Experience, Hard Work Are Keys to Success for Superintendent Tony Wood

Tony Wood learned through long and hard experience to become an expert operator, superintendent and grant writer for the clean-water plant in Osgood, Indiana.
Experience, Hard Work Are Keys to Success for Superintendent Tony Wood
Tony Wood came from a lab background and had to teach himself about wiring, controls, diagnostics, land application requirements, maintenance, safety and more.

Twenty-five years ago, Tony Wood’s life made a right-angle turn: He got married and within a month became the chief operator of the Osgood (Indiana) Wastewater Treatment Plant. While he had no experience in either case, he’s been successful at both.

He and his wife, Laurie, who is a teacher, have four children — two just graduating from college and two in high school. He has managed major upgrades and a complete turnaround at the Osgood plant and was named Wastewater System Operations Specialist of the Year for 2017 by the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water.

“I’ve had to learn everything the hard way, under fire,” says Wood. “I’ve grown from a dumb kid of 25 into a guy who has figured out every aspect of this operation.” Today, Wood is plant superintendent in Osgood and operates the wastewater treatment facility in the nearby small village of Friendship.

Help needed

The Osgood plant was in less than great shape when Wood arrived in 1992. He had worked in the quality control lab of a bottling plant and had some familiarity with industrial wastewater since he was responsible for the company’s water purification system and water testing. But this was different.

“The bottling plant decided to move, but I wanted to stay in the area,” he recalls. “The Osgood plant posted an opening, and I interviewed and got the job. The plant had numerous violations. There was personnel turnover, turmoil, lots of problems. Of nine parameters, we were violating six.” The system was experiencing overflows and bypassing, new sewer connections were banned, and treatment plant equipment was in disrepair and beyond its useful life.

“But I was young, it was a new job, and I welcomed the challenge,” Wood says. “I walked in and started cleaning up, delegating tasks, and seeking advice from other operators around the state.” It worked. Within two years, Osgood had retained a consultant and had designed plant upgrades. The first major upgrade since 1972 was completed by the end of 1998.

The upgrade replaced the old headworks as well as all the influent and return pumping. An extended air oxidation ditch and new clarifiers were added. Automation and instrumentation were modernized. A new lab and administration building were constructed. Much of the old plant was converted to storage tanks.

Second upgrade

Next came new sewers and upgraded lift stations. As a result, as of last summer, the utility had seen its longest streak of compliance without a violation — 15 months.
Wood’s knowledge of the job improved in those years: “I came into the position from a lab background, but I had a good logistical mindset. I had to educate myself on everything from wiring, controls, diagnostics, and land application requirements to technical things like materials on mechanical joints, maintenance and safety. I didn’t know everything, but as time went on, I built a good foundation.”

To finance the upgrade, the town raised rates and Wood helped identify critical needs as the town and its consultant successfully petitioned for rural development grant money. “We had no choice,” says Wood, a past president of the Southern Indiana Operators Association. “We had compliance issues, and that state mandated what we needed to do.”

Obtaining grant money has turned out to be one of Wood’s strong suits and is a good indicator of his approach to problems. “There’s lots of grant money out there,” he says. “You wouldn’t ordinarily consider wastewater operators as grant writers, but I take pride in writing grant applications.” Grants are available through the state’s riverboat casino funds, community foundations and trusts, and state and association sources.

For both utilities he represents, he has obtained $175,000 to $200,000 in small grants for treatment equipment, lab equipment, new samplers, safety equipment and even a lawn mower. Osgood’s new lab was built with grant money. “In the early 2000s, grants helped us with our distribution projects and helped us buy big equipment like trucks and a backhoe,” Wood says. “Grants have really helped us with infrastructure and have kept us from raising rates.”

Success secret

The secret to grant-writing success? “You must have a valid need, and you need to be able to sell it.” Integrity counts: “You need to mean what you say and say what you mean. You need to put your request in your own words so the grantors can put themselves in your shoes.”

Grants have also underwritten the weather stations at the Osgood and Friendship plants, and these are Wood’s pride and joy. “Weather is one of the key components of data information for wastewater plant operators. Most utilities have I&I (inflow & infiltration) issues. With good precipitation information, we can see what’s going on, where the flows are coming from, and which way they’re trending. We know when to act, when to respond.”

At both the Osgood and Friendship plants, a Weather Pro Plus system (Davis’ WeatherLink) tracks barometric pressure, UV radiation, wind speed and direction, temperature, the rate of rainfall, and collective rainfall. Stream flow is monitored by an ultrasonic solar-powered flowmeter. The data dumps into a data logger, goes to the WeatherLink system server and then is transmitted to the SCADA system in the wastewater plant control room.

The data is shared with others, serving as an effective public information link with the general population. “I can get water flows and see when it hits flood stage,” Wood says. “If there’s water on the road, public service can use the information.”

The National Weather Service uses the data to model stream flow. Wood is working with the Ripley County Emergency Management Agency and Laughery Valley Watershed, using weather stations to obtain digital stream flow information for discharges. The public has access to the weather information, since it’s listed in the local news media: “It’s good public relations.”

Tech tools

During his career, Wood has developed an appreciation for technology: “I started in 1992, and I have worked through three generations of technology. When I came in, there was a certain way of doing things. Then with our first plant upgrade, we used different technologies. And now, new technology continues to change the industry for the better. I didn’t have a computer when I started this job. Now, I have a desktop, a SCADA system, and a Microsoft Pro for GIS and our distribution system.”

Wood says technology enables plants like his to minimize time spent on specific tasks and limit unnecessary overtime. “We use variable-frequency drives to database our processes,” he says. “Technology helps us tweak our air and chemical feed rates and do our own GIS mapping.” With technology, he says, departments like water, gas and power can cross-train, use fewer people, and work smarter.

Technology also makes wastewater treatment a good field for young people, Wood believes. He has seen wastewater positions change from laborer level to systems manager. “We have numerous and very specialized positions now,” he says. Plus, wastewater experience can help people connect with engineering firms, manufacturers, regulatory agencies and specialty companies.

Community connection

“If you don’t necessarily like the office environment, if you like to get out in the field, if you like challenges, if you like technology, this is a great field to be in. It’s wide open.” While hard work, new technology, and a willingness to learn and adapt have helped Wood become the operator he is today, he is quick to acknowledge the importance of community support.

“Over the years, our town council has been good to us,” he says. “We are blessed. Our operators have a lot to do, so it’s important that our town board consistently has our backs. They allow you to go out and get what we need to do a good job.” He adds that the support of his community and town board have enabled him to become a better operator.

The feeling is mutual. Tammy Wilhoit, town clerk-treasurer, calls Wood a dedicated team player who is knowledgeable and easy to work with: “He’s very determined. He’s good at going after grant money, and when he sees something that would be an asset for his department or for the town, he goes after it. He’s an all-around go-getter.”

Working overtime

As if Tony Wood didn’t have enough to do managing the wastewater treatment operation at Osgood, he has taken on operations of the wastewater system for the neighboring village of Friendship.

“I live about 3 1/2 miles from the village,” Wood says. “It’s a scenic area, and the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association is based there. There are thousands of contests there all year long and a flea market and campgrounds.”

The community maintains a small, two-cell lagoon system with 20 pump stations and gravity sewers. “They needed somebody to look after the plant,” Wood says. “I go down there every day after my shift at Osgood and read the gauges, take care of groundskeeping, maintain the parts inventory, do preventive things and handle the compliance.”

He undertakes some of the tasks daily, some monthly and some seasonally. So how does he get away for vacation? “I have volunteers who can do some of the tasks for me. I have certain people available to back me up. It’s a neighborhood thing.”


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