This Award-Winning Virginia Water Plant Excels at Treatment Performance and Operator Training

Operators in Salem do more than deliver high-quality water. They earn awards for excellent performance and help train other operators from around Virginia.

This Award-Winning Virginia Water Plant Excels at Treatment Performance and Operator Training

Frank Young, left, chief operator, and Will Shaner, water department lead, believe training is essential to sustaining award-winning quality.

Each year from 2013-16, the water filtration plant in Salem, Virginia, has earned a Gold Award from the Office of Drinking Water in the Virginia Health Department.

That means meeting goals stricter than state and federal regulations, says Frank Young, the plant’s chief operator: “You kind of go above and beyond trying to get the best water possible to your customers.”

Yet the plant team isn’t just in the business of winning awards. It’s chiefly about delivering high-quality water to customers while serving as a hands-on training site for students at Virginia Tech.

Doing more

The Virginia performance award program is voluntary. To earn recognition, plants must meet three goals related to clarification, filtration, and filter backwash. A Bronze Award meets the filtration standard. A Silver Award meets the filtration standard and one of the other criteria. A Gold Award meets all three.

The Salem operations team members have fully bought into the award program. “They take it personal,” Young says. “I think everybody wants the award for their own. We have a pretty close-knit group, and a lot of us have been together for a long time.”

City officials are also fully on board: “Our management has let us have control over the plant. They’re not just interested in having a plant that only meets regulations and does nothing more.”

Young himself is not one to accept the status quo. In 2017, he received the Edward H. Ruehl Operator of the Year Award from the Virginia Section of the American Water Works Association. In his letter nominating Young, Greg Boardman, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, says he met Young through the hands-on training program and finds him curious, energetic, organized, personable, caring, honest and sincere. “The other operators not only respect him for what he knows, but for the example he sets,” Boardman writes.

The next generation

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech has recognized the plant for outstanding service and excellent instruction in the form of hands-on training. The program, launched several years ago, educates operators mainly from Virginia but also some from other states. Salem has been involved since 2010.

At the outset of training, some students have an idea of what happens inside a water plant, and others have none. But, all of them find out when they walk into the Salem facility. “Everyone in this whole plant participates,” Young says. “We do our normal, everyday things like filter backwashing.” 

Students come in twice a year. Each class of 15 is broken into three groups. “With that small a group, you can get your hands dirty and really learn something,” Young says. Instruction is spread over two days, typically a Thursday and Friday. Young tries to schedule team members to rotate among subjects so the same person does not teach the same thing year after year.

The river factor

As for daily operation, the Salem plant is built right beside the Roanoke River, one of its water sources. The plant is elevated to keep it above the 100-year floodplain. Three wells also help meet the city’s demand; two are on the plant site, and the third is nearby.

Water from the river comes in through a 36-inch pipe. The intake structure is fitted with 3-mm screens from Johnson Screen (Aqseptence Group) to exclude small aquatic creatures or fish eggs, says Will Shaner, assistant chief operator. The screens have automatic air blowers to remove debris.

Pumps (Aurora Layne/Verti-Line 50 hp, 2,900 gpm) deliver the water to a pair of 500,000-gallon presedimentation basins. Detention times averaging four to eight hours (depending on demand) remove much of the sediment from the river water before it enters the plant. One benefit of being high above the river is that the flow through the plant is entirely by gravity.

At the head of the plant, water goes past Chemineer 15 hp flash mixers (NOV) that feed coagulant (DelPAC from USALCO) and fluorosilicic acid. For algae control, mainly in summer, sodium permanganate is also fed. The 1.5 hp flocculators (also Chemineer) have 87.5-inch impellers. After the sedimentation basins, the water flows through sand, anthracite, and gravel filters with a Leopold - a Xylem Brand underdrain system.

Two 1-million-gallon storage tanks hold the water for distribution. Gaseous chlorine is fed there for disinfection. “A nice thing with this plant is that our wells come directly to the plant,” Young says. “They do not feed the presedimentation basins. So if there is an issue with the river, we can shut the intake down and pull directly from the wells.” 

Interstate 81 lies about 13 miles upstream, and on occasion, a spill or accident can contaminate the river water headed for the plant. Operators stay in close contact with state officials, who alert them to problems upstream. “Anytime there’s an accident, we shut the intake until we hear from the state,” Young says. Most instances are false alarms.

Focus on training

The plant used to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that changed a few years ago. It now operates from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; outside those hours, an autodialer function built into the control system alerts an on-call worker to problems that may occur.

“We found that shutting down helps with water turnover in the tanks,” Young says. By 11 p.m., operators make sure all the storage tanks are as full as possible. The next day is spent refilling the tanks. Another advantage is cost: Electricity is one of the largest expenses, and shutting down saves money.

In addition to Young and Shaner, the operations team includes Mark Goodman, Kenny Elmore, Brian Hiner and Justin Epperly, senior operators; Ben Hoose, Preston Fralin, Christopher Litteral and Charles Cook, operator I; Dennis Hardy, operator II; and Marcus Potts, chemist.

A separate maintenance staff includes Billy Williams, maintenance manager; Freddie Carroll, assistant maintenance manager; Brandon Poff, Michael Allen and Kevin Wilson, maintenance technicians; and Randy Epperly, custodian.

At press time, the Salem plant was on track to meet its goals again and achieve another Gold Award from the Office of Drinking Water. Training, a point of emphasis in Salem, helps sustain that level of quality. It’s delivered through Virginia Tech and various online channels. “If somebody has an interest in something, we will look into it,” Young says. “And our director Larado Robinson is very supportive of that.” Workers also gain some continuing education credits by teaching the Virginia Tech hands-on classes.

Salem residents, to no surprise, care greatly about the quality of their drinking water. After the widely publicized problems with treating river water in Flint, Michigan, the Salem plant received a number of calls from concerned residents. It wasn’t difficult to put them at ease, Young says.

“When I give a tour, I always say river water is one of the main challenges because you don’t know if it’s going to be the same five years from now. It’s always changing.” With a high-performing plant and a dedicated staff, the people of Salem don’t have to worry.

Good water everywhere

While some water plants have to worry about blending surface water with well water, that is not the case in Salem, Virginia. “The wells are very similar to what we’re pulling out of the river,” says Frank Young, chief operator.

Although considered to be groundwater, the well water is heavily influenced by the surface water just above. Young says, “People say, ‘Aren’t you just pulling water out of the river?’ Technically, no.” The well water has been tested for iron, manganese and other substances, and it has proven to be very similar to the river water.

In case something should happen to its supply sources — the river and the wells — the Salem team has yet another option: two interconnections with the Western Virginia Water Authority, which comprises of Roanoke County, the city of Roanoke, and other municipalities that surround Salem.

Salem sold water to those communities before the authority was formed, and Young and his team find it comforting to know that in an emergency, their city won’t be isolated.


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