Christen Wood Made a Change — and Discovered the Career of a Lifetime

Christen Wood followed her heart from lab work into a successful career in operations (and as a musical performer at WEFTEC).

Christen Wood Made a Change — and Discovered the Career of a Lifetime

Wood was one of the first people to qualify for the Professional Operator through the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals.

Christen Wood was an accident waiting to happen — in a good way.

A chance encounter with the local newspaper led Wood to the Ashtabula (Ohio) Wastewater Treatment Plant, which hired her as a laboratory analyst in 2009. Then she accidentally moved from the laboratory to operations and found her true calling.

“This is the career of a lifetime, and I never knew it existed when I graduated from college,” says Wood, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology. Since October 2018, she has been operations administrator for the Upper Tuscarawas Wastewater Treatment Plant Number 36 in Akron, operated by the Summit County Department of Sanitary Sewer Services.

“I discovered I have an operator’s mind. I love seeing the big picture, pulling all the pieces together, figuring out what’s wrong and coming up with creative solutions.”

Her enthusiasm provided the impetus to establish a Women’s Employee Resource Group and organize Operations Challenge teams. Wood also wrote a rap about wastewater, a colleague turned it into a music video, and it won the Water Environment Federation 2017 Sound Off for Clean Water Song Contest.

After Wood sang “Treat the Water Right” at that year’s Jammin’4Water fundraiser, an article in WEF Highlights called her “one of the wastewater world’s top performing artists.”

The Northwest Section of the Ohio Water Environment Association recognized her exceptional service as an operator with the 2017 Herb Hansen Award. In 2018, she received the Professional Wastewater Operations Award from the Ohio Water Environment Association.

She also was one of the first people to qualify as a Professional Operator with the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals, the industry’s first professional designation for wastewater and water operators. “I never planned any of this,” Wood says. “I just said yes to the opportunities, then lived them to the fullest.”

Challenges of aging

The Upper Tuscarawas plant (4 mgd design, 2.7 mgd average) is a rotating biological contactor facility built in 1980 and upgraded in 1997 and 2015.

Wastewater flows through a manual bar screen. Pumps (Pentair - Fairbanks Nijhuis) then send it through a fine screen (Hydro-Dyne Engineering) to a grit removal system (Evoqua Water Technologies). A Sigma raw wastewater sampler (Hach) draws upstream of the sodium aluminate feed for phosphorus removal. Liquid from the two primary tanks feeds into 31 rotating discs in the RBC (Envirex, an Evoqua brand) for cBOD and ammonia removal.

Final settling occurs in two clarifiers. Tertiary treatment is completed by 10 WWETCO FlexFilter units (WesTech Engineering). Effluent flows though post-aeration tanks and UV disinfection (TrojanUV) before discharge to the Tuscarawas River.

Biosolids are aerobically digested (Walker Process Equipment, A Div. of McNish Corp.), dewatered in a 12,000-gpd belt filter press (Alfa Laval), and landfilled. The plant produces 539 dry tons annually.

Until another upgrade in 2020, the facility’s aging poses operational challenges. “In 2018, we clocked 49 permit violations, mostly E. coli and ammonia,” Wood says.

Antiquated equipment wasn’t the only culprit. The plant was designed to use alum for phosphorus removal, but a switch to lower-priced ferric chloride in the early 1990s destroyed the bacteria on the RBCs, making it difficult to meet ammonia limits. The chemical also coated the UV bulbs, making them ineffective.

Cleaning the slate

Wood and her team fought back. In January 2019, they began a comprehensive sampling program to track results as changes were made to the system. Wood collaborated with Kim Noll, laboratory supervisor at the Fishcreek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Stow (Ohio), to refine influent sampling at the headworks, RBCs, clarifiers, filters and UV system. They also tracked loading and percentage removal rates and compared them to design standards.

In February 2019, the plant switched to sodium aluminate for phosphorus removal. In March, the operations and maintenance teams replaced the bulbs, sleeves and wipers in the UV system. Throughout spring, the operations team chemically stripped the 28 operational bio-discs. In June, a contractor installed three refurbished units, bringing the total back up to 31 discs. The refit took out a quarter of the treatment train, resulting in temporary permit violations.

“Every change brought massive improvements, including no E. coli violations as of August 2019,” Wood says.

Data stream

As data trickled in, it revealed that wasting the final clarifiers to the headworks hammered the RBCs with 2,000 mg/L BOD. “RBCs don’t like batch processing, and it slows ammonia removal,” Wood says. “Since the piping existed, the operators suggested opening two valves and wasting to the digesters. Problem solved.”

Within a week of the first process changes, a monumental shift occurred. Wood suddenly began hearing the operators, three mechanics, six electricians and plant supervisor talking to each other. “They were discussing lab data, which valves to open or close, the best way to drain tanks and should they waste simultaneously,” Wood says. “No one had asked these questions before, and I was excited because they were making suggestions to improve the process.”

For example, the plant doesn’t have grease removal, so the sewer maintenance department vacuums the scum layer on the primary tanks. To improve efficiency, Frank Garisto, operator, suggested off-loading the grease into the belt press influent instead of at the headworks.

Another example involved the FlexFilters, which were not designed to filter ferric chloride. The chemical matted the compressible media (fuzzy orange balls), limiting their filtration capacity.

Enter Pat Workman, a mechanic with a construction engineering background and more than 40 years at the plant. He fabricated a device powered by a sewer cleaning truck to pressure-wash the media in situ. In three hours, the balls regained their original dimension, raising the media height by 12 inches, increasing flow rates and reducing backwashes by half.

“This was huge for the operators, but I was doubly thrilled because the answer came from maintenance,” Wood says. “Pat is an amazing team member, and we are fortunate to have him.” His contributions include modifying almost everything in the plant and designing concrete and aluminum covers for the influent and effluent channels. The latter reduce algae buildup and lift easily via recessed hooks.

Career path

Wood’s 11 years in the industry almost ended in the Ashtabula lab on her first day: She threw away all the components for the TSS tests instead of just the filter pads. Rather than fire her, boss and mentor Kim Nordquist (retired), made sure she understood that occasional mistakes were the cost of doing business.

“Accepting I have the latitude to err has been the key to my success,” Wood says. “I’m not afraid to test the potential for greater things. If I’m wrong, mistakes become a learning tool because now I have to fix them.”

From Ashtabula, Wood moved to the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District as a laboratory technician in 2011. At first that appeared to be a mistake. “I was accustomed to variety and this was a specialized lab,” Wood says.

After a year of doing only E. coli analysis and bioassays, she followed a former colleague who had moved to operations in the district’s Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant. “I’ve been in love ever since,” she says.

Wood joined the Summit County Department of Sanitary Sewer Services to grow professionally. Instead of managing processes, she manages seven operators and a plant supervisor who staff the Upper Tuscarawas plant and three smaller package plants. She also oversees three mechanics responsible for the county’s six treatment plants and six electricians who service those plants and the county’s 219 pump stations.

Original approach

Wood’s passion for the industry has taken her in interesting directions, including outreach for groups requesting her educational program. The toughest audiences are elementary students. To pique and retain their curiosity, Wood offers something different. “The approach works for all audiences, but especially kids because of the yuck factor,” she says.

Wood brings samples from the plant and encourages sniff tests. “They often make fart jokes when smelling the influent. Then they begin giggling and asking questions. I see future operators in those who like the earthy aroma of the activated sludge or fixed-film sample.

“All the talk about treatment doesn’t mean half as much as seeing and smelling the difference between influent and effluent. Even if the youngsters don’t become future industry personnel, they will become ratepayers who now understand the value of the service.”

Bridging the gap

Wood is also involved with the Northeast Section Ohio Water Environment Association’s Student Design Competition, which collaborates with universities to promote real-world design experience for engineering students interested in water careers. “I accidentally became the operations and maintenance judge because I said yes without knowing what it was,” she says.

University teams choose from either a wastewater or stormwater problem, both authentic and deliberately vague. Then they interface with industry professionals to obtain operational and design data to develop solutions. The plant or city receives a free engineering project, and it enhances the students’ resumes.

“The competition also helps to plug the gap between people looking for jobs in their course of study and plants needing workers,” Wood says. “So far, the competition has produced three engineering job applications for the county. Considering our size, that’s huge.” 

Silos of knowledge

As much as Wood enjoys these excursions, her heart is in the plant. An MBA helps her to better liaison between front-line workers and upper management. At the Northeast Ohio district, when women operators gravitated to share experiences and troubleshoot, Wood saw an opportunity to establish the Women’s Employee Resource Group.

“I’m proud of the group because it reduced the district’s information silos — the sequestering of information rather than sharing it with related departments, job titles and plant locations,” Wood says. “We built a strong network that now includes all women in the district. We discuss problems, often resolving them by explaining why.”

For example, operators questioned a procedure that appeared illogical to them and made extra work. Human resources said it was required by law. Discussions also helped human resources understand that documentation is not the main priority for operators focused on preventing wastewater from polluting a river.

Career milestones

The Operations Challenge is another bridge between silos, building links between departments and breaking down barriers. “People who fight together for a common goal form much stronger teams capable of tackling complex tasks,” Wood says. “The greatest compliment for me as a manager is to train teams so well that other people covet them.”

From 2016-18, Wood organized and took part in the Northeast Ohio district teams. In 2017, her “Treat the Water Right” rap burst on the scene and pounded through the Southerly plant’s public address system. Wood’s Insane in the Force Main challenge team debuted in 2018, placing third in process control, Division 2. For Wood, standing on the winner’s podium was a dream come true.

Back on Earth, Wood and her team face the challenges of bringing a new plant online as she writes hundreds of pages for her Ohio EPA Class IV (highest) certification exam. To keep it all in perspective, Wood visits the outfall daily: “It makes me happy to see how we are protecting our community in a tangible way.”

Competition bonus

Christen Wood loves competition so much that she competed in the 2016 Operations Challenge at WEFTEC while eight months pregnant. Her Minimal Headloss teammates were patient and accommodating, modifying events to her condition.

Although the team didn’t place that year, the experience introduced Wood to the OpTool simulation software (Hydromantis Environmental Software Solutions) used in the process control event. Three years later, she lobbied to have it installed in the Upper Tuscarawas Wastewater Treatment Plant Number 36, where she is operations administrator.

The application went online in autumn, helping to train operators as the plant was upgraded from rotating biological contactors to biological nutrient removal. “With RBCs, the water flows in and it flows out,” Wood says. “There are no levers to pull or buttons to push. The BNR plant is all hands-on control, and changes are incremental.”

The software simulates what operators and staff do daily, but it can be programmed with frightening scenarios. For example, how does the treatment train react if wasting or the ferric chloride feed is turned off or increased? Or if the pumps go down? Or if the return activated sludge rate is 400% of the influent?

“It’s the Kobayashi Maru of wastewater treatment plants,” says Wood, referring to the no-win training exercise in the 1982 Star Trek film. “The scenarios help operators, electricians and mechanics communicate with each other early in the game. That was exciting for me.”


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