This Top Water Operator Knows How to Mentor

Michael Ramsey’s operator development efforts extend beyond his own Illinois village to include seminars for members of his state AWWA section.
This Top Water Operator Knows How to Mentor
Michael Ramsey, director of Public Works for the Village of Westmont, Illinois.

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Operations changed dramat- ically the day high-pressure water flowed into the lives of Michael Ramsey and his seven operators at the Water Division in Westmont, Illinois.

In 1992, the village abandoned seven underground wells and began receiving drinking water at 90 psi from the Jardine Water Purification Plant in Chicago. When distributed to Westmont’s 25,000 customers and other villages, the pressure was too high for the remaining original 1920s iron mains.

Those pipes were cast in sand, producing wide variances in wall thickness and enabling pinhole leaks and rust pimples to develop, recalls Ramsey, former Water Division superintendent and now the director of Public Works. The old mains failed at an average of 150 breaks per year, some catastrophically. Ramsey adjusted the water pressure to 65 and 54 psi (to compensate for elevation), then began rehabilitating the distribution system with his team and the unwavering support of the village board.

Ramsey’s leadership in replacing those mains is just one example of the performance that helped him earn the 2014 Water Professional of the Year award from the Illinois Section AWWA. He also received the 2014 Educating the Drinking Water Utility Commendation award for in-person seminars from the ISAWWA Education Committee. The award recognizes excellence in teaching, mentoring or developing educational programs.

Early introduction

Working summers while attending Illinois State University for a business administration degree, Ramsey met many of Westmont’s 91 miles of water mains, 1,290 valves and more than 1,300 fire hydrants. When he graduated in 1986, the village board offered him a full-time position, and Ramsey discovered that water was his life’s passion.

“It’s a small community, like one gigantic family, and our working conditions are always attuned to safety,” says Ramsey. (The village won the ISAWWA 2009 Wendell LaDue Safety Award.)

Attractive benefit packages encourage employee retention: Ramsey’s team has a combined 129 years of experience. Besides his 29 years in the division, foreman Jim Cates has 15 years. Both are Class A (highest) operators. Class C operators include lead operator Brian Beusse (10 years), Kirk Nix (26 years), Frank Kulas and George Harrison (15 years), John Buschman (12 years), and Eric Borys (seven years).

Toward better mains

One of the team’s biggest challenges was the replacement of old sand-cast iron mains. Westmont’s board recognized the need for such a program as soon as purchased water began flowing. Since 1992, contractors have replaced more than 25 miles of old pipe, and village crews have repaired more than 1,000 water main breaks. Ramsey continued the restoration program when he became Water Division superintendent in 2006. By 2025, the oldest mains in the village will date to 1975.

“Saving the village lost water revenue, overtime and material costs has been a real positive, and the board willingly gives us money to continue the work,” says Ramsey. “We also have minimized customer complaints about the frequency with which we tear up their streets.”

The replacement program paid huge dividends during the last two frigid winters. Westmont had seven mains break in January and February 2015, while similar communities had 40 to 60. “We average 25 breaks per year now and repair most with the main under pressure,” says Ramsey. “It’s brutal work in single-digit temperatures, but we avoid disrupting service.”

Despite the division’s best efforts, two catastrophic failures have occurred since 2010. One eruption washed away a section of a four-lane avenue. In 2014, the village’s largest main, a 16-inch transmission line, ruptured, causing crews to valve down three blocks in the area.

A valve exercise program ensured that crews could respond quickly to stop flooding in those instances, but Ramsey wanted the entire distribution system emergency ready. When he noticed that only one of three 2,400 hp high-service pumps (Pentair - Aurora Pump) was working, he budgeted for a contractor to rebuild all of the 35-year-old units.

Ramsey also bought a Cummins diesel generator to power the water pumps during electrical failures. The pumps draw water from a 500,000-gallon standpipe, a million-gallon tower and two 1.5-million-gallon inground tanks.

The village maintains a deep well as its emergency water source. Laboratory technicians Cates, Beusse, Tim Staffeldt and Nix sample it 40 times per year using Hach instruments. They also perform 60 daily tests on the stored water, 30 lead and copper tests every three years, and four disinfectant byproduct tests annually. Suburban Laboratories does the 28 monthly Bac-T tests that require a certified laboratory.

Value driven

While distribution upgrades have paid off handsomely, the village has also  updated its meter reading system for efficiency. The village had a TouchRead water meter system (Sensus), but Ramsey budgeted for and received a RadioRead system (also Sensus). In 2012, the village began upgrading to a fixed-based water meter system using Sensus iPERL and OMNI meters.

“The board understands the value of pushing a button and reading the meters without leaving the building,” says Ramsey. “We’ve changed out 4,500 of our 6,900 meters and should complete the work next year.” His crews also replaced more than 300 fire hydrants in the last 10 years, leaving only 30 units older than 1975.

Last January, electricians replaced the high-service pumps’ solenoid valves with Kinetrol actuators to improve efficiency. The project is expected to save $3,000 to $4,000 a year in electricity and pump depreciation. “We also brought in Tri-R Systems, our IT specialist, to adjust the on-off timing on the pumps and modify our SCADA system,” says Ramsey.

Once Ramsey was comfortable with the progress, he focused on how to pay for future infrastructure repairs and restorations. He asked area communities what they charged for water, then did a cost analysis to replace fire hydrants and water mains and build a water tower. “A rate increase of $1.60 per 1,000 gallons over the next 17 years would provide the necessary $28 million,” he says. In 2009, Westmont became one of the first communities in the region to raise water rates to reflect the true cost of consumption.

Teacher and gamer

Of all Ramsey’s accomplishments, he’s proudest of teaching night classes on water distribution system operation and maintenance to help operators prepare for their Class C and D certification exams. He also teaches utility management for water and wastewater leaders.

Since January 2012, Ramsey has had more than 100 students, and 73 of the 75 who took the certification exams passed. “It’s a good feeling when they say later that I made a difference in their lives by enabling them to find work as water operators,” says Ramsey. He also represents the Water Division at high school career days and mentors high school students through the village’s summer work program.

The board fully supports, appreciates and encourages Ramsey’s involvement in the water industry, including the time he spends traveling to help other AWWA sections. In 2015, he helped run conferences or annual events in Lansing, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; and Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Ramsey also was a panelist at the 2014 Plumbing Manufacturers International Fall Conference, discussing “The Future of Water Revisited.”

Ramsey served as host for the 2013 AWWA Distribution Systems Symposium/Emergency Preparedness and Security Conference in Itasca, Illinois, and is on the ISAWWA Host Committee for ACE16. His duties include soliciting vendors, handling registrations and overseeing the water main tapping, Top Ops, Hydrant Hysteria and Meter Madness competitions by finding teams and vendors.

Westmont Water Division teams compete annually in all four competitions during the ISAWWA’s WATERCON event in Springfield. Ramsey was a member of the winning state 2012 tapping team that placed 10th at the nationals during the AWWA’s ACE12 show.

“The board was so proud that they made a big deal out of the trophy presentation ceremony,” says Ramsey. From 2012 to 2014, his team also competed in Top Ops, and Ramsey has been a contestant in and judge of Hydrant Hysteria, in which the winning two-member team assembles a fire hydrant in the fastest time.
With his advancement to Public Works director, Ramsey realized one of his goals. “I’m excited about becoming more involved with engineering and working with all our divisions,” he says. “I have the background, and most people here have known me all my life. I’ll still be involved with water, only in a different capacity. It’ll be challenging but fun.” 


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