Traveling Troubleshooter Keeps Tabs on Household Pump Systems

Larry Peterson regularly patrols 240 lakeside septic tank effluent pump systems, going through miles of rural and remote country to detect and fix problems

Traveling Troubleshooter Keeps Tabs on Household Pump Systems

Larry Peterson puts a zip tie on knife switch in a lockout safety procedure on a pump control panel from Orenco Systems.

When Johnny Cash sang “I walk the line,” he wasn’t referring to monitoring a line of 240 rural septic tanks.

But that is exactly what Larry Peterson does as Chelan County (Washington) Public Utility District treatment plant operator. The tanks contain 1,000 to 6,000 gallons and send graywater by pipeline to the Lake Wenatchee Wastewater Treatment Plant, west of Leavenworth.

It’s part of his crusade to ensure the best-quality wastewater treatment in his jurisdiction. “There’s just over 10 miles of collection systems to be monitored,” says Peterson. “So it’s about 20 miles by the time I walk to the end and then back to my truck. There’s no easy way to do it. I’d like to use my bike, but it wouldn’t work. And unless I had a horse that would follow me on the road or something, it just is what it is.”

It’s a solitary job of marathon proportions, but Peterson does it with dedication and consistency. “Before Larry came on, we’d be lucky to service a couple of dozen of these tanks each year,” says Ron Slabaugh, Chelan County district water and wastewater manager.

“Larry has serviced 120 tanks in the last two years alone. That’s half of our system. In addition, he walks that entire collection system once a year to put eyes on each of the tanks, see if any trees have fallen onto control panels, and fix any other damage that’s been done.

“Back at the treatment plant, Larry keeps our 0.05 mgd lagoon/spray field and recirculating sand filter treatment system and grounds in really good order. He has also built relationships with the locals and the contractors. He’s just doing a great job because he wants to.”

That is why Slabaugh nominated Peterson as the 2022 Washington Public Utility Districts Association Water/Wastewater Outstanding Employee of the Year. And he won.

“It’s a big honor to get this,” says Peterson. “It’s not something I’d really had ever thought about. So when Ron gave me a call and said I would have to take a couple days off to accept it, I was kind of surprised. And yeah, it was really cool.”

Early days

Peterson grew up in north-central Washington in the small town of Oroville, about three miles from the Canadian border. “My dad had an apple orchard and my mom was a hairstylist,” he says. “At middle school I loved the scientific process, and science fair season was always my favorite. In the eighth grade I made gasohol, but I never saw a connection between my love of science and wastewater.”

That love continued at Oroville high School, which he graduated in 1994. He then attended the University of Puget Sound, graduating in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in economics: “I enjoyed economics because of the patterns and trends of numbers, and it just makes a lot of rational sense,” he observes.

During the summer before his last year, he worked as a pipefitter in Seattle. “After I graduated, I went back to work on the pipe crew because I really enjoyed seeing how things got done,” he says. “After four years of school I was tired of paperwork, and we got to work on some really cool jobs. But after several years, our son was getting old enough to start school, and we didn’t want him growing up in the city. So we moved back to eastern Washington in 2005.”

He took a job with the City of Chewelah as a water and sewer maintenance technician. In June 2013 he joined the Chelan County district as a journeyman water technician and operator. He became a journeyman water technician and treatment plant operator in 2020.

At present he is certified as a wastewater distribution manager Level 3, wastewater operator Level 3, and cross-connection specialist and an International Fire Service Accreditation Congress-certified fire instructor. That’s because he was in two volunteer fire departments in Northeast Washington as assistant chief.

A unique job

“This is kind of a unique little system, but not totally unique.” That’s how Peterson describes the 240 tanks he monitors and mends along Lake Wenatchee. Each tank acts like a traditional septic tank in capturing the household’s wastewater and solids.

However, “instead of going out to a traditional drainfield, the wastewater is pumped using half-horsepower submersible pumps to the mainline running along the road,” Peterson says. “At the road, a force main transfers all wastewater back to the treatment plant. There are no lift stations.” Orenco Systems supplies all equipment in the collection infrastructure.

When the wastewater gets to the treatment, it flows into a lagoon comprising slightly more than an acre, roughly the size of a football field. “In the summer, the water goes into the lagoon, and biology happens,” Peterson says.

Then the water leaves the lagoon, gets chlorine disinfection, and goes out to a 14-acre spray field with 151 NaanDanJain 5022 SD sprinklers. During winter, the water goes to a 17,000-square-foot Seaman Corp XR-5 geomembrane sand filter with an inground liner with gravel media, and a Spencer Turbine Vortex sand filter blower.

It then undergoes UV disinfection using an Aquionics Proline low-pressure four-bulb unit (Nuvonic) before going to the river. “I spend a good portion of time either getting something ready for a season or taking something out of a season,” Peterson says.

Watching for trouble

Working with a lagoon does pose challenges. “Algae has been the biggest problem,” Peterson says. “When I got here, there was a nagging high-pH issue that peaked in August of my first summer. All of a sudden the algae bloomed and my pH went up to 9.55, which was in violation of standards.”

To fix that, Peterson did research that led him to install two 5 hp AIRE-O2 horizontal aerator units (Newterra) in the lagoon. That was on a Thursday: “By Sunday, the pH had dropped to 8.58, and the water quality had dramatically improved. It just needed more air. So I took this long-standing pH issue and was able to fix it in three days.”

Keeping up with equipment problems on the septic tank effluent pump tanks is another issue. Being isolated units operating outdoors, they can fail without anyone noticing, unless someone like Peterson regularly walks the line, determined to keep the lake water clean.

It’s not an easy job. “Last year, we received about 13 feet of snow cumulatively over the winter,” he says. “Plus we got windstorms and people moving snow out of their driveway and such. In spring, I find all kinds of problems with the tanks, which we don’t hear about because they are not connected to a telemetry system.”

That’s why Peterson opens the panels, checks the floats, and clears any downed trees that have come down on the tanks and their pipes. “We rely on buzzers and lights to draw someone’s attention to call in if they’re seeing a problem, so it’s imperative that this stuff works,” he says. 

Solving riddles

Sometimes the causes of problems aren’t easy to find. In one case, the power cut out on a number of the STEP tank panels and pumps after a big snowstorm. It was a head-scratcher. The knife switches controlling the electricity had been pulled down, hence the power losses, but there were no footprints and nothing mysterious at the affected sites.

Eventually, it occurred to Peterson that the heavy snowfalls had forced the knife switches down, melting afterward and leaving no trace of their handiwork. “So immediately I got hold of our superintendent and let him know that I needed to walk the entire system right now. He approved it, no problem.

“So I started working like 12-hour days to walk the whole system, just to make sure that the power was on. I ended up finding 10% of the tanks had their power shut off. Thankfully, there were no overflows at the 24 powerless tanks, but it was a close call.”

Slabaugh observes, “When Larry turned those knife switches back on to restore power to those tanks, he also installed heavy-duty zip ties to hold them in place. That way, heavy snow or ice won’t be able to force them open next time.”

No plans to quit

Despite the physical challenges of his work, Peterson loves his job. That’s why he plans to stick with it for the foreseeable future.

“I really enjoy just working alone,” he says. “I also know that if there’s something that’s been done, it’s because I did it. If there’s something not done, it’s because I didn’t do it. I feel full ownership of this system up here. I love that. I mean, it’s mine to do whatever happens to me. So I actually enjoy that. I have a lot of pride and ownership here.”


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