Norristown Operations Team Key to Award-Winning Plant

A Pennsylvania plant succeeds with operator initiative and teamwork, a major upgrade and the Partnership for Safe Water program.
Norristown Operations Team Key to Award-Winning Plant
Team members at the Norristown plant include, from left, Stan Szczepanek, John Milakeve, Tony Tiziana, Tish Gallagher, Ryan Lott, and Sandy Weiss.

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The operations staff members at the Norristown Water Treatment Plant have faced many challenges, from hurricanes and floods to a five-year, $50 million plant upgrade.

They’ve also worked hard to meet Partnership for Safe Water goals, receiving the Phase III Directors Award in 2000 and the Phase IV Presidents Award in 2015. Owned by Pennsylvania American Water, the Norristown plant joined the Partnership in 1996. That was not an easy time.

“We phased in the construction of a brand-new plant,” says Stan Szczepanek, production supervisor. “The building envelope was tight and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had restrictions on buildings in the floodplain. Some had to be demolished before others were erected, and all this had to be done while running a 24-hour-a-day operation.” In spite of these obstacles and Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the plant was completed in 2001.

The operations team is key to the plant’s success. “For the Partnership program, we got all the staff together, reviewed the data, set guidelines and decided which operation and equipment improvements we needed to make,” recalls Sandy Weiss, water-quality supervisor. Improvements have included Wallace & Tiernan ferric chloride pumps (Evoqua Water Technologies), raw water turbidimeters (Hach Company), SuperPulsator clarifiers (SUEZ) and media filters (Roberts Filter Group).

Brand new plant

In 1847, Norristown Insurance and Water Company used the iron works pump house for the first treatment plant. Then, in the early 1900s, a conventional plant was started at the same site. In 1962, American Water bought the plant and added a second conventional treatment plant next to the original one, and ran them both for over 30 years. In 1996, the company decided to completely upgrade all the equipment that would replace the two previous plants. That new facility went online in 2001.

The SuperPulsator units replaced traditional flocculation and sedimentation systems in one-tenth the footprint. Seven filters with 36 inches of granular activated carbon replaced 16 smaller filters. A 2.6-million-gallon clearwell replaced a 750,000-gallon well, increasing chlorine contact time.

SCADA control replaced a combination of phone lines, manual operation, mechanical timers, personal judgment and guesswork. Other improvements included:

  • New pumps (Grundfos, Galigher - Weir Minerals, Moyno products by NOV, March), motors and electrical equipment
  • EST chlorine scrubber (Severn Trent Services) to handle chlorine leaks
  • Two plate-and-frame sludge presses (NETZSCH Pumps North America)
  • Envirex automated traveling screen (Evoqua Water Technologies) to eliminate physical raking of debris
  • New lab with all new instrumentation

During the past three years, the plant has added new Wallace & Tiernan ferric, caustic and polymer chemical feed pumps (Evoqua Water Technologies), a new communications network throughout the plant and distribution system, three new booster stations and new sludge thickening equipment that includes centrifuges, polymer feed equipment and instrumentation.

Zero discharge

The 18 mgd plant serves 101,000 people in the boroughs of Norristown and Bridgeport, and all or parts of nine townships. Schuylkill River water enters a submerged crib intake built in 1907 and rehabilitated in 1998. Potassium permanganate can be used for disinfection or for zebra mussel control.

The raw water is pumped to the plant’s pretreatment building, which houses hydrated lime, ferric chloride, blanket polymer, coagulant aid polymer and powdered activated carbon chemical feed areas, along with solids removal units. Chlorine may be added before or after coagulation mixing and also to the treated water. Operators normally add potassium permanganate as the primary disinfectant when the water is above 50 degrees F, and chlorine only at lower temperatures.

The water is treated with lime, ferric chloride and polymer, and flows through an inline static mixer to a mechanical flocculator, where powdered activated carbon is added for taste and odor control. A series of splitters divides the flow evenly for each of the four SuperPulsators.

Clarified water from the SuperPulsator units is sent to seven mixed-media filters, then treated with chlorine before entering the transfer clearwell. The finished water is sent to the distributive clearwell for treatment with caustic soda, ammonia and zinc orthophosphate before delivery to the distribution system.

A 336,000-gallon tower provides wash water for the filters. The wash water is collected in two 378,000-gallon wastewater clarifiers. Says Szczepanek, “We’re a zero-discharge facility. Instead of sending the clarified wastewater to the Schuylkill River, we process all our sediment and solids on site and recirculate the clarified water to the beginning of the treatment process.”

New technology

Running two plants and phasing them out as the new equipment came online presented challenges. The construction was done in sections. The general contractor, PKF Mark III, tested equipment as it was installed and ran the new plant while the Norristown crew ran the old plants. The contractor also trained the operators on each process.

The biggest challenge was the SCADA system. “We had older operators who were not experienced with SCADA control, just data acquisition, so there was a learning curve,” says Szczepanek. “New technology always creates a challenge. The learning was slow, but with experience comes knowledge.”

Hurricane Floyd put a wrinkle in the plan. “We were deciding whether to take the No. 1 clearwell section out, since that was the oldest part of the plant and the clearwell with the most capacity,” says Szczepanek. “Then the hurricane hit and made the decision for us.

“We shut down the plant. There was 2 1/2 feet of water in the lobby, and we were scared that the transformers would go, so I put on waders and went over to the breaker and disconnected the power. When we started up the plant five hours later, we had less than a day of water left.”

Making improvements

The operations team worked toward the Partnership goals while sections of the new plant came online. “We were trying to meet the regulations, analyze the data and continue to make operational improvements,” says Weiss. “After we received the Phase III Directors Award in 2000, we began working on Phase IV.”

The team collected filter and clarifier turbidity data with help from Bill Teodecki, SCADA technician. Then they met and discussed improvements. “We say that we treat water that is too thin to plow and too thick to swim in,” says Szczepanek. Each season brings challenges. Algae blooms from April to October impart taste and odor. Raw water turbidity can spike to 600 NTU. High organics create a trihalomethane challenge.

The team began monitoring the turbidimeters and making adjustments. “We analyzed each turbidity spike on each individual filter to determine if it was due to operational or instrumentation issues,” says Szczepanek. “We performed daily verifications and quarterly calibrations on each turbidimeter to help ensure compliance.”

They piloted a new coagulant, Ferri-Plus 1025 (PVS Technologies), in April 2015. It is helping lower clarifier turbidity and reduce sludge. “The solids are getting drier, which offsets the cost of the chemical,” says Szczepanek.

The team changes out the granular activated carbon on a regular schedule to ensure filter efficiency and to handle odors during algae blooms. The team also began feeding liquid ammonium sulfate (LAS) on the pretreatment side before the static mixer to create chloramines and thus lower THMs.

These improvements have paid off. Clarified water turbidity is typically 0.5 NTU, surpassing the 1.0 NTU Partnership goal. “By forming pre-chloramines with the use of LAS, we were able to drop the running annual THM average from a high of 78 ppb to a current concentration of 47 ppb,” Szczepanek says.

Close-knit group

A team of four operators and four maintenance workers keeps the Norristown plant running 24/7. All operators perform laboratory work and equipment calibration. “The operations staff considers the plant to be theirs, and they are a close-knit group,” says Szczepanek. “Really, the best equipment and the best instrumentation in the plant are the operators. We can’t do without them.”

Weiss has been with American Water for 27 years and is certified in Class A Water and Class A Wastewater. Szczepanek (37 years) is certified Class A Water and Class E Water Distribution. Reporting to him are:

  • Beth Friel, Mike Licwinko, John Milakeve and Scott Acker, operators
  • Tony Tiziana, maintenance foreman
  • Tish Gallagher, Ryan Lott and Steve Tiziana, maintenance relief operators

The team’s greatest strength is the ability to work unsupervised. “John Milakeve approached us to learn how to calibrate turbidimeters,” says Szczepanek. “Until then, operators only certified that the readings were correct. John has also expressed interest in conducting filter inspections, also traditionally a supervisor’s job. He’s active his entire shift and observes everything.

“Mike Licwinko has taken responsibility for logging all equipment issues that happen during off-hours into the computerized maintenance program. He not only enters his own discoveries, but those of other operators.”

Tony Tiziana stepped up to fill the maintenance foreman position. Says Szczepanek, “This job is a tough assignment that often requires expertise in various disciplines. When we’re short-staffed, Tony has slept at the plant after making repairs to make sure other issues don’t arise.”

Prepared for the future

The new plant and the staff are well-positioned for the years ahead, and that includes being more resilient against flooding. “The river is so close, we can throw a stone from the parking lot to the water,” says Szczepanek. “Out of the 22 highest floods in the area, I’ve been here for 18 of them.”

The new plant’s buildings have flood doors. Staff members have either moved, elevated or physically protected the most essential equipment. “We have a flood preparation plan to make sure we are ready and have enough chemical on hand, for example,” Szczepanek says.

The team has begun upgrading the sludge-handling equipment. “We’re going from a batch process to a continuous sludge centrifuge,” says Szczepanek. “With a batch process, you have to guess at the consistency, add chemicals and look at the results. If it’s wrong, you have to do it again. The new process will be continuous, so we can correct the chemistry as we go along, and we can run it around the clock if necessary.”

Weiss anticipates increasingly strict regulations: “We are dealing with emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals, and that creates a challenge. Once the technology improves, we can find these contaminants and remove them.”

Meanwhile, the team is continuously improving the distribution system. “A lot of the issues we are having are based on 70- to 80-year-old mains, but we are making great headway installing new ones,” says Szczepanek.

Szczepanek sees everyone’s job evolving. “My role is becoming more administrative all the time, so the operators are taking on more of the work I used to do as supervisor. And that’s a good personal growth experience for them.”

Husband-and-wife team

At the helm of the Norristown Water Treatment Plant are Stan Szczepanek, production supervisor, and Sandy Weiss, water-quality supervisor. As husband and wife, they work closely to make sure the plant’s 32,000 customers receive the best-quality water.

“We don’t have to bring our work home,” jokes Szczepanek, “because we can talk about it on the job.” He is responsible for budgets, operations and maintenance, and capital projects. Weiss oversees the on-site certified laboratory, reviews all water-quality data and makes sure the plant meets state and federal regulations.

“We met years ago when I was working at another location,” says Weiss. “Stan has been at the plant since 1979, and I was transferred there in 1997. I started as a lab analyst and was promoted to my current job in 2008.”

Each appreciates what the other brings to the job. Says Szczepanek, “Sandy was an integral part of achieving the Partnership for Safe Water goals and takes an active role in the day-to-day plant operations.”

Weiss comments, “Stan encourages teamwork and makes sure everyone gets credit for our successes. As a result, our operations and maintenance staff all care about each other and help each other out. They want everyone to succeed.”


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