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Carlisle Borough’s Water Department featured in AWWA Connections: When the operator and plant are next-door neighbors September 15, 2016 By Ann Espinola

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When the operator and plant are next-door neighbors
September 15, 2016
 

By Ann Espinola

There are more than 9,300 single-family homes in Carlisle, Pa., but Rick Horn lives in the one right next to the water treatment plant where he works.

The view from his kitchen window is the 6 MGD treatment plant where he labors as an operator and mechanic. That might be a personal-space issue for some of us, but not Horn.

“It’s definitely a plus,” he said.  “I save a lot of money on gas, which is a BIG benefit. And I can go home for lunch every day and let the dogs out. All I do is walk out the door, cross the bridge and two-lane road, and I’m on my property.”

Brian Bishop, pictured at right, lives 100 or so yards from the Swanton Water Treatment Plant in rural Vermont, where he’s worked for nearly two decades.  And several utilities in California, including those in Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks and Montecito carry the concept a step further or, actually, a step closer. They allow operators to live in utility-owned homes on plant grounds.

Horn, Bishop, and the operators in Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, and Montecito are throwbacks to a simpler time when it was more common for water operators to live next door to the treatment plant, or even on the property itself, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. But with the advent of SCADA and the ability to reach operators by cell phone anywhere, anytime, the need for such close proximity has subsided.

“It’s a bygone era,” said Mike McGuire, former editor of AWWA Journal, of operators sharing living space with their treatment plant. McGuire held several manager positions at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California beginning in 1977 and noted that connectivity issues made round-the-clock coverage more difficult in pre-SCADA generations.

“You had land lines and getting somebody in the middle of the night could be difficult,” McGuire said. “I remember we had pagers, and there would be all kinds of excuses why they couldn’t call back.”

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Today, the operator-next-door arrangement is more of a choice than necessity. Plant managers like it because it effectively covers the graveyard shift, especially at smaller utilities that may employee only one or two operators and mechanics.

“It’s tremendously helpful and reassuring,” said Pete Selan, treatment plants manager in Carlisle, Pa., and Horn’s boss. “Rick is the only mechanic here and it’s great we have someone that close by in case we have emergencies.”

There’s an added bonus for operators-in-residence at wealthier water districts: They can live close to work rather than 20 or 30 miles away in lower-cost housing, and their children typically attend top-notch schools.

The utility in tony Montecito, Calif. owns two homes, one next to its surface water treatment plant, and another adjacent to its distribution yard, where raw materials, asphalt and other supplies are stored. One of the homes is an 800-square-foot cinder-block cottage, and the other is a similar-sized wood frame house.

Both are vintage 1950s and bear little resemblance to the Mediterranean villas and oceanfront estates of Montecito, where the average home price is $3.2 million.

“There’s no question people would start investigating if someone on an operator salary tried to buy a home in Montecito,” said Austin Price, the district’s chief water treatment operator.

Price drives 60 miles roundtrip every day for work, but two of his operators – chosen by seniority — live in the on-site homes and pay rent, “but not even close to what they would be paying in the real world.”

The operator who lives next to the distribution yard handles power outages and security issues, while the operator who lives next to the treatment plant covers problems in the water supply, such as breaks in chemical pumps, and increases in turbidity. He also mows the lawn, but is not on call any more than operators who live away from the facility, though he occasionally handles small problems for them.

“If I’m on call and the chlorine residual drops, I can call him up – as long as it’s not 3 a.m. – and say, ‘Hey man, can you go to the plant?’” Price said. “He can confirm and say he’ll do it and take 5 minutes, rather than me drive 30 minutes.”

The treatment plant is 30 feet from the operator’s front door.

“He can hear when the plant backwashes if he’s sitting in his living room,” Price said.

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Thousand Oaks in California has three mobile homes at the Lake Bard Water Filtration Plant, which is the hub of the distribution system for the Calleguas Municipal Water District. Operators pay the market rate to rent the homes, said Tony Goff, manager of operations and maintenance at CMWD.

“We do not offer this type of arrangement because of housing costs, but as a means to ensure that our mission of reliability is met,” Goff said.

Goff said the utility cycles different operators into the homes approximately every five years. Interested operators can apply, and are chosen after interviews and review of qualifications.

“For every day they are available to respond to emergencies, they are given stand-by pay,” Goff said. “If they are able to respond every day, it basically offsets their rent.”

Thirty miles to the south in Santa Monica, two of the city’s six operators live in separate single-family homes adjacent to the water treatment plant.  Technically, both the treatment plant and the houses are in the City of Los Angeles, just over the border with Santa Monica. They have full SCADA access for overnight coverage and respond to alarms and emergency calls on the overall system.

Because of this arrangement, the other four operators are not required to work the overnight shift.

The houses are next to each other and just a couple hundred feet from the plant. The two operators coordinate with each other and stagger their days off so that one is always on call.

“We leave that up to them to work that out,” said Gil Borboa, Water Resources Manager for the City of Santa Monica, which is a member of the Partnership for Safe Water, a voluntary optimization program that results in superior water quality.

Although the primary reason for the on-site homes is to cover the overnight shift, an undeniable perk is that the operators live rent-free in West Los Angeles – where the rent for a single-family home can range from $4,000 to more than $6,000 per month.

When the previous live-in operators retired, Borboa said just two of the city’s six operators applied to live in the homes, which have been owned by the utility for more than 50 years.

“It comes back to that issue that even when you finish your day shift, five out of seven nights you might still get that alarm that goes off at 2 in the morning,” Borboa said. “It’s almost like you’re never off the clock.”

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Unlike the operators-in-residence in Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks and Montecito, Horn and Bishop own their own homes.

Horn was already living in the home 19 years ago when he learned of an opening next door at the Carlisle plant, and decided to apply. He landed the job and now works as both a mechanic and operator for the utility, which is a member of the Partnership for Safe Water. The utility is among just 16 plants in the Partnership’s 20-year history to earn the Phase IV Excellence in Water Treatment award.

Though Horn isn’t the only employee to work overnight shifts in Carlisle, he’s usually the only one who gets called in the middle of the night. He can go weeks without a problem at the plant, then Bam! he’ll be rousted four or five times in a month. Not long ago, he had to handle wee-hour glitches on back-to-back nights.

“We had done some work on sludge pumps and we pulled new wires through the one pump and had everything running well. I went home for the day. I got called at 9:30 p.m. because the pumps wouldn’t run. I had to go in and evaluate what was going on. I ended up switching two off the wire leads to the pump disconnect and getting it to run in manual. It was actually running backwards for some reason.”

At 12:40 a.m., Horn’s cell phone rang again. Horn’s wife, Celice, didn’t budge because “she’s used to it,” Horn said.

This time, the overnight operator couldn’t get the sludge polymer unit to come on.

Horn pulled on his jeans, grabbed his cell phone, and slipped into the Pennsylvania darkness. He walked out his back door, across the road and bridge that spans the Conodoguinet Creek, and into the plant’s side door. Total commute time: 2 minutes, 15 seconds.

Horn said he doesn’t mind the nocturnal interruptions because he gets his choice of either paid overtime or comp time. But he admitted there is a downside to his living situation.

“I never get a snow day,” Horn said, and that’s notable because it snows 35 inches a year in Carlisle.

Horn’s nearness to the plant means Selan, who is Horn’s boss, and the other six operators and one mechanic usually avoid off-time interruptions.

“Rick is very satisfied with his job, and of course I don’t want to lose him. I make sure of that,” Selan said. “I check in with him from time to time: Are you happy with the way things are going? Are there any problems? He usually doesn’t have any.”

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Bishop used to live 15 miles from his job at the water treatment plant in northwestern Vermont. That changed in the late 1990s, when the house next to the plant came up for sale.

“I was looking to buy close to work because of all the call-ins I’d get. By the time I’d get in here, and then get back home, it would be time to go in for my regular shift,” said Bishop, chief water treatment operator. “My wife actually pushed for it. She was looking at the savings in gas. My truck can sit for weeks on end.”

Bishop said it wasn’t unusual for him to be called in once a week during off hours to fix problems. Four years ago, the utility upgraded the plant which eliminated some issues, and reduced the need for overnight troubleshooting – though not altogether.

Every morning at 7:30, Bishop walks to the plant where he processes samples and adjusts chemical dosages. Then he heads into the village of Swanton, population about 3,000, takes a chlorine residual sample, and checks the 1.5-million gallon reservoir.

He gets 30 minutes for lunch – enough time to walk 90 seconds to his front door, eat, put the dogs out, and watch television news, before heading back to work. “If I forget my cell phone, I can run right home and grab it.”

The view from Bishop’s home is the 1 MGD plant which looks like a big, contemporary house, Bishop said. “It’s a nice looking plant.” Even so, Bishop wondered early on if the plant’s proximity would cramp his personal life.

“I don’t mind being accessible, but at the same time, I don’t want to always be reminded of work,” he said. He pauses. “I take things seriously and I do think about work a lot, but that would be the same if I lived next door or 20 miles away.”

He said he’s learned to trust that his co-workers can handle problems when he’s not there, and that the advantages of living next door to his work site far outweigh the bad.

“If I didn’t like it,” he said, “I would have moved a long time ago.”

Do you have a comment or story idea for Connections? Please contact Ann Espinola at 303-734-3454 or at aespinola@awwa.org. 

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