Traditional Retirement Not an Option for This Award-Winning Operator

After a successful career at the wastewater treatment plant in Nashua, New Hampshire, John Adie brings his experience to two more clean-water facilities.
Traditional Retirement Not an Option for This Award-Winning Operator
John Adie, operations supervisor

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After winning a prestigious award for his contributions to the industry, John Adie retired from a 25-year career at the wastewater treatment facility in Nashua, New Hampshire.
But instead of transitioning to a life of fishing or golf, Adie chose to spend his retirement supervising two other plants with technologies that are new to him.

Adie received the 2015 William D. Hatfield Award from the New England Water Environment Association. At the time, he was operations supervisor at the Nashua plant. He is past president of the New Hampshire Water Environment Association.

“I’ve been involved with NHWEA for more than 10 years in different committees, and then 25 years at Nashua working from operator in training up to a supervisory position and being involved in multiple upgrades at the plant,” Adie says. He is now plant operations supervisor for the two clean-water facilities in nearby Concord, New Hampshire.

Interest in environment

As a youngster, Adie and a good friend were interested in careers as forest rangers. “I always did a lot of hiking, biking and camping and was interested in preserving the environment,” Adie says. His friend became a genetics engineer.

Adie earned an associate degree in earth science from Northern Essex Community College and was working on a chemistry degree at Salem State University. A job opened up at a printed circuit board company that included dealing with wastewater. His background fit the job, so he took it, leaving school.

Less than three years later, though, things weren’t looking so bright. “A lot of the plating industries were going overseas, and there was a rumor that we would be closing shop,” Adie says. “My next-door neighbor worked in human resources at Nashua. She told me there would be an opening at the wastewater treatment facility. I toured the plant, did an interview and got the job. A couple of years later, the circuit board company closed its doors.”

Gaining responsibility

The Nashua Wastewater Treatment Facility is fed by a combined sewer system and has a design flow of 16 mgd, an average flow of 11 mgd, and a peak wet-weather flow of 110 mgd. After starting as an operator in training in 1989, he moved steadily up the ranks.

He became a Grade IV operator 11 years ago. “We don’t do the ABC [Association of Boards of Certification] test,” he says. “It’s a test developed by engineers at the state Department of Environmental Services, so it’s more an engineering test than a knowledge test.”

He has also taken certifications over the years in management and supervisory skills, and in building and repairing computers. He kept upgrading his license and knowledge because he always wanted to be in management, and he continues studying today. He left Nashua in 2000 to go back to Boston University for Computing Technology Industry Association A+ certification and to earn a certificate in computer network administration: “I was dabbling in it but really started to like it.”

He remembers telling Rick Seymour, plant superintendent and his boss, that he was changing careers: “He sits me down and says, ‘Johnny, does your wife know about this?’ He wrote me a nice letter of recommendation and wished me luck. I thought I was going to get a job in the field, but then 9/11 happened, and the whole bottom fell out of the industry.”

Back to Nashua

So, about 12 months after he left Nashua, he was looking for a new job. “With my networking skills, Nashua called and asked if I wanted to come back and do SCADA work for them,” Adie says. “They were really going to start ramping up the SCADA system and needed someone with networking knowledge. So things worked out for me. I’m a pretty lucky guy.”

As far as Seymour’s reaction upon Adie’s return: “He didn’t say much. ‘Welcome back’ was probably all he said, but with a big grin on his face.” Adie was lead operator when the plant became the only one in the state to install an egg-shaped anaerobic digester. That $23 million project took two years, and the biogas generated provides about a third of the plant’s electricity. “It also reduced our biosolids by more than 50 percent, so we had a cost savings, and it helped with odors around the plant because everything is self-contained,” Adie says.

That was the most challenging project he has faced in his career. “Learning that process was totally different,” he says. “It took us a long time to figure out how to run the digester. It was a big learning curve, but we had good guidance from the engineers at CB&I, who built the facility.” As lead operator, he worked with the engineers, made sure all the operators understood the equipment, and integrated it with the SCADA system.

Treating high flows

Adie was operations supervisor in 2009 when the plant added a $37 million, 60 mgd wet-weather treatment facility to help reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs). “The main challenges were keeping track of the contractors, attending the engineering meetings, making sure the construction didn’t inhibit the plant processes, and seeing that everyone was working together getting over any hurdles,” he says. “At the time, the project had the most concrete ever poured in the Northeast. We had concrete trucks coming in for weeks.”

The two-year project increased the plant’s peak capacity from 50 mgd to 110 mgd. “When the inflow level gets high enough, there is a weir that splits the flow to the wet-weather facility,” Adie says. “It has an ACTIFLO system (Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies North America) that adds microsand and polymer to the water and drops out the solids. With the ballasted floc, we have a clear effluent going into the chlorine contact chamber.”

The city has spent nearly $70 million to minimize CSOs, including a $12 million automated underground combined sewage screening and disinfection facility built in December 2014. That gravity-fed system includes a 1-million-gallon holding tank that stores the overflow for later treatment and provides partial treatment to amounts over 1 million gallons to reduce the impact of CSOs. Eliminating overflows with such engineered solutions will cost more than $100 million, while separating all combined sewers would cost about $250 million.

Just before Adie left Nashua, the plant spent $4.16 million to replace three 25-year-old blowers with energy-efficient 200 hp Turblex blowers (Evoqua Water Technologies) and upgrade the secondary clarifiers.

Another new path

Shortly after receiving the Hatfield Award in 2015, Adie qualified for his full retirement pension at Nashua and decided to move on. He took the job in Concord in February 2016 and oversees the 10.1 mgd Hall Street and the 1.25 mgd Penacook wastewater treatment plants.

The Hall Street facility is a conventional activated sludge plant with a bioreactor that includes a trickling filter to handle BOD. It also treats 5 million gallons of landfill leachate and 2 million gallons of septage per year. Penacook is a sequencing batch reactor plant, converted from conventional activated sludge when a local tannery closed in 1987. The former primary clarifier and aeration tank are now used for storage during wet-weather flows.

Adie welcomes the chance to work with processes new to him. “That’s probably the best thing about working in this field,” he says. “The principles pretty much stay the same. You apply them differently to get the same result.”

The management skills he learned at Nashua have helped him embrace new tasks, such as issuing requests for proposals. “Project management is important now because plants around the country are going through facelifts,” he says. “Our next one in Concord is a solids dewatering project and we’re looking at adding digestion in the near future.” Both plants are planning major SCADA upgrades, too.

Adie considers himself fortunate because his previous and current jobs allowed him work in the plant even though he had a desk job. That keeps things fresh and lets him to stay involved in operating plant equipment.

In Concord, he is on call one week in every five. That includes doing rounds on weekends, when the plant is unmanned. “So I still get to be an operator, and not a lot of people get that,” he says. If they put me behind a desk totally, I’d have to really think about doing it. I still like getting out and involved in the process, flipping switches, trying new things. I’m happy with that. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

More than just games

John Adie has been building his own computers since he was a kid. He does it now to feed his addiction to computer gaming, mainly first-person shooting adventures and a few strategy games: “Just because it’s fun.”

His gaming dates to 1995, when his family got its first desktop computer and he discovered “Doom,” the game that introduced the first-person shooter genre and helped lead development of 3-D graphics, multiplayer gaming and customized software and hardware packages.

Adie spends a couple of hours a night gaming. “While my wife [Anjanette] is watching her reality shows, I’ll be on the computer. Fifty-two years old and I haven’t grown up yet,” he says. His interest in computers and electronics predates his gaming; it was a hobby he shared with his dad, Les.

“We were building stereos and computers way back when you could buy the kits at Radio Shack,” he says. “Then we got the Commodore 64 and I thought that was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life, because you could actually buy programs for it instead of typing them in, and you could play games with it.”

Guinness World Records lists the Commodore as the highest-selling computer model of all time. Some 20 million were sold, many still in use with a resurgence in retro computer games. It was the most powerful computer of its time in 1982, and cheaper than its competitors. It introduced online gaming in 1988 with the game “Habitat,” which stored graphics on a floppy disk to overcome the limitations of the modems of the day.

As interest in home computers grew, high schools added computing to their curricula. Adie learned the current programming languages: BASIC, COBOL (the first English-like computer language), and FORTRAN (scientific and math language). That set him up well to continue learning through the years. Little did he know that his interest would become an important part of his work resume as computers became integral to the wastewater treatment industry.


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