Operator Paradise: Vacationing at a Bermuda Treatment Plant

What happens when you take away the comfort of technology? Here’s how one operator went back to the basics of wastewater treatment during a working vacation in a tropical climate.
Operator Paradise: Vacationing at a Bermuda Treatment Plant
The aeration tank at a Bermuda wastewater treatment plant.

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Editor’s Note: During February 2015, operator Jeff Kalmes had the opportunity to take his wastewater skills to Bermuda where he worked as a substitute operator at a plant for two and a half weeks. Call it a working vacation, if you will, but it gave Kalmes the chance to get back to the basics and experience wastewater treatment in a new way. Here’s his story:

We all know how our own plants run. We know what an upset looks like, how our plant is piped, and how our plant functions. We know what is typical for our own plant. But what would happen if you went outside of your plant and took charge of another treatment plant? In another country? With little to no training? And then ran it for two and a half weeks?

I am a plant supervisor for an advanced wastewater treatment plant in Massachusetts. In February 2015, I had the chance to visit Bermuda and run a .5 mgd wastewater treatment plant for two and a half weeks. I had some vacation time saved up and was ready for a little adventure. Through a Facebook group called “Water/Wastewater Operators of the World Unite!” I noticed an ad looking for someone to come to Bermuda and run the wastewater treatment plant while the regular operator took a vacation.

After applying and going through an interview process, which included multiple talks with the plant operator and his company’s boss (contract operations), I was awarded the job. On my end, all I needed to do was obtain a valid passport and clear the trip with my wife.

This past winter was an awfully snowy season in New England. I managed to get out of the region right after the first storm, but I did get delayed one day due to snow, which cost me some valuable time learning my new surroundings from the regular operator.

I arrived in Bermuda around noon on a wonderful 65-degree day, which felt like 90 degrees to a New Englander. After all, it was 5 degrees when I left Boston. I took a cab out of the airport to the Fairmont South Hampton Hotel, checked in and headed out to find the treatment plant operator. I met Matt, and he gave me a brief tour of his plant and described some of the routines I would be handling in his absence. I had only a couple of hours of training that day because Matt was scheduled to fly out the following day.

I’ve been an operator for 29 years. I work in an advanced wastewater treatment plant and have done just about everything there is to do in a plant. However, during this experience, I only got a short tour of the plant and received some basics on daily routines. It was different at first going through this treatment plant, because I’m used to viewing everything on SCADA and then making decisions. Here, I was back to basics — no data presented itself to me. I had to go and get all the info and come back and log it into a daily log.

I have always relied on my senses at my own treatment plant, even with SCADA. But here, I had no other choice. It was refreshing to go out and gather my readings and make something out of it. Sights, sounds, smells and being able to put your hand on pumps and motors are vital to being a good operator. I put all of those to good use and learned what normal and abnormal was for this plant. After a few days in my new surroundings, I started to feel pretty comfortable observing the flow pattern, using the microscope and watching the plant’s flow.

Every plant has its own set of operational issues, ranging from plug flows to toxic flows or any number of variations. This plant’s unique characteristic was the reuse of effluent. The effluent was sent back up to the hotel to cool pumps and to fill toilets, and then the rest was sent out to the hotel’s golf course. This was interesting because I had the opportunity to see my effluent at work.

I soon introduced myself to the course superintendent, and asked him if he had noticed fish or frog kill, algae blooms or any other indicators of poor water quality. He said nothing unusual stuck out, but he was interested in seeing if I could find something. So, I started sampling the water (retention ponds) for pH, DO temperature and chlorine residual. After days of collecting and analyzing samples, we discovered the pH was a little high and that traces of chlorine residual were occasionally present. I adjusted the chlorine gas usage, and the course superintendent investigated whether he could adjust fertilizer treatments near his retention ponds. It was a win-win for everyone. It was nice to go out and see your work and know how important it is to someone else. Water is a precious resource, which is constantly being used and reused. As an operator of any treatment plant, we should all feel proud of what we produce at the end of the day, whether it’s drinking water or wastewater.

As a bonus, I did get to use my technology: I brought my work iPad and used the cameras at my treatment plant to snap live shots of massive mountains of snow, which I shared with my new co-workers. They were amazed at what a real winter looked like and wondered how we ever got anything done if we are continuously clearing snow.

After my two and a half weeks in Bermuda, it was back to the snowy world of Massachusetts. I brought back an appreciation for the basics of wastewater treatment, and I understood that the skills I use each day can translate to so many situations.


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