the staff started meeting and coming up with options. Combining our resources was no small hurdle, but we overcame that.”

Before the merger, the county billed for water service every other month, and the city billed quarterly. After the merger, the authority began billing everyone monthly, but the bills were based on actual readings one month and an estimated reading the next month.

“We were planning on installing radio-read meters so we could bill based on actual readings each month,” says Robertson. “But once we started talking to Honeywell and seeing the results of their energy audits, we decided to go with the fixed network system with wireless meters.”

By switching to the more accurate remotely read meters, the authority picked up an additional 5 to 10 percent revenue and the ability to detect leaks immediately. The team also replaced pumping station pumps from the 1950s to 1970s with more energy-efficient ones, saving $500,000 per year in electricity.

Reducing the number of meter readers also saved money. “We had four full-time readers and also contracted some of the reading out,” says Robertson. “We eliminated the contract and repurposed the former meter readers to other positions.”

Multiple plants

The authority has 72 wells (active and inactive) and also draws water from the Spring Hollow, Carvins Cove, Beaverdam Creek and Falling Creek reservoirs; Crystal Spring; the Roanoke River; and Smith Mountain Lake.

The authority owns four water treatment plants and shares in treatment capacity from a plant in Bedford, Va., to serve Franklin County. The owned plants are:

  • Crystal Spring 5 mgd microfiltration plant, built 2002.
  • Carvins Cove 28 mgd conventional treatment plant, built 1946, upgraded in the 1950s and 1990s.
  • Spring Hollow 18 mgd upflow clarifier plant (Wheelabrator Technologies), built 1996.
  • Falling Creek 1.9 mgd conventional plant, built in the late 1800s and remodeled in the 1990s.

When built, Crystal Spring was the state’s largest microfiltration plant. The filtration system (Evoqua Water Technologies) treats about 4 mgd of mountain spring water and can filter out all particles larger than 0.2 microns.

The entire water system is monitored with a SCADA system that allows operators to control the plants and 20 remote transmission units throughout the distribution system. A laboratory supervisor and two technicians at the Spring Hollow laboratory handle testing for all four plants.

Water quality is excellent: Average turbidities are typically 0.01 NTU at Crystal Spring, 0.09 NTU at Spring Hollow, 0.12 NTU at Carvins Cove and 0.19 NTU at Falling Creek. “Our haloacetic acid and trihalomethane levels have stayed under the limits, but they can be a challenge to maintain within acceptable limits, due to the location of our storage tanks and distribution piping length,” says Robertson. “We’re lucky, though, because we have good plants and not much total organic carbon in the source water.”

The Carvins Cove and Spring Hollow plants are staffed 16 hours per day with at least two Class I operators. Falling Creek is staffed by one Class II operator working a 12-hour shift. The automated Class II Crystal Spring plant can run without a licensed operator on site. The authority employs 23 Class I, two Class II, five Class III and two Class IV water treatment operators, as well as 11 distribution system operators. Water treatment plant and distribution system leaders are:

  • Jeffrey Booth, production superintendent
  • Jamie Morris, production manager
  • Gregory Belcher and Dean Wood, production supervisors
  • Nathan Carroll, senior water operations manager
  • Ron Agee, Lloyd Paige and Randy Smith, water operations supervisors
  • Steve Nichols, water operations coordinator
  • Gregory Honeycutt, Paul Paige and Rodney Witt, lead operators
  • Cheryl Brewer, lab supervisor
  • Travis Lane, distribution manager

“Most of these employees have been with the authority since it was formed in 2004, and they have many more than just these 10 years of experience,” says Robertson.

In-house emphasis

The authority’s water management and energy saving initiatives have succeeded largely because of operations staff involvement. “Honeywell’s proposal was to do the work or contract it out, but we used our own staff to do a third of the meter replacement, because we wanted them to be involved in this program,” says Robertson. The distribution team replaced more than 10,000 of the 58,000 residential and commercial meters. Water operators coordinated the large pump and generator installations, assisting the contractor, MEB Construction.

The customer service staff was also involved. “As we were updating the meter technology, we upgraded our billing system to better integrate with the meter data,” says Robertson. Customer service staff now can see the entire record of a customer’s water usage on screen. “One customer called and questioned the high water usage listed on the bill, and our employee asked if they had an irrigation system,” says Robertson. “She could see a lot of usage at one specific time. It turned out the irrigation system was on and the customer didn’t know it.”

The staff conducts classes on water treatment and conservation at the local schools. “We take a proactive approach to reaching the next generation of employees by providing water outreach classes to over 11,000 students a year in K-12 and at the college level,” says Robertson. “Our water plant operators assist with treatment facility tours, sharing their knowledge and passion for the job.”

Ready for anything

While the water operations team faces many challenges, “One of the most critical is making sure we are always prepared when unexpected things happen,” says Robertson. “Operators need to be able to think and react quickly.”

For example, during extremely cold weather or large temperature fluctuations, the field staff is busy repairing water lines that fail or responding to customer calls about frozen water lines. “We are especially busy during these times, as an increase in broken water lines means an increase in the water we need to produce and send through the distribution system,” Robertson says.

Operators were tested by extreme weather during a sudden derecho (straight-line windstorm) in summer 2012 that caused widespread power outages for a week. “Roanoke Valley and Franklin County were crippled by this windstorm, which caused some of our facilities to lose power, including the Carvins Cove and Falling Creek plants, the Crystal Spring pump station, 14 other water pumping stations and nine water storage tanks,” recalls Robertson.

Nine on-site and five portable generators supplied power for 595 hours. Field operations crews delivered 3,000 gallons of fuel to keep them running. “Emergency response planning and the efforts of the staff kept water and wastewater service operating without interruption, and there were no collection system or pump station overflows,” Robertson says.

Operators must also be diligent in keeping adequate spare parts on hand to repair or replace equipment. “Our operators perform maintenance such as replacing large valves and electric actuators,” says Robertson. “This reduces our cost by eliminating outside maintenance services.”

Psychologically healthy

Cross-training is important at the authority: Water operators rotate through the treatment facilities. “Our best asset is highly trained and motivated employees,” says Robertson. “So we have programs to develop existing employees and create opportunities where new staff entering the business can learn from our current workforce.”

The Water and Wastewater Certificate program, created in 2008 with Virginia Western Community College, lets future employees take classes taught by authority executive staff, water operators and engineers. At the end of the one-year program, participants practice their skills as operators in training, learning alongside veteran employees.

The training pays off. “We have very low turnover among our staff, and in fact, one employee who retired came back to work part time,” says Robertson. “We promote a team approach, rather than a top-down approach.” Other motivators are service awards, an employee picnic, recreational teams (kickball, volleyball, basketball, golf) and a Polar Express float in the Roanoke holiday parade.

The future looks bright. “The Honeywell program is paying off, and they have guaranteed that we will see enough savings to pay our $2.5 million debt service,” says Robertson. “Now that all the meters have been installed, we’ll soon be able to verify those savings.”

Robertson also considers the possibility of adding more counties to the mix. “We were established to be a regional authority in 2004, and Franklin County joined in 2009,” he says. “While we don’t want to force ourselves on other counties, we would like to work more closely together, because we do share resources.”  

More Information

Evoqua Water Technologies, LLC - www.evoqua.com

Honeywell Process Solutions - 800/822-7673 - www.honeywellprocess.com

Wheelabrator Technologies, Inc. - www.wheelabratortechnologies.com


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