People-Oriented Eric Osborne Helps Utility Select the Right People and Keep Team Members Trained

Eric Osborne helps his utility succeed by selecting the right people and keeping the team trained. He also gives back through association involvement.

People-Oriented Eric Osborne Helps Utility Select the Right People and Keep Team Members Trained

Eric Osborne, water production manager, Henry County Water Authority

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Eric Osborne ended up in the water industry because of a call from a prospective employer that didn’t come.

Now, after 30 years, the industry has given him opportunities and rewards as broad as an ocean. As water production manager for the Henry County (Georgia) Water Authority, Osborne oversees Tussahaw Water Treatment Plant (16.1 mgd) and the Towaliga Water Treatment Plant (24.4 mgd), along with 27 full-time team members, the compliance and process-control labs, water tank maintenance, and major contracts for painting and renovating storage tanks.

It’s a big job. Henry County is part of metropolitan Atlanta. In 2017, the county’s estimated population was 225,813, up 10.8% from 2010. That growth has brought increased demand for water.

Growing demand

The Tussahaw plant was completed in 2007 and is piped so that the treatment system in place can be duplicated on site when demand requires it. The Towaliga plant was built in the 1970s and has been expanded four times. Both plants use conventional technology.

Five reservoirs provide source water, and treatment consists of standard coagulation (alum), sedimentation and filtration with sand-anthracite beds. Chlorine and phosphate, plus lime for pH adjustment, are fed after filtration and before water flows to a contact tank and then into the distribution system.

Osborne has won several awards for his work, most recently an Operator Meritorious Service Award from the Georgia Section of the American Water Works Association. He is also vice chair of the Georgia Board of Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators, which licenses operators in the state.

The call that came

Osborne grew up in a small town in upstate New York and learned about water at an early age. With his grandfather, he would drive a tractor to a family property, fill a tank, haul it to his grandfather’s home and dump it into the well, which didn’t recharge fast enough to meet demand. Years later, while on a church mission trip to Cuba, he met a couple of men doing the exact same thing to a well there.

Osborne started studying at the University of Pittsburgh, but then met a woman from Georgia. He transferred to Georgia State University, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. Yes, they did marry.

The twist of fate that moved him into the water industry came while he was doing plumbing at a company making hot tubs. “I would say I can fix any plumbing in my house that I need to, but I don’t know if an inspector would think it was very good work,” he says. “But I can plumb a hot tub in less than half an hour.”

For a young man looking to start a family, it wasn’t an ideal job; it had limited benefits and time off. Osborne applied to Delta Air Lines and to the Clayton County Water Authority. Delta didn’t call. Clayton County did.

Although Osborne had interviewed for a midnight shift job as a plant operator, the interviewer said there was another job he might be better suited for: They wanted him to work in the lab. He started with Clayton County in 1988 and after 11 years was promoted to lab supervisor. Meanwhile he moonlighted as an operator in the authority’s water plant and picked up substantial operational knowledge as well as several licenses. After 20 years in Clayton County, he was hired on with neighboring Henry County, where he was living, as lab supervisor and compliance coordinator. About 18 months later, he was promoted to his current position as water production manager.  

Project pride

Since he became a manager, the project he takes the most pride in is the conversion from dry to liquid chemical feeds. Henry County has switched from hydrated lime to liquid lime and from dry to liquid phosphate, and it’s converting to liquid permanganate. “The main reason to convert is to save money, because you can feed liquid more accurately,” Osborne says. 

An important secondary reason is safety. Liquid chemicals arrive by truck and are piped into the appropriate tank. That means plant workers are not exposed to the hazards of dust from handling bags of dry chemicals.

The liquid lime project was especially involved. First Osborne had to convince the manufacturer to sell him a system to go inside a plant instead of in a separate building.

“We had to take the roof off part of this building, take the old silo out and put the new tank in,” he says. “And it’s probably a six-story basement.”

The same metal roof that came off the building went back on: “I wound up contacting the manufacturer and finding a contractor who could unseam it, save the panels and reseam it. It required taking beams out of the attic and all kinds of stuff. It was a big project to do in-house, and it came in early and under budget.”

In any career there are mistakes. “I’ve learned a lot about dealing with people who work for me and around me,” he says. “At certain parts of my career, I wish I’d been more emotionally intelligent. I feel like I’m more emotionally intelligent now, and I wound up being a much better manager.”

Outreach and involvement

Early in his career, Osborne joined the Georgia Section of the AWWA as a way to give back, learn from others and make his lab better. “I’ve borrowed ideas from everybody I’ve done an inspection for,” he says. “That brings the level of all utilities in the state up when you have that kind of back and forth. I’m not ashamed to call other people for help.” 

A year after he came to Henry County, Osborne contemplated a more formal contribution to the profession. There were several vacancies on the state board that tests and licenses operators. Over the years, Osborne had seen what happened when the board wasn’t active: Problems were not resolved quickly, and people would pass their tests but issuance of licenses would be delayed.

“So I thought, Well, I’m pretty responsible, and I think I’ll be able to attend six meetings a year. I put in an application to the governor’s office, and I was selected for the water operator seat. When I got on the board, we had to revote on about two years’ worth of items because there hadn’t been a quorum.”

Osborne believes certification, including reciprocity between states, will become more important as time goes on. He speculates that eventually, perhaps in the next 10 years, there will be a national license for operators. Licensing should be a top priority for any utility looking for employees, he says. Henry County looks first for people who are already licensed.

“Training people is a good way to go, but a lot of people can’t pass the test, so you have to pick your trainees carefully,” Osborne says. “We have a pretrainee certification. People have to do certain things to be placed in the trainee category. In part we do that so we don’t waste money on someone who can’t pass the test and may not be suited for plant operations.”

Certification is doubly important for Henry County because, as a large utility, it’s required by the state to have at least one Class I (highest) operator at work on every shift.

Training for success

To keep team members up to date and meet the continuing education requirements for licensing, Osborne launched a twice-a-year, in-house training symposium in 2011. It enables team members to obtain all their recertification credits without taking a trip.

The 2018 spring symposium included a talk by the county laboratory supervisor about problems with industries discharging high-strength wastewater. In another session, a manufacturer representative talked about devices to test water in streams and lakes. At an earlier session, an expert from another metro Atlanta utility spoke about chlorine analyzers.

After a couple of years offering the symposiums only for its own people, the county expanded it to include personnel from other utilities within driving distance. “We typically fill the place up when we do this,” Osborne says.

He deliberately schedules his sessions so they don’t conflict with offerings from national and state professional water organizations. “At the same time, a lot of people who work in the water industry would rather come to work, do their job and go home, and if I train them in-house, they’re happy as can be,” he says.

Valuing water

From the time he started with Clayton County, Osborne has appreciated the role of public water systems: They provide fire protection and are primary guardians of public health. “You can put a thousand people in the hospital if the water supply is bad,” he says.

The model for his career starts with his grandmother, a schoolteacher, whose motto was: “We learn from each other.” Osborne is determined to continue that tradition.

Consultant-free savings

Water plants typically have limited resources, but there are ways to make them go further. Eric Osborne, water production manager at Henry County (Georgia) Water Authority, does that by limiting the use of outside consultants.

When Henry County switched its designation under Georgia regulations from a medium to a large operation, some changes in the plants were required. Normally that would have required consultants.

“We’re not as big as Atlanta and we run differently, but a big plus is having our own engineering department,” Osborne says. The team made changes by gathering the in-house staff and discussing ideas. From the ideas came a rough design, and then the utility’s engineers drew the plans.

This approach has helped the utility save money. “Some projects we don’t even list as capital projects because it’s just as simple as buying some tanks and a couple of pumps and pouring some new curbing,” Osborne says.

Another time, an engineering firm suggested doing a filter study so the plants could increase capacity without buying new equipment. Georgia regulations allow an increase in filter throughput so long as evidence shows that the filters can handle the volume.

The filters were producing 3 gpm per square foot; the regulations had a limit of 4 gpm per square foot unless a detailed study was performed. That would include taking half the plant offline, running tests and watching the filtrate turbidity.

But treating up to 4 gpm per square foot required only a little paperwork. So the Henry County team did that and increased the filters’ rated capacity to 3.7 gpm per square foot.

Osborne observes, “Without using outside contractors, we got 3 mgd more at a plant without much more than presenting extra data.”


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