High Efficiency Gets Missouri Operator Lofty Award

Bryan Leighow is glad his career path led to the clean-water profession. He finds endless variety and great satisfaction in producing quality effluent.
High Efficiency Gets Missouri Operator Lofty Award
Jordan Reinbold uses a dissolved oxygen meter (Hach) as Bryan Leighow records results.

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Chief operator Bryan Leighow was surprised when he won the 2015 Operator of the Year award from the Missouri Water Environment Association in the small plant division: “I’m kind of a quiet person, so the award was a big deal to me.”

After 23 years in the industry, his recognition is well deserved. Since 2014, he has worked at the Oak Grove (Missouri) Wastewater Treatment Facility and has strived to optimize plant performance. “We’ve done a lot of fixing up and have added some new equipment in the past few years,” he says.

The plant team has reduced electricity costs by 23 percent over the last three years by running equipment more efficiently, using energy-efficient lighting and monitoring energy use. A switch from propane to electric heat in the headworks and motor control center buildings also saved money.

The 1.3 mgd extended aeration plant, built in 2006, serves about 8,000 residents. Leighow is proud of the effluent quality: The process removes 96 percent of BOD and 97 percent of TSS.   

Highly motivated

Leighow credits his mentors for much of his success. “I was nominated for the WEA award by someone outside the city who I worked with in Blue Springs, Missouri,” he says. That was Jeff Shook, who used to be the city’s Public Works director and Leighow’s mentor.

“Jeff and my other two bosses, Jeff Mock and Roger Moerke, taught me the right way of going about things, and we’re still friends,” he observes.

Leighow started at the city of Blue Springs in the parks department, moved to the street department, and then worked in water distribution before moving to the wastewater treatment plant as a laboratory technician and operator. “I took laboratory classes, studied to get my class D wastewater license, and then eventually my class A license,” he says. “When the neighboring town of Oak Grove needed a chief wastewater operator, I got the job.”

He is certified in OSHA site safety, accident prevention, construction and estimating, technical mathematics and AutoCAD. He took advanced activated sludge and extended aeration courses from the University of Colorado. He has taken classes through the Missouri Water Environment Association, WEF and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Doing it all

Today, Leighow does everything at the plant and shares duties with operator Jordan Reinbold: “Jordan has been here for three years. I trained him when I came on board, and I love sharing knowledge with him.”

Says Reinbold, “Bryan is a great mentor and I’ve learned a lot from him over the last couple of years. He explains things in a way that I can understand, and he’s very patient and thorough.”

They work 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. On-call staff members from Public Works do a walkthrough and gather information and readings on weekends and holidays. The operators handle scheduled maintenance such as equipment greasing, pump inspection and blower oil changes. They also mow and trim the grass. They run BOD, TSS, E. coli, pH, ammonia, hardness and metals tests in the on-site lab. “We do all our own lab work except for oil and grease testing,” Leighow says. “It takes a full day to set up the lab, collect the samples and run the tests.”

Major plant equipment includes:

  • Step screen (Huber Technology)
  • Grit removal (John Meunier - Veolia Water Solutions & Technology)
  • Diffusers (Environmental Dynamics)
  • UV disinfection (WEDECO - a Xylem Brand)
  • Pumps and mixer (Flygt)
  • Dissolved oxygen meter and probe (Hach)
  • Sudorbilt blowers (Gardner Denver)

Up with efficiency

The SCADA system with InduSoft software (Wonderware by Schneider Electric) lets the operators monitor the plant, lift stations, water stations and towers. Effluent is pumped to the head of the plant for grit removal and dewatering press washing. Discharge is to an unnamed tributary of Sni-A-Bar Creek.

Biosolids are pumped to two treatment cells and eventually land-applied. “Surrounding farms use the biosolids,” Leighow says. “A subcontractor runs a line from the cells to the fields, and the biosolids are injected under the surface with a chisel plow.”

Energy efficiency measures include operating only one clarifier, running the blowers at the lowest setting, and switching from halogen to LED lighting. “West Central Electric set us up on a program where we can go online and look at our average energy use by the hour, month or year,” Leighow says. “That tells us what it costs to run different pieces of equipment. For instance, we now use our waste pumps mostly during off-peak hours.”

Operators run the blowers according to influent dissolved oxygen, uptake rate, and mixed liquor and clarifier dissolved oxygen. Leighow explains, “We keep our DO at the lowest we must have to operate. One of the most overlooked things is the over-aeration of a plant, which directly affects money spent on electricity.”

“The plant has also changed out defective diffusers to keep everything in a fine aeration state. A lot of times, this can make a difference, rather than putting another blower in service for just that little bit of required DO.”

The switch from electric to propane heat in a few areas has also made a difference. “Our propane units are larger in order to heat bigger areas at higher temperatures. These units are very expensive to run and to work on. But, the headworks and MCC buildings do not need to be heated at higher temperatures, since anything above freezing is sufficient,” Leighow says.

He plans to switch to variable-speed drives at the pump station in the next few years. He’s also considering solar or wind power: “We’re looking at the pluses and minuses, and figuring out where we would put this equipment.”

Farming the bugs

Leighow enjoys the science behind wastewater treatment. “What I find most rewarding is seeing what comes in and what we’re releasing to the stream,” he says. “The biological aspect is interesting. We’re really glorified bug farmers.”

He finds budget constraints frustrating: “I want the plant to be the best it can be, and I want it right now. Having to wait for something you know will make the plant run more efficiently is hard. These things, like variable-frequency drives, can be costly.” He looks forward to upgrades in the next three years: new grit removal and SCADA systems, new flowmeters, clarifier covers to keep out the algae, and a new non-potable water system.

Challenges include inflow and infiltration from cracks in old pipes, leaking or flooded manholes, and residential sump pumps. “We allot a certain amount of money every year to address this, and we treat the worst cases first,” he says. Solutions range from lining sewers and manholes to total replacement. The city manages to stay on top of it.”

The plant also deals with power outages from storms, relying on a diesel-powered 475 kW backup generator (Onan Corporation). “That unit is run on a two-second delay for any power outages and performs a test cycle every week for 15 minutes.”

Leighow finds it useful to network with operators from similar facilities in the area to discuss topics such as equipment upgrades. He also attends local seminars and trade shows: “I go to those that I can learn from or haven’t been to yet. And it’s also where I pick up the required hours for my wastewater license.”

If he had to do it over, he would choose the profession again. “Although there are many things that interest me, this job offers a lot of variety,” he says. “Anyone who runs a plant knows that changing one thing directly affects something else. It can sometimes be difficult to obtain the best effluent quality at the lowest operating cost; that is a challenge I enjoy.”

Family man

Once the planned upgrades are complete, Leighow would like to start giving plant tours to student groups. “I worked with the Grain Valley schools when I was at the Blue Springs plant,” he says.

“They would bring in the science classes, and I’d set up microscopes in the lab and show them what we did.”

Leighow feels the tours give students a better perspective than they can get in the classroom: “I really do enjoy teaching kids and seeing the lights go on.”

In the meantime, his greatest satisfaction is serving the people of Oak Grove. He is also proud of his family. “My daughter, Bailey, is at Grain Valley High School and wants to be a doctor and work with Doctors Without Borders,” he says. “My son, Brenton, is attending Avila University on a football scholarship. He plays defensive end and is studying kinesiology. He wants to be involved in sports medicine as a physical therapist.”

Says Bailey, “Dad has shown us that we can do anything we set our mind to, and that we should expand our knowledge about life and the world.”

Brenton recalls, “My dad always told me when we were hunting together to enjoy all the small things in life, and to take a deep breath and look at all the beauty around me.”

Outdoor adventures

When Bryan Leighow isn’t working hard as chief operator at the Oak Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility, he enjoys fishing and deer hunting on the family’s farm in Bosworth, Missouri.

He also likes to hunt wild hogs, pheasant, quail and chucker. “We have six large ponds and one small lake where my father-in-law has stocked and raised bass, crappie, catfish and perch,” Leighow says.

An archer for 28 years, he hunts with a compound bow. The sport can be frustrating: “I may never see anything, but just being out in nature gives me time to reflect.”

If you’re ever at the Oak Grove plant, you might want to ask him about his wild hog hunting story: “It almost ended up with the hog getting a taste of me rather than the other way around!”
Leighow plans to retire in three to five years. “That will give me more time for RV travel with my wife and for enjoying our antiques and collectibles store in Warrensburg,” he says. “It’s called Those Were the Days and is one of the largest of its kind in the state.”


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