Breaking Down the (Dirty) Details on Wastewater Treatment

Between showering, cooking, doing a load of laundry and washing the dishes, we go through a lot of water. In fact, a typical family produces approximately 200 gallons of wastewater each and every day. 

In addition to the municipal wastewater that comes from our homes, restaurants, and commercial businesses, there’s also industrial wastewater from factories. Long story short: there’s a ton of used, dirty water in the world, and it all has to go somewhere.

Because most of that wastewater ultimately ends up back in local rivers or streams, there are a few steps Aqua takes to make sure it is impeccably clean before it gets there.

We spoke with Tom Bruns, president of Aqua Indiana, to learn exactly what those steps are.

Okay, I just flushed the toilet. Now what?

The second you flush (or drain, or pour, or rinse), the used wastewater shoots down a pipe, merges with other people’s sewage and flows off to a treatment plant for some intensive cleaning. 

First up is the screening process. Because solid objects, such as money, jewelry, toys, personal hygiene products and wipes might accidentally make their way into our wastewater, it’s important to first filter out these items so they don’t clog up the treatment system. Note: While some wipes call themselves “flushable,” they cause all sorts of problems in wastewater collection systems, so throw them in the trash instead of flushing.

After the initial screening, it’s time for gravity to do some of the heavy lifting. Cue primary clarification. During clarification, heavier materials (think: toilet paper) sink to the bottom of the tanks, while lighter ones (like the leftover oil and grease from last night’s dinner) float to the top. All of that gunk is then skimmed out. 

Is that it for the gunk?

We’re glad you asked. Because most of that gunk, like feces, bodily fluids and foods, will not settle on its own, microscopic organisms are introduced into the mix to help break down organic material. 

During this process, which we refer to as biological treatment, the microscopic organisms consume the waste (yum!) and transform it into solid particles that are captured through a round of final clarification and removed from the tank once and for all. 

Just because the sludge and gunk is gone, though, does not mean that the water is squeaky clean. In fact, if the water were to re-enter our world at this point, a lot of people would end up very sick. The water must first be disinfected with the help of ultraviolet light, which is beamed onto the water to sterilize and eliminate any remaining disease-causing organisms.

After all that, it’s time to discharge the final product. Most of the treated water is fed back into local rivers or streams. In areas of the country where water supplies are limited, this treated effluent water is often used to irrigate parks or golf courses. How’s that for a little something to think about next time you find yourself admiring the greens on hole nine?

Why do we do all of this, anyway?

Sure, it may seem like a lot of effort to put into something as undesirable as wastewater, but it’s something we have to do, especially if we don’t want to be living in our own filth. More importantly, though, we treat wastewater in order to prevent pollution, protect our health, protect wildlife and, of course, protect our environment.

Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of the ways in which Aqua treats different types of water, we’re ready to go green and figure out exactly how Aqua stays sustainable and eco-friendly throughout the year. See you back here next month where we’ll celebrate Earth Day and all the ways in which Aqua does its part for the environment.

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Aqua PA Spotlight: Wastewater Operations Superintendent Bob Soltis

Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Operations Superintendent Bob Soltis or “Aqua Bob” as he is affectionately known throughout his service area, is incredibly passionate about his work at the 14 Aqua wastewater plants he oversees in Northeast Pennsylvania. In fact, one could say Soltis eats, sleeps and eventually drinks wastewater. He holds Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection class A and E wastewater licenses, and subclasses 1, 2, 3 and 4, which equate to the highest operations licensure available in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“The wastewater we discharge has to be clean and clear or I can’t sleep at night,” said Soltis. “Somebody, somewhere is going to eventually drink this water, whether it is an animal, a human, or the aquatic life in the receiving waters!”

By cleaning wastewater for discharge into streams, or for reuse like irrigation, water treatment plants speed up the natural process of water purification. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency considers wastewater treatment one of the most common forms of pollution control. Because of this, Soltis considers his number one job to be one of the greatest examples of environmental stewardship.

“Aqua acquired the Washington Park treatment plant about five years ago. Before we took over operations, the water was so dirty that the entire stream was devoid of any life,” said Soltis. “Now, there is vibrant plant and animal life living around the stream and that is a testament to Aqua’s dedication to putting out quality water.”

(Above) Original Washington Park wastewater treatment facility.
(Below) New Washington Park wastewater treatment facility near completion.

Treating wastewater presents a set of challenges that are completely different from those faced when processing drinking water. Not only is it technically, physically and financially more difficult to operate these plants, but treating wastewater is a biological, chemical, and mechanical process that requires constant vigilance from operators.

“The nutrients and the raw sewage entering the plant changes hourly and we are constantly monitoring the wastewater,” said Soltis. “We do some testing, but being able to do an empirical assessment of what is happening during the treatment process – what the wastewater looks and smells like – and making proper adjustments based on that is what makes the water Aqua discharges great.”

Over his 10 years at Aqua Pennsylvania, Soltis has managed the complete overhauls of several wastewater plants acquired by Aqua including Masthope, Bunker Hill, Washington Park, Laurel Lakes, River Crest, Pine Crest and Lake Harmony. Each treatment plant now runs incredibly efficiently.

“I take great pride in my work, but the spotlight really belongs on my operators and wastewater treatment plants,” said Soltis. “The performance of each treatment plant is a team effort. I cannot accomplish anything I do on my own and that’s what makes this organization shine.” 

 

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Every Day is Earth Day at Aqua!

Aqua employees participate in stream clean up efforts throughout our eight states.

 By Aqua Vice President and Chief Environmental Officer Chris Crockett

It’s always a good time to consider how we can be better stewards of our environment. At Aqua, we think about this question every day as we strive to carry out our mission of protecting and providing Earth’s most essential resource. With Earth Day tomorrow, Saturday, April 22, we hope this question is on everyone’s minds, at Aqua and beyond.


As the vice president and chief environmental officer, I am routinely asked how Aqua is helping the planet and what we could be doing better. Let me take a moment to explain some specific things we’re doing and how they’ve made a difference in the environment. I’ll also explain our efforts to develop a sustainability plan for Aqua to help guide and improve our environmental impacts moving forward.

Believe it or not, there are more than 100 activities Aqua does company-wide to help protect the planet, and we do some of them every day.

Reducing Lost Water

Since only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is fresh water, and only about a third of that, or less than one percent, is accessible, it’s our most significant responsibility as a water utility to manage our water resources carefully. One key daily activity that’s fundamental to our company’s sustainability is our ability to reduce water loss. We’re experts at replacing pipes, changing meters and re-using water in various ways. 

Keeping our Streams and Rivers Clean

Another aspect of our daily work is treating wastewater. Our nearly 175 wastewater plants return 26 million gallons of wastewater per day back into our streams and rivers cleaner than it came out. This water is not only critical to water supplies, but it’s also critical to the multitude of fish and flora that need it to survive. 

Aqua employees at the Media Wastewater Plant in PA.

Protecting our Water Supplies for Future Generations

Protecting the aquifers, streams and rivers that supply our water is also a critical daily function. In Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, teams work to manage lakes and reservoirs and protect the streams that feed them to keep their quantity and quality sustainable. This involves preserving lands, monitoring our streams, planting trees, educating communities and local leaders, partnering with environmental or watershed groups, conducting stream cleanups, or providing input on local development and local ordinances. Aqua Illinois recently won the American Water Works Association (AWWA) source water protection award for their efforts.  

Reducing Waste From Our Business

Treating water also creates waste from the things we take out of the water and wastewater to clean it. At our water plants, we use belt filter presses to drain water from the sludge from treatment to reduce the amount we need to send to landfills. We have also explored and use efforts to beneficially reuse the waste from wastewater treatment to put nutrients on farm fields. In some areas, we use spray irrigation to apply treated wastewater to fields to recharge the groundwater and avoid impacts on local streams.

Using Energy Wisely

Aqua uses many innovative approaches to reduce our energy use. These activities include LED lighting, pump-curve calibrations, variable-flow (VFD) pumps, peak-demand response, air blower and diffuser improvements and solar panels. We also manage energy through our fleet. We measure idling times to reduce gas waste and air emissions and look for efficiency improvements when we buy new cars and trucks. 

   

Aqua solar fields benefit the environment across some of our eight states. One of which is at our Pickering Water Treatment Plant in PA, which is 6.5 acres and reduces our usage by 2.2 million kWh annually. This is the equivalent of avoiding 51,450 gallons of gasoline per year or the equivalent emissions as 380 passenger cars.

Sustainability Planning

Aqua is embarking on a multi-year effort to develop a sustainability plan. This effort involves a couple of steps, starting with benchmarking Aqua’s sustainability metrics against other utilities and developing a sustainability activity inventory. This will take most of 2017 to complete as we look at more than 34 different standard metrics from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). 

In 2018, we’ll begin to understand which sustainability metrics are important to our employees and our customers to help determine which areas will become our core focus. Next, we’ll develop a governance structure to help drive the achievement and measurement of our sustainability effort. Finally, in 2019, we’ll develop a plan that sets the goals, objectives, and short- and long-term actions we need to take to improve our sustainability as a company. We know Aqua does many things that are sustainable, but we can and need to do better if we want to catch up to our peers in the industry.

We’ll be soliciting ideas and feedback in the future, so please keep an eye out for ways you can share your thoughts.

Last, I want to thank everyone at Aqua for protecting and providing Earth’s most essential resource every day! There is no greater responsibility to our communities, our families and our planet!

Did you know? Other ways Aqua is making a difference:

  • Some of Aqua’s reservoirs have preserved land around them. This land is home to threatened and endangered species. By preserving land to protect our water supplies, we are also helping to protect and re-establish threatened and endangered species
  • Aqua has been participating in TreeVitalize in Pennsylvania since 2005. In total, Aqua has planted more than 43,658 trees for 277 projects, equal to 302 acres of trees. What does this mean for the environment? Well, each tree sequesters 26 to 48 pounds of carbon per year depending on size. Each acre of trees counters about 26,000 miles of driving roughly, so in total, these trees counter about 7.8 million miles of driving per year. Aqua’s fleet drives about 17.4 million miles per year, so these trees counter roughly 45 percent of Aqua’s carbon footprint from driving.
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