Aqua makes strides to improve Pennsylvania’s infrastructure

Think report cards don’t exist outside the classroom? Think again.

Every year, the Pennsylvania State Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a statewide infrastructure report card in areas ranging from bridges to roads to drinking water. For 2018, the council gave Pennsylvania an overall grade of C-, and while that doesn’t sound great, keep in mind that the state's grade in 2017 was a D+. It’s a small improvement, and there’s still plenty of work to be done, but it’s an improvement nonetheless.

Why should you, as a customer, care about your state’s infrastructure grade? We asked Aqua Pennsylvania President Marc Lucca.

“It really comes down to reliability of service,” he said. “If you think about the service that we provide on a daily basis, our infrastructure sustains basic services that we need as a community to exist and to thrive. If there’s interruption to service, whether it’s on the water side or the wastewater side, the community, and even our environment, can suffer.”

Aqua Pennsylvania President Marc Lucca (left) during a field visit

 

At Aqua, we’re proud to play a role in the continued improvements made to Pennsylvania’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Throughout 2018, we invested more than $340 million in a wide array of projects to upgrade water infrastructure across the Pennsylvania communities we serve, contributing to the increase in the state’s infrastructure score.

Want to know more about what these efforts entail? Let’s dig in—pun intended.

What’s the project?

One of our current infrastructure improvement projects in Pennsylvania is the upgrade of the Media Wastewater Treatment Plant in Delaware County. The project, which represents $32 million of investments in the community’s wastewater infrastructure, has been underway since June 2018, and the first phase will wrap up in December 2019.

We spoke to Dave Hughes, director of plant engineering at Aqua, who is heavily involved with the project, to learn more about its goals. Open since 1922, the plant treats 1.8 million gallons of wastewater every day. Yeah—that’s a lot of wastewater.

Building progress on the plant's new clarifier tank foundation

 

Let’s talk details, though. Improvements to the plant include upgrading all of the headworks (equipment at the beginning of the treatment process that begins the removal of pollutants) and the installation of a brand-new thickener (which removes solids and other impurities from the dirty water) and digester (which stabilizes those solids). New chemical feed systems, clarifiers, and sludge pump stations will also tremendously improve the plant’s operations.

In addition to these mechanical improvements, the project includes the construction of a new operations building to support staff and visiting specialists in their work. Finally, the plant’s electrical system will receive much-needed upgrades, including the installation of a new emergency generator to ensure smooth operations despite any bad weather or unexpected losses of power.

How do customers benefit?

All this technical talk about sludge pumps and power generators might have you wondering about the real-world impact of this project on you, the customer. According to Hughes, the benefits of these types of infrastructure improvement projects are numerous.

More progress on the plant's construction site

 

“It’s definitely going to improve the overall reliability of the plant and reduce operating costs,” he said. “And it’s going to improve the discharge water quality.” That means that these upgrades are reflected on the water released back into the environment as part of the wastewater treatment process, which is something we can all get behind. Our mission at Aqua is to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource—water—and to do that, we must do our part to take care of our planet as a whole.

A pipe's lifetime can range from 15 to 100 years, with many in Pennsylvania aged on the higher end of the spectrum—part of the reason why the state's infrastructure is in such dire need of upgrades like these. Making these changes to a plant that’s been in existence for nearly a century improves its overall reliability, and better reliability demonstrates greater social responsibility as a whole. Our water and wastewater treatment plants are not widely visible to customers, so many are not aware of the work that takes place in these facilities. Customers are likelier to see the miles of main replacements we do every year.  

“Much of our water mains we’re replacing was installed before the 1960s,” Marc Lucca added. “Here we are in 2019, and you’re looking at equipment that can be 60, 70, even 80 years old or more. A lot of these facilities were just not made to last that long.”

Lucca referenced the below photo to shed more light on the importance of upgrading aging water infrastructure.

Blast from the past: an Aqua maintenance crew in 1949

 

“When our workers installed these mains in 1949, people were probably thrilled to connect to a public water supply and to have access to public sewer,” Lucca said. “Here we are 70 years later, replacing the pipe that those men installed. In 2018, we replaced more than 150 miles of mains that had reached the end of its service life. Since the early 1990s, we have replaced almost 2,000 miles of similar main across Pennsylvania.  While this is a great benefit to the communities we serve and to the environment, we are sensitive to the temporary inconvenience it might create. People sometimes say they are upset by the traffic impact of our construction on their street or in their neighborhood. But we know that the pipes being replaced have lasted and served these neighborhoods for decades and enabled these communities and others to thrive and grow into what they are today.

“On the occasion that someone complains about us putting a new main in the ground, I usually say, ‘Well, at least you won’t see us for another 100 years, because our new pipe will last even longer.’”

How does this help Pennsylvania—and the world?

When it comes to Pennsylvania’s infrastructure report card, every improvement to the state’s infrastructure systems makes a difference, no matter how small. If outdated systems fail, there’s an increased risk of pollution or harm to the environment, and that’s no good in our books. At Aqua, our commitment to our customers and our planet drives everything we do.

Stay tuned to our Aquastructure blog series throughout 2019 for more insight into how we’re improving our nation’s infrastructure, not just in Pennsylvania but across the eight states we proudly serve.

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Fixing a small leak can make a big difference

Happy Fix a Leak Week! If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry—Aqua is here to fill you in on why the annual observation is so important. Fix a Leak Week can teach us a thing or two about how everyday household water leaks can do more damage than you’d expect.

“At Aqua, we care deeply about providing safe, reliable water to our customers, but we’re also dedicated to protecting Earth’s most essential resource: water,” said Aqua’s Superintendent of Meter Operations, Sarah Eccles. “Fix a Leak Week is a perfect opportunity for you and the members of your household to get involved, too.”

Why do household leaks matter?

That’s a great question, and there are plenty of answers. On an environmental level, it’s crucial to catch leaks on a regular basis. Check out this statistic from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

 

That’s right: Simple household leaks waste about one trillion gallons of water every year.

Did you know that a leaking shower can waste more than 500 gallons of water per year if it goes unfixed? It’s true! The longer leaks linger, the worse they can get. As a water provider, Aqua knows the importance of preserving and protecting water as a vital natural resource—not only for the sake of the environment, but also for the sake of our customers.

How do leaks affect everyday life?

Let’s start with the obvious effects of a pesky household leak: water damage and flooding. A leaking pipe can get baseboards wet, and it can even start to leak through to another floor. Not only does this cause damage to your ceilings or walls, but it can also be a health hazard and cost you an extra chunk of change to get the water damage all fixed up.

The expenses don’t stop there—think about your water bill! Although droplets of water may seem miniscule, fixing simple leaks can save homeowners around 10 percent on their water bills. Luckily for you, it’s easier to fix these leaks than you’d think, whether they’re in your bathroom or your backyard.

Tackling leaks at the source

The first step in fixing a leak is to identify it. According to the EPA, if water usage for a family of four exceeds 12,000 gallons per month during the winter, there’s likely a leak in your home that needs fixing.

If you’re still uncertain, checking your water meter is the most direct way to identify a leak that you can’t see or hear around your house. Check your water meter before and after a two-hour period during which you use no water. If there’s a change, you have a leak.

By fixing leaks and monitoring your household’s water usage, you look out for the environment and your wallet. Who could say no to that deal?  

Why does Aqua care?

It’s as simple as this: Aqua is dedicated to preserving Earth’s most essential natural resource and providing reliable water service to our customers. We’ve been a proud water provider for more than 130 years, and we love what we do.

“The more that we educate our customers on the importance of taking small steps to help preserve water, the more we can help to improve our communities and the lives of our customers,” said Eccles. “This Fix a Leak Week, consider checking your home for leaks, then rest easy knowing that you’ve taken a step to eliminate wasted water.”

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Winter weather is no match for reliable water

 

As temperatures get colder and snow, hail and sleet storms strike, you’ll likely depend on access to hot water more than ever. After all, nothing beats a hot shower and a warm meal during the wintertime.

We get it. So much, in fact, that at Aqua, we have an entire process in place to keep your water flowing in even the harshest of conditions. No matter what kind of winter mix hits your town, our field workers have you covered.

We spoke with John Aulbach, president of Aqua Virginia, and Ed Kolodziej, president and COO of Aqua Ohio, to get the scoop on how Aqua braces for winter weather.

Nature throws plenty of curveballs.

Let’s face it: Weather can be weird. One day it’s warm and sunny, and the next day there are little pieces of ice falling out of the sky. Because we don’t have any weather psychics on staff, our team must be prepared for whatever weather the world decides to throw our way.

For example, down in Virginia, things are a bit, well, calmer than they are up north. However, that’s not to say Virginia doesn’t get its fair share of winter weather.

“Freezing rain is a threat to our mobility and slows our response times. Plus, icy branches and wires can interrupt the power for pumps we use to keep the water flowing,” says Aulbach. “That’s what makes our standby generators so important.”

Heavy snowfall tends to hit Virginia in the western, northern and central parts of the state. And when the sun pops out and snow melts, flooding can occur.

Ohio also has its fair share of freezing rain and intense snowstorms, but our friends in the Midwest are also susceptible to a phenomenon called frazil ice.

Frazil ice in the Great Lakes (via the Aqua Ohio team)

 

“Think of a sno-cone without the sugary goodness,” says Kolodziej. “That [consistency] can threaten the flow through our raw water intakes from Lake Erie. When the lake turns to frazil ice, it’s difficult for the heaters on our intakes to keep up.”

When frazil ice strikes, the Aqua team has to force a block of ice and straw (called a “straw pig”) through the intake pipes by reversing the water flow from the plant into the lake. The straw pigs then scrub the inside of the pipe, and when the water temperatures rise, everything melts without having a harsh impact on the ecosystem. Hooray for science!

Pipes will freeze—it’s inevitable.

Here’s the deal with frozen pipes: When stationary water inside pipes drops to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the pipes freeze. It’s that simple. According to Kolodziej, it happens each and every winter without fail.

When water freezes, it expands, which can then break pipes, flood interiors and cause major damage. It’s no good.

“As a preventive measure, we encourage customers to insulate or use heat tape to protect pipes in unheated areas such as outdoor faucets, crawlspaces and garages,” Kolodziej explains. “They can also leave cabinet doors under sinks open to allow warm air to reach pipes or even leave a trickle of water (about the size of pencil lead) running overnight.”

Wondering why you would ever knowingly leave your faucet on all night? Well, according to Kolodziej, it all comes down to the fact that moving water is less likely to freeze. The water entering your house is usually about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which can prevent ice from forming.

However, if things do freeze over and a pipe bursts, you’ll want to shut off the valve for your water supply as soon as possible. This action can be the difference between a small mess and a huge nightmare.

It’s cold out there, folks.

When the weather ramps up, our workers can’t exactly call it a day and go home. Our customers rely on having access to safe water each and every day, and that often means our workers have to lace up their boots and tackle the storm in all sorts of wild conditions.

Recently, for example, Aulbach’s team in Virginia experienced a winter weather line break on Thanksgiving morning that impacted about 150 homes. Before the damage could wreak havoc on everyone’s meal preparations, the team located the leak and restored service before the repair was even completed. The Virginia team also distributed bottled water door to door so that Thanksgiving cooking could go on while the team kept working on the repair.

Frozen pipe (via Pixabay)

 

We can’t always predict what Mother Nature has in store for us, but we can make sure our team is fully prepared and ready for any challenge. Whether it’s rain, shine, sleet, or snow, we always encourage our workers to be safe, stay warm, and ask for help if they need it.

Providing water and wastewater service to communities and being able to sanitize and deliver reliable, safe drinking water is a true privilege, says Kolodziej.

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Helpful tips for National Preparedness Month

 

Disasters happen. Does your family have a plan? 

At Aqua, we care not only about the quality of your water, but also about your family’s safety and well-being. The thought of being caught in an emergency can be frightening, but the first step towards safety is learning how to prepare.

With Hurricane Florence likely arriving on the eastern coast of the country this weekend, it’s especially important to recognize FEMA’s National Preparedness Month. Whether you’ll be affected by this weekend’s storm or you just want to get ahead of the game, let’s talk about how you can be prepared.

Have an Emergency Plan

Making a plan is crucial, and it’s easier than you’d think. Let’s start with the basics: evacuation and communication. If your home is threatened or compromised by a natural disaster or a local emergency, you may need to seek shelter elsewhere. We recommend having a list of options for local safe spaces, and a planned route to get there. Keep this list somewhere accessible—like on your fridge—so everyone in your home can see easily see it.

There is no such thing as being too prepared. If you have children or pets, it can be beneficial to practice your emergency plan. Practicing can help your family perfect the plan in a timely manner, which can help reduce panic when an emergency occurs. In the case of evacuation, consider taking supplies with you when you seek shelter. The most important part of having an emergency plan is talking about it. Communication is key during times of crisis!

Stock Up on Essentials 

It’s no secret that water is our specialty. And in case of an emergency, it’s essential that you have clean drinking water for you and your family. If your water source is compromised during a natural disaster, have a solidified plan determined by your family’s water needs. We recommend storing an emergency water supply in a safe place for dire situations. 

In the case of an emergency or extreme weather conditions, Aqua might issue a precautionary boil water advisory to our affected customers. We also encourage you to sign-up for our WaterSmart Alerts to stay informed about your water quality and service in real time.

Don’t forget to put aside food, clothing, and extra funds in case of natural disasters. Packing an emergency kit is a great solution for families or individuals who want to have the proper arrangements ready to go.

Check Your Coverage

Knowledge is power. If you don’t know what your insurance covers in the case of a disaster, pick up the phone and call your insurance provider to discuss their policies. Depending on your plan, some major costs could be covered by your health or home insurance policies. Once you know your provider’s policies, you can better understand what kind of funds you should put aside in case of an emergency.

Take Action

We have a challenge for you! Saturday, Sept. 15 is Ready.gov’s National Day of Action. On this day, we encourage you to perform one small act of preparation: start a conversation with your family about an emergency plan, pick up some extra canned foods, or sign up for WaterSmart Alerts from Aqua. These small acts can have a huge impact when it comes to keeping you and your loved ones safe.

If your area will be affected by the upcoming storm, we suggest reading up on hurricane preparation tips. Stay safe and remember that you can reach our customer service team by calling 877.987.2782.

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What does it take to acquire and upgrade a water system?

 

Let’s be frank: Operating and maintaining water systems is not an easy task, especially when they need tons of infrastructural improvements.  

Earlier in our Aquastructure blog series, we shed a bit of light on the state of our nation’s water infrastructure and pointed out that most of the pipelines we depend on each and every day were built at the start of the 20thcentury. In the present day, all of that infrastructure is near the end of its life, which means that upkeep and updates are a pressing need. 

Considering those challenges, how does a company like Aqua continue to provide efficient and affordable service? It all comes down to the water systems Aqua acquires, along with regular updates to existing infrastructure.

Craig Blanchette, president of Aqua Illinois, checked in to give us some insight into Aqua’s acquisition and upgrade processes. 


Blanchette (third from right in sunglasses) with fellow Aqua Illinois employees during a local volunteer project.

More water, less problems

Since 1995, Aqua has acquired more than 300 water systems, most of which are from municipalities (which own 85 percent of the nation’s water systems). However, sometimes those systems come from other sources, such as smaller regulated utilities, homeowners associations, water and sewer districts, and developer-owned systems. 

As the number of water systems in Aqua’s network grows, the efficiency and affordability of its services grow, too. The theory at play here is “economies of scale,” which is the economic principle that the more goods or services can be produced at a larger scale, the higher the savings in costs.

“By adding customers, Aqua is able to spread these fixed costs over a larger customer base, alleviating much of the burden from our new and existing customers,” Blanchette explains. 

What happens if Aqua wants to acquire a new system?

When Aqua is preparing to acquire a new system, typically Aqua and the other party—whether it’s a municipality or some other organization—begin by sitting down and talking shop (think inspections and negotiations). This can take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. The goal is to create a partnership which benefits the community.

After that, an asset purchase agreement is created, which outlines all the details of the transaction, such as pricing and inclusion of assets. The APA must then be approved by the state public utility commission, which takes about six months to a year. During the PUC approval process, an administrative law judge takes on the case, and expert witnesses, like engineers, accountants and financial advisors, must evaluate and vouch for the legitimacy and benefits of the proposed acquisition. 

Once the agreement is reviewed, modified and approved by the administrative law judge it is then forwarded to the PUC for its final approval. Once this is complete, Aqua can sit down with the seller and officially take ownership.  

And then it’s smooth sailing?

With the right due diligence, yes! A lot of these existing water systems must be assessed to ensure everything is up to speed. In most cases, many of the system’s assets are underground and cannot be easily inspected.

“In these cases, we rely heavily on the maintenance records of the municipality in determining where future replacements are needed,” Blanchette notes. 

The most common upgrade is water main replacements, which are predominantly located underground and are often left out of a municipality’s investment plan. Blanchette adds that water service lines, main line valves and fire hydrants are also among the areas of a water system that may need more attention. 

“These assets are incredibly important because they are the backbone of any community,” Blanchette says. “Reliability of a water system is important in providing Earth’s most essential resource.” 

Whenever Aqua acquires a new system, they prepare a new capital investment plan to help determine where and when adjustments and updates are needed in each system’s infrastructure. Aqua then reevaluates that plan to determine future improvement needs. From that point forward, investment in the existing infrastructure is constant. 

It seems to be a team effort.

Very much so! Aqua works closely with the communities it serves and regularly meets with community members to coordinate all these infrastructure improvement projects. 

For example, if Aqua wants to do a water main or sewer replacement, they’ll first run it by the local road authority to plan resources accordingly. 

 

“If a road authority is planning to resurface a roadway where Aqua is also looking to replace a water or sewer main, it saves our customers the cost of restoring the roadway,” Blanchette explains.  

Now that is what we call synergy. 

What does this look like in your neighborhood?

Once an acquisition is complete and upgrades are underway, how does this affect the new communities Aqua serves?

View two town success stories in Manteno, IL, and Media, PA, to see how Aqua works with community leaders to ensure water quality and service to customers. 

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