A Passion for Answers

Brandon Pechin met new system startup challenges at two Idaho clean-water plants with hard work and a thirst for learning.
A Passion for Answers
The team at the Lander Street facility includes, from left, Mike Hames, Tom Wylie, Brian Schmidt, Ben Cannady, Dylan Manley, Royce Davis, Ben Blough, Jared Petrie, Shane Curry, Nicholas Solorzano, Dave Slaughter, Leon Cretal, Micky Walker, Nick Angelopoulos, Jay Irby, Rod Rodriguez, Brandon Pechin, Corky Raub and Freddie Babauta. Not shown: Steven Beberness, Ty Waterman, Clint Gearthart, Dale Steele, Mike Duehlmeier, Jesse Hartman and Ryan Ketterling.

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Brandon Pechin has never shied away from a challenge.

For years, he ran his own property maintenance business. He later helped the city of Boise transition from chemical to biological phosphorus removal at the Lander Street Water Renewal Facility. His can-do attitude won him the 2016 Operator of the Year from the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association.

“Brandon has been a key team member in several changes in treatment systems operated by the city of Boise,” says Royce Davis, plant manager, in nominating Pechin. “These included reducing dissolved oxygen in the aeration basins from 2.0 mg/L to 1.0 mg/L and operating the primary clarifier as an activated fermenter. Some of the million kilowatt-hours saved at Lander Street over 12 months related directly to Brandon asking probing questions.”

Pechin was promoted in July 2016 and tasked with starting up the city’s Dixie Drain phosphorus removal facility, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Today, he is one of two operators there.

“What I love about my job is being on the cutting edge — molding the facility and helping to give it direction,” he says. “I’m learning more than I normally would because we’re on our own out here.”

So far, the startup has gone well: The facility is meeting its goal of 750 pounds per month of phosphorus removed, with a potential of 10 tons per year.

Affinity for operations

Pechin came to the clean water profession after eight years in property maintenance. “My business was doing well but taking up all my family time,” he recalls. In 2011, he applied for a building maintenance job with Boise, expecting an easy transition. He read the job description but didn’t notice the location: “I had no idea it was at the poop plant!”

After a year at Lander Street, he passed the exam for his Wastewater Operator 1 license, hoping to move to an operator position. “I found that I had an affinity for operations,” he says.

“The diversity was very appealing. In one day, you can help take a pump apart, conduct a microscopic exam, attend engineering meetings, and then do research on how to improve plant effluent.”

Four years after receiving his certification, he was hired as an operator and began on-the-job training. “I was lucky that the senior operators were willing to share information,” he says. “I tried not to ask the same questions twice so I wouldn’t waste their time.” He now holds a Level 2 license (4 is the highest) and recently earned an associate degree in biology-natural resources from the College of Western Idaho with a focus on water sciences. That took three years of night classes. Next, comes a test for his Level 4 license.

Major influences

Pechin credits his mentors for much of his success. His first mentor was Davis, his current boss: “Royce has been a leader in every sense of the word and continues to push his people to better themselves through education, teamwork and a positive workplace.”

Another major influence is process coordinator Ron Gearhart, who helped him understand process biological concepts and see the bigger picture. The plant’s operation supervisors make a difference in his life by “being open and sharing their success and mistakes in their careers and even in their personal lives.”

Although now responsible for the Dixie Drain facility, Pechin looks back fondly at his 3 1/2 years at Lander Street: “I still think of this place as home.” There, he earned the Regional Operator Award from the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association’s Southwest Idaho Operators Section and later Plant Operator of the Year. “I was surprised that I won since I’m relatively new to wastewater treatment. But I work with great people who all deserve an award.”

The 15 mgd design (13 mgd average) activated sludge plant was built in 1948 — one of the first in the state. Lander Street and the 24 mgd (design) West Boise plant treat wastewater for 220,000 people. In 2011, the Lander Street plant implemented chemical phosphorus removal and then replaced it with biological removal in 2015. Equipment incudes:

Five rectangular primary clarifiers (one used as an activated primary clarifier for creating volatile fatty acids through fermentation)

  • Five aeration basins in a step-feed configuration and a dissolved oxygen setpoint of 1.0 mg/L
  • Three secondary clarifiers
  • UV disinfection (TrojanUV)
  • Methane-driven influent pumps (Waukesha Cherry-Burrell, an SPX Brand)
  • Chemical feed pumps (Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group)
  • SCADA system with Wonderware software (Schneider Electric software)

Methane from the treatment process heats water in boilers for the process and to fuel two Waukesha engines (GE Energy) that drive the wastewater pumps. Biosolids are digested and pumped seven miles underground to the West Boise plant where they are belt pressed and applied to city-owned cropland. Effluent is discharged to the Boise River.

Many achievements

Pechin’s many responsibilities at Lander Street included assisting with special projects such as stress, pilot, and optimization testing of equipment and processes. He also trained and observed new operators.

His greatest challenge was the switch to biological phosphorus removal: “We had a perfectly fine working facility, but we wanted to do better than the minimum standard defined by our permit. We had to justify that we could make biological removal work and prove it at each level, right up to the U.S. EPA. The engineers who came in here said it could never be done without plant modification, but we didn’t spend any money the first year. It was all done with two trash pumps.”

They spent some money the second year to buy a more permanent pumping setup (a Vaughan chopper pump). “With any new startup, there will always be gremlins,” Pechin says. “This was the first of its kind, and we all learned together — myself, the engineers and the contractors. Gearhart, Davis, and the operations staff all helped out, and I feel very grateful to the people I worked with.”

In the bio-P process, a primary sludge fermentation process creates volatile fatty acids, leading to the growth of polyphosphate-accumulating organisms. “The PAOs have an affinity for phosphorus in the wastewater,” Pechin says. “Through anaerobic and anoxic cycling, the phosphorus is released and a luxury uptake occurs. Then, those PAOs with bellies full of phosphorus are wasted to the digesters.”

The city joined an energy cohort with Idaho Power and third-party Cascade Energy: “The third party asked questions like whether we needed to operate all the pumps or whether we could cycle them on and off. We ended up changing the wet-well levels so the pumps wouldn’t run as often.”

The plant now pumps more with digester gas-powered pumps, running fewer of the Aurora Layne/Verti-Line pumps. In addition, airflow to the aeration basins is regulated more efficiently.

“Brandon helped profile the aeration basins and stabilize bio-P,” Davis says. “He also helped the plant achieve impressive effluent phosphorus results with drastically reduced chemical consumption.” The plant saved more than $200,000 per year in chemical costs.

Always learning

With the success of bio-P, Pechin was ready to start up the 135 mgd Dixie Drain facility at the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers. The process includes sedimentation, polyaluminum chloride addition and flocculation.

“We divert 128 mgd of agricultural runoff from the Snake River,” he says. “Then, we treat it and send it to a 32-million-gallon pond.” The newly formed floc settles to the bottom and is dredged and pumped to a drying bed. Evaporation then leaves a clay-like product of aluminum phosphate.

The facility operates May 1 to Sept. 30. The rest of the year, Pechin returns to Lander Street to work on research and run benchtop tests. Working with him at Dixie Drain are Steven Beberness, operator 2, and Dru Smedshammer, mechanic. “I love that I learn something new every day,” Pechin says. “In fact, I almost have a fear of not learning.” He has learned about the metabolism of microorganisms, how to balance chemical reactions, and the impact of flow rate on receiving water temperature.

He especially enjoyed presenting a training class on wastewater microbiology at the 2016 Southwest Idaho Operators Section conference. He shared his experience researching different organisms and identifying PAOs through staining techniques.

Pechin is glad he chose wastewater treatment. “I can’t imagine doing anything else now. Every day I make a positive impact on the community and the environment.” For the future, he aims to give back by making information on bio-P available to other operators.

“My goal is to work toward a role that involves more process optimization, research and data collection,” he says. “Then, I’ll package this information for operators to use. I’ve learned that there isn’t one way of doing something that is absolutely correct. I prefer to see how the pieces fit together and then figure out what works for me. I have a passion for finding answers.”


Taking a break

When not operating treatment facilities, Brandon Pechin spends as much time as he can with wife, Stacey, and 12-year-old son, Carter. “I am the offensive- and defensive-line coach for Carter’s returning championship football team, the Goodwood Outlaws,” he says. “So, in a way, I have 22 sons to look after.” His son is also on a lacrosse team that travels around the Northwest. The family also enjoys boating, camping, and barbecues with family and friends.

Pechin doesn’t get to slow down very often: “My time is maxed out, and some nights, I can barely sleep because my mind won’t turn off. For me to improve, I must work harder. What I do doesn’t always come easy, so I have to put in the extra time.”

His advice to other plant operators? “Commit to your time off. You have to unplug or you will burn out, and then you’re only hurting yourself.”



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