This Kentucky lab supervisor loves those days when meeting a challenge means exerting brain power.

Award-winning lab supervisor Tyler Bragg functions as an integral part of a fully cross-trained clean-water plant team.

This Kentucky lab supervisor loves those days when meeting a challenge means exerting brain power.

Tyler Bragg won the 2020 J.C. Chambers Award from the Kentucky Water and Wastewater Operators Association for commitment to improving management and technical progress in operations. 

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The wastewater treatment plant in the Kentucky city of Glasgow has the same responsibilities as any big plant when it comes to keeping the public safe.

Key to that is the laboratory work that tells operators what is happening inside the plant. In Glasgow the lab is run by Tyler Bragg, who came to the industry right after high school. He came looking for a job, but instead he found a career. It’s a job that fits.

Total responsibility

The Glasgow lab is state-certified, and the process of gaining certification began shortly before Bragg became the lab supervisor. Superintendent Jacob Billingsley wrote the operating and quality assurance procedures for certification. Then the state auditors showed up for their inspection.

Bragg had spent a year training with David Huffman, the previous lead lab analyst, who retired a few months before the audit. All of a sudden, Bragg had a different perspective on the job. “It’s my name and initials on everything going to our permit and the data. So it was kind of nerve-wracking,” he says.

Yet the inspection wasn’t a bad experience. Afterward, everyone sat around a table to hear the auditors’ opinions: what they liked, what they didn’t, and what needed to change. “Not to toot our own horn,” Bragg recalls. “But they said, ‘Guys, we’re going to be honest with you. The first audit that we do is normally just to get you back to where you need to be, but we couldn’t find really a whole lot to recommend.’” That was music to Bragg’s ears.

Duty

Every year it’s up to Bragg to look at the lab procedures, and revise them if needed, and review and revise the quality-assurance plan. One procedure he revised this year involved the carboys. They now must be rinsed with deionized water in order to produce a good base reading. The change started because of a variance in the BOD tests. Carboys that were blank (water and nutrients only, no microbes) were showing a positive result.

The cause remains unknown. Bragg and his teammates did research and made numerous phone calls looking for solutions to the problem. They found a cure, if not an answer: washing the carboys with Liquinox detergent (Alconox), rinsing with tap water, and then rinsing with deinonized water.

Before settling on the carboy washing procedure, the lab installed a UV disinfection system in a waterline just after the deionizing filters. “A mixture of everything could be what’s helping us,” Bragg says. “It seems like maybe there was a biofilm — maybe.” But it was definitely enjoyable to work on the problem, he adds.

Activated sludge

The Glasgow plant (4 mgd design, 2.2 mgd average) uses the activated sludge process. Influent flows through screens (Parkson) and a PISTA Grit system (Smith & Loveless). Four submersible pumps (Flygt, a Xylem brand) send wastewater to seven aeration tanks, five or six in use at any time.

Dissolved oxygen sensors supply information for the Hoffman blowers. Two circular clarifiers separate sludge, and four Gorman-Rupp pumps and two Vogelsang pumps recirculate sludge. All motors are equipped with variable-frequency drives tied to the SCADA system. Solids go through a Fournier press and are landfilled. In summer the Glasgow team can use nine drying beds when maintenance is being done on the press.

In the lab, the team uses a Hach DR3900 spectrophotometer for phosphorus, ammonia, total nitrogen and other critical tests. There are also a number of Hach HQ40D meters for DO and BOD testing. An IDEXX Quanti-Tray sealer handles bacterial counts. There is also an Orion Star A211 pH meter (Thermo Fisher Scientific), a Thermo Fisher Scientific incubator and a Quincy Lab Model 30 oven for drying TSS test papers.

Lending a hand

On most days Bragg works mainly in the lab. Samples are taken three days per week. On the other days, he prepares for the next set of samples or helps the operators in the plant. Helping means a bit of everything: whatever needs to be done.

“There are three of us down here, and it’s not like we’re a great big wastewater treatment plant,” Bragg says. “Whatever needs to be done, all of us can do. I am the primary lab analyst, but that doesn’t mean Jacob or Adam (Headrick) can’t do the same thing. We’re cross-trained from top to bottom, and it’s a great benefit to have.”

Headrick is a Level IV wastewater operator. The Glasgow plant also employs two part-timers: Ronnie Poynter and Huffman. Both are retired but still have their state licenses and an inclination to help. Hours for the team are 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The three full-time operators and two part-timers take turns working four hours on Saturday and Sunday and four hours on holidays. At other times, the SCADA system calls Billingsley in the event of a problem, and he drives to the plant or asks one of the other operators to go in.

Career finds him

Bragg began his water career the way many professionals do. He learned of an opening at the plant after he finished high school in Glasgow, where he grew up. “I wasn’t looking to make a career out of it. It was more a part-time job to make extra money,” Bragg says. “At that time I was 18 or 19 years old, so I really didn’t think big picture.”

His part-time work was mowing (“a lot of mowing,” he says), cleaning, sweeping, mopping and doing whatever needed to be done. He stayed, and after about two years his co-workers invited him to start learning how the plant worked and how to operate it. “A couple guys were ready to retire, and the company thought that if I took the initiative to learn, maybe I could be a good fit here,” Bragg says.

In high school, science had not been his favorite subject. His attitude changed when he began learning about plant operation. “Something changes every day,” he says. “It’s not like going to a factory and a machine. Sometimes the work is routine. And then again there are days when you have to put your brain to it and provide a good service for you customers and the community.” 

Handling a change

Bragg prefers the lab work to plant operations because of what he learns. He enjoys seeing how all the chemistry works: “It’s pretty cool to me.”

The biggest change in his job in the last few years came from the switch from chlorine to peracetic acid for disinfection. That happened because of the danger to the community of storing large amounts of chlorine, and the risk to operators working with it. Through Bragg’s lab work, the operators had to figure out what dose of peracetic acid produced the best result in the disinfection chamber.

Bragg went back to school in 2015 at South Central Kentucky Community College to study for an associate degree in general science, which he completed. It became a busy five to six years. Around the same time, Huffman retired and the state performed its certification audit. Meanwhile, his wife Lauren was pregnant with their second child, daughter Palmer (now age 2), and there was son Harrison (now 6) to look after.

They also bought and remodeled a house. “We pretty much gutted the whole thing,” Bragg says. “They had carpet just about through the whole house, and underneath it was hardwood flooring. So we redid the flooring, redid all the plumbing, all new LED lights. It was about nine months of good, steady work. And we did it all ourselves, too, with the help of my father-in-law.” 

Praise from the boss

Superintendent Billingsley came to the Glasgow plant after earning a degree in biology and about three years after Bragg started. The degree gave him credit for four years of experience, but Bragg helped teach him the plant basics, such as what to look for while walking through the plant and how to change seals and pumps. He has been superintendent for about four years.

Although he wrote the procedures for the lab, he says, Bragg has built on those. It’s much easier to do the lab work now. “He has made the lab forms, the logbooks, all of that more efficient,” Billingsley says. “It’s a lot easier to read. It all flows a lot better. He has definitely improved it tenfold since he took over in the lab.”

When Bragg finishes the lab work, Billingsley says, he shows up in the plant to help and doesn’t have to be told what to do. His experience and teamwork are great assets, especially at a plant running with only three full-time staff members.

Bragg spends his time off with his kids, watching University of Kentucky football or basketball, or playing golf if he can find a moment. “I’m pretty boring,” he says. His son is taken with gaming, “so with him, you can sit in front of the TV and play the Wii for hours upon hours. With Palmer, she’s our little daredevil. She’s into everything and anything you can think of.”

Travel is another pleasure, especially around Kentucky to admire its scenic beauty. “I love going up to Lexington in the bluegrass area,” Bragg says. “It’s really pretty, seeing the horse farms, and going to a UK basketball game.”

Once a year Bragg and his wife go to Destin, Florida, a recreation community on the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola in the Florida panhandle. In the 12 years they have been together, “We’ve seen it grow exponentially, and it’s to the point now where we’re trying to find some different places down in Florida to vacation and get away from a lot of people.”

Ample recognition

All of his work has brought Bragg a couple of awards. In 2019 he won the Wastewater Operator of the Year award from the Central Chapter of the Kentucky Water and Wastewater Operators Association; in 2020 he received the J.C. Chambers Award, a statewide honor reserved for people with 10 or more years of professional industry experience and who have a demonstrated commitment to improving management and technical progress in operations.

In 2020 the Glasgow plant was named Wastewater Plant of the Year for the central chapter of KWWOA. As for his own accolades, Bragg observes, “I had no clue, to be honest with you, that I was even in the ballpark for the J.C. Chambers Award, which is voted on by our state KWWOA board members. So it was really an honor to have that recognition.”   



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