“We have an ownership in our town. An ownership in the future, of our children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to take care of the public health of the town.”
What does a typical day look like for you as the Operator in Charge at your plant?
A typical day would be: we get here, the first thing we do is take the temperatures—the outside temperatures, all the lab equipment temperatures. Then we head outside and see what’s been going on overnight. We stop in each section. You can listen to the water and hear what time of day it is. If you come in like 6 or 7 in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday, there’s like zero flow—because no one’s up flushing toilets. That’s versus coming in at 10 o’clock on a Saturday, when there’s a lot more water coming down.
You can hear motors and pumps kick in; knowing their timed intervals, you can tell if they are operating correctly if it’s right or not. Listening: if they’re louder there could be something wrong. You put your hand on them and make sure that they’re cool to the touch–if they’re hot then there are bigger loads, so you have to find out why. Checking oil levels in motors, gear boxes, grease in bearings, making sure there are no signs of wear, metal filings. Carrying an amp meter along and checking amperage on motors, observe the settling tanks, watching the skimmer arm operating smoothly, and the water cascading over the weirs uniformly. And then you get to move on to the first settling tank and just watch: color is important. It should be an olive green.
The next would be the treatment: right now it’s the RBCs, but it will be the oxidation ditches. That’s where all the bugs [bacteria] are. The ones who do all the grunt work of the plant. It’s like bug farming; they need oxygen and food, which is simple. We check out to make sure that they’re happy.
Next, samples are taken at the various processes of treatment. Before (influent), during (treatment), and after (effluent). We also do testing to monitor how the plant is doing, adjusting processes accordingly. There is also the sludge removal process, or dewatering. The collection system also needs to be checked and monitored.
These tasks are done daily. A lot of variables are thrown into each day. Phone calls and responses. Equipment breakdown and repairs to name just a few. No two days are the same.
It’s interesting, it sounds like it’s very hands on rather than overseeing this all from a single room with monitors and numbers or data coming in. You really have to go around and get a feel for everything.
Right. Look, listen, feel and smell. Stay in tune. If you can smell hydrogen sulfide, well then you know that there’s aging wastewater somewhere. Usually it should be like an earthy, soapy smell. But yeah, you just stay in tune. You just walk really slowly and you can hear things. But during a rain event, for example, things are just cruising through here. It sounds different versus a nice, quiet walk in the park.
You’ve referred to this job as rewarding. What about it is rewarding?
Our customers! Knowing it is our job to make sure the water they use is safe and gets treated properly according to stringent standards we follow from the DNR.
Every day is different. The diversity of challenges. And keeping up with education and technology changes. There is a lot of knowledge in this job. Mechanical, electrical, biological, and a lot on maintenance.
One unique thing about a wastewater operator is that we take our jobs very seriously. And very personally. It’s a part of us. We have an ownership in our town. An ownership in the future, of our children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to take care of the public health of the town. We are here seven days a week, and on a call-out system 24 hours a day. We rotate weekends and holidays. That’s one thing the public doesn’t know. There is always someone working and available. To make sure things go smoothly without a hitch. It takes a team effort to make this place float.
Diversity as much as possible but cross training is important too. You don’t only do one job around here but you have to be able to pick up the pieces on a whim. At any moment, stuff can hit the fan and an operator has to be prepared for that. You’ll have a pump go down. You have to be able to react right away, make quick decisions. Another challenge is you have to be innovative. Most times on the spot. Makes things interesting.
Do you see a lot of–not kinship–but like partnership in the industry itself even with people you don’t directly work?
Your first word was absolutely perfect: kinship. We rely on each other. More than most other industries. We support each other. The public doesn’t understand what we do and what is all involved.
That’s why we have the WRWA (Wisconsin Rural Water Association), AWWA (American Water Works Association), and WWOA (Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association). We rely on each other for knowledge. Conferences are a great place to network with other operators and get all the information you need under one roof. Classes that are held for operators to get their continuing education credits are another great source for swapping notes.
Is there anything in particular you would recommend for women for resources? Are there any organizations for women in wastewater?
Not really. There are women out there like me. They run the plants as well. They’re operators as well. They’re tough, you know? So I think that you have to be tough to be in this field. You have to have muscle. You have to be able to get up in the middle of the night and look down a wet well 30 feet in 10 degrees, and the water’s freezing. You’re out all night long in a thunderstorm.
That’s what we’re looking for: durability. The women that are in there just have their nose to the grindstone and are happy to do what they do. The guys that we work with are extremely supportive.
We’re just here to protect the environment; that’s what our job is.
I know a lot of people seemed to get into it sort of tangentially from another–they were doing something else and this came along so they came into it. Do you come across a lot of people in general who are looking to enter this field?
The industry is seeing a shortage right now. I have not run into a lot of people who want to be water operators. I don’t think that there’s enough known out there. Maybe we need to get out there and educate the public and kids, which is one thing I’ve always wanted to do. One of your questions was what do you want to do it in 5 to 10 years. I don’t foresee myself retiring. I want hand down the field and educate.
It’s hard to believe there’s a lot of kids going to college for things like microbiology, but there’s always openings in wastewater. People don’t see it as very glamorous. We don’t have to perceive it like that: negatively. It’s a very rewarding field. It’s an educating and fun career.
I mean we are in charge of the water that you drink. We have to make sure the water that you guys use is safe. It’s up to us to do that. It’s also up to us to make sure we that the water that you have used is treated properly. So one of my concerns is a growing concern of the impure waters in our nation. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for that.
It kind of sounds like wastewater professionals act as the ambassadors between private industry and the government.
Exactly, that’s it. But it’s neat because in the meetings this year they’re actually having some farmers come on board. So the farmers can see what we’re seeing. We’re not just running pollution down the river and blaming them for it. We understand that they need to make a living too.
Contrary to what some may think, wastewater treatment is always growing and evolving. What do you think are the next big innovations in this industry?
Well, there’s a lot of aging infrastructure out there. Which is a huge concern. That’s got to be addressed and paid for.
But yes. Our industry is continually changing at such a rapid pace. Automation and emerging contaminants are two of the next innovations in the industry.
Is there any advice you think you would give particularly to women? Either who want to enter this field or just to let them know what this field is like to work in?
I think if you’re looking for a very rewarding, supportive career, this is it. There are a ton of resources out there. On-line classes, associations to be a part of, and you get to network with other operators lasting in lifelong friendships.
Also, it’s really enjoyable just to see how a town grows. And we have to be there. We’re here to help with those growing pains.
Inspiring Women of Wastewater™
In 2017, Aquafix has launched a new campaign to honor the hardworking female wastewater operators that make up only about 5% of the industry. We want to use our platform to project these voices, and introduce the women of tomorrow to a whole new set of role models. To learn more about the Inspiring Women of Wastewater™ program, and to sign up or nominate another outstanding female operator follow the link below!