Automation Helps A Wisconsin Plant Deal With The Challenges Of Lake Michigan Water

Even a source water as clean as Lake Michigan can present challenges. Frank Miller and his team step right up with process enhancements and extensive automation.
Automation Helps A Wisconsin Plant Deal With The Challenges Of Lake Michigan Water
Distribution maintenance is a top priority for Miller and Cudahy Water Utility team members like Mike Wasikowski, lead serviceman. The two observe as an operator with Willkomm Excavating & Grading digs around a waterline for a hydrant relocation job.

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Many water plant superintendents would envy a water source like Lake Michigan — vast, clear and consistent.

But as Frank Miller can attest, things aren’t always as they seem. The big lake has brought its share of issues for the Cudahy (Wisconsin) Water Utility. Like responding to the 1993 outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee, just a few minutes north, and dealing with the effects of seasonal algae explosions that can impart unpleasant odor and taste to the water.

Miller and his 10-member team have met those challenges and others while steadily modernizing a conventional treatment plant built in 1954. Their accomplishments include extensively automating the plant itself and the water metering system, helping free up time to complete improvement projects in-house, stay current with plant and distribution system maintenance, and keep rates under control.

The team’s success helped Miller win a 2014 Water Operator of the Year award from the Wisconsin Water Association (an AWWA section). “The water industry and the City of Cudahy have been very good to me,” says Miller, plant superintendent since 1995. “I have a job I really like, and I’m given a lot of leeway in how I do it. The people I work for — Public Works Director Mary Jo Lange and a long list of mayors — have always been very supportive.”

Navy trained

Born and raised in Muscoda, a small community on the Wisconsin River, Miller studied agriculture for two years at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and then joined the U.S. Navy. During six years of duty, he worked as a machinist mate in steam propulsion, serving mostly on frigates but also doing shipyard work on aircraft carriers.

He met his wife, Bette, while stationed at a Philadelphia shipyard. Leaving the Navy in 1990, he returned to Wisconsin. Given his background in steam power, he looked for work in electric power plants but also in the water and wastewater sector: “On a ship, there’s water everywhere. I had done a lot of work with pumps and fluid dynamics.”

His first job offer was with the Cudahy (pronounced CUD-a-hay) Water Utility as an operator at the 6 mgd water treatment plant. Five years later, after some retirements and a reorganization in city leadership, he became plant superintendent. This was just two years after an outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee made more than 400,000 people sick. While Cudahy was not affected, the water commission took notice and wanted a plant superintendent experienced in surface water treatment.

“I had only been here five years, but I had a pretty strong background and a good grasp of the new technologies available,” says Miller. “So they offered me the job. At the time, I’d say all the water plants on Lake Michigan had started to question their operations and whether they needed to tighten up their internal standards.”

Better than required

That’s what Miller and his team did. The plant met the prevailing U.S. EPA turbidity standard of 0.3 NTU for finished water, but Miller wasn’t comfortable with that. “Turbidity is a big indicator of whether you have a problem with something like Cryptosporidium,” he says. “If you’re getting higher turbidities through the plant, it’s because of your settling and filtering.

“So we set limits. What was the maximum turbidity we would allow coming out of our sedimentation basins? We set that at 2.0 NTU. What was the maximum coming out of our filters? We set that at 0.1 NTU. We were already meeting those levels, but we wrote them into our operating procedures so that all the operators would be on the same page. We tightened our filter backwash criteria so we weren’t running filters as long.

“We also looked at our turbidity standards, the amount of chlorine we were feeding and how we were adjusting the coagulant. We made sure the operators had flexibility to adjust if they felt the coagulant dose wasn’t correct. We have a single operator here for each shift, and we wanted to make sure the operators had control while they were on duty, so they didn’t have to call a supervisor to make a decision.”

In 2004, the facility added a UV disinfection system (TrojanUV) upstream of chlorine contact as a second pathogen barrier. It was the first UV system on a surface water plant in Wisconsin and on Lake Michigan, Miller says.

Mussel menace

Another challenge arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s as zebra and quagga mussels took over Lake Michigan, filtering and clarifying the water and excreting wastes that fertilize the lake bottom. Light penetrating deeper promotes the growth of algae that die off and decay, releasing organic compounds including geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB).

“At concentrations as low as 9 or 10 parts per billion, people start to pick up a musty, moldy odor in the water and a little bit of taste,” says Miller. “These episodes typically happen near the end of summer or in early fall.”

The Cudahy team found a remedy in granular activated carbon (GAC). “After pilot testing, we removed some of the sand from our conventional sand filters and put carbon caps on top in a 0.7 mm sieve size,” Miller says. “We now have 12 inches of carbon on top of 15 inches of sand in our filter beds. It has made a big difference.”

The GAC is leased through Calgon Carbon Corporation. Each year the carbon is changed out in two of the eight filter beds (each 750,000 gpd capacity). Calgon takes it to a regeneration plant and returns it. “We save a little money, and they don’t have spent carbon to get rid of,” says Miller.

Smooth operators

Seasonal issues aside, the water plant runs smoothly with help from automated processes. Cudahy, encompassing about 5 square miles, is surrounded by the lake and other cities and has no room to grow. Miller has been challenged to find technologies that will work cost-effectively within the plant footprint. 

“To automate, you need a very good understanding of your treatment process,” he says. “Programmers may have some background in water and wastewater, but they’re not operators and they don’t know your particular system. You have to walk them through your process step by step and specify what you want to control and what parameters you want to use, so that the system works right.” The Ruekert & Mielke engineering firm designed the plant SCADA system, which uses Wonderware software (Schneider Electric).

The Cudahy plant’s flow rate (average 2.3 mgd) varies hour by hour based on demand from two major industrial users. The system has to adjust chemical dosages based on the incoming flow. “It’s also automated enough to look at our chlorine setpoints versus the current residuals and adjust the chlorine to meet the setpoints we want,” Miller says.

“We have flow-through turbidimeters (Hach) throughout the process, and each of those has parameters that help control coagulant feed rates. We can also control our filter flow rates as needed.” Particle counters (Chemtrac) at the outlet of the filters and the outlet of the 2-million-gallon reservoir next to the plant provide early warning of process issues. 

The particle counters use a laser beam at intervals to count and size the particles in a small water sample. “It’s a lot more sensitive than a turbidimeter,” says Miller. “The operators will notice particle counts climbing well before they see a problem with turbidity. Through experience, based on which filters are online and the runtime hours, they get a good idea if we are having a problem with an individual filter. Then they can do some troubleshooting and figure out if they need to backwash a filter, or if we have some kind of coagulation problem.

“Automation has really freed up the operators’ time. They don’t have to sit in the control room and monitor the plant every second. They’re able to do lab work or maintenance in the plant.”

AMR pioneer

Automation extends to the distribution system, which includes 58 miles of pipe, a 500,000-gallon water tower, 560 hydrants and about 5,600 metered connections. In 2002, Cudahy installed the state’s first fixed-base automated meter reading (AMR) system, using radio communications (Aclara) and Sensus meters.

Before then, the utility had a drive-by AMR system covering a few hundred meters in one part of the city; the rest were covered by indoor meters and outdoor touch-read meters. In winter, when dealing with main breaks in aging pipes, the staff lacked time to read the meters, and the utility sent numerous estimated bills. “A couple of meter readers fell on stairs going into houses in the winter, so injuries were a concern,” says Miller. “We spent so much time meter reading that we had a backlog of deferred maintenance. The AMR freed up time to get caught up with bad valves, bad hydrants and service boxes that weren’t operable.”

Leading the team

Miller is proud of the people who handle the daily duties. His team includes Joel Puczylowski, lead plant operator; Nick Martin and Mike Ollmann, plant operators; Mike Wasikowski, distribution lead man; Jerry Morris and Brian Dlapa, distribution servicemen; Alexandra Janicek, water billing clerk; and Darlene Felton, public works/water/engineering clerk.

“I want our people to have all the knowledge they need to do the job and make most of the decisions on their own,” says Miller. “I assume our people care and will go out and do a good job. We pay them decent salaries and benefits. They should know how to do things without me constantly directing them and making every decision.”

To stay sharp and earn continuing education credits, team members attend vendor training, take courses available through the Wisconsin Water Association and attend its conventions, and attend safety courses offered by a regional insurance consortium. “It’s hard with a small staff to send people away for a day, but we manage,” says Miller. “We try to get our people to any training we can.”

For his part, Miller is vice-chairman of the Wisconsin Water Association and a past chairman of West Shore Water Producers, a less formal group of utilities along the west side of Lake Michigan that holds quarterly meetings that include training and networking. “We talk about treatment issues,” says Miller. “We visit different plants and talk about what they’re doing — what’s working and what’s not.”

Still innovating

Miller plans to finish his career in Cudahy. He’s well entrenched in the community, serving on the board of a local credit union and co-chairing the Sweet Applewood Festival, an annual Lions Club fundraiser sponsored in part by the Patrick Cudahy meat packing firm, from which the city takes its name. 

On the professional side, he wants to do his part to stabilize the utility’s finances and establish water rates that provide room for needed capital spending. And he’d like to fully implement a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). “I really enjoy the water industry,” he says. “I enjoy the people I’ve met and the challenges in it.”  


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