Bringing a fresh filtration system to North Carolina

At Aqua, we’re always proud of our projects that help to improve water quality for our customers, but this week, we have a special reason to highlight these positive changes: It’s Infrastructure Week!

As we all know by now, water infrastructure greatly impacts both the quality of your water and the quality of your life. By investing in new infrastructure in our service areas, we’re making strides to change our communities for the better. That’s why our team has been hard at work implementing a new filtration system in Upchurch Place, a community in Raleigh, North Carolina.

What’s the deal with filtration?

Filtration systems, when necessary, are a crucial part of water infrastructure—after all, they help to remove unwanted naturally occurring minerals. Aqua has provided water to Upchurch Place since 2002, and we’ve built quite a relationship with our North Carolina community.

We spoke to Aqua North Carolina’s Michael Melton, engineering manager, and Amanda Berger, environmental compliance director, to learn more about the recently completed project. Melton noted that the goal of the new filtration system is the removal of iron and manganese. While both elements are naturally present in tap water, keeping their levels below the secondary standard is important.

Changes in Upchurch Place

After hearing reports of discolored water from customers in the Upchurch area, we identified the problem and got to work on implementing a solution.

“Since installing the new filters, the treated water has iron and manganese levels well below the secondary drinking water standard,” Melton said. “In addition, we’re proud to announce that Aqua is the first privately owned water provider in North Carolina to utilize a non-discharge backwash system.” (Aqua developed the first recycle water system in 2010.)

What’s a non-discharge backwash system? Long story short: It allows us to eliminate water loss in the filtration process, therefore upholding our mission to provide and protect Earth’s most essential resource. The best part is that our customers will only see a .70 cent increase in their annual water bill for this major improvement—and it’s well worth it.

Aqua’s commitment to excellence

Providing our Upchurch customers with a new and improved filtration system was no small feat.

“On average, a filter project like the one in Upchurch can take up to nine months to engineer and construct,” Melton said. “At Aqua, we also make it a priority to work with local financial and environmental regulators to improve every aspect of our service and reliability.”

“This project is a good example of how Aqua is working with its stakeholders to achieve the goal of improving our customer’s water quality,” Berger added.

Although these projects take a good amount of time, money, and resources, they’re necessary in order to improve the state of our country's infrastructure. As water providers, it’s our goal to supply our customers with safe and reliable water—and it doesn’t hurt that we’re helping to restore our nation’s infrastructure in the process.

Stay tuned for our next Aquastructure blog to see what we’re up to next, and in the meantime, we’re wishing our customers and professional peers a very happy (and productive) Infrastructure Week!

 

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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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How does water infrastructure affect public health?

There’s no question that water is Earth’s most essential resource—as a society, we use it for tasks both mundane and extraordinary every day.

At Aqua, we understand and value the importance of monitoring and repairing the systems responsible for bringing us that water. When infrastructure is outdated or damaged, it can cause problems that extend far beyond individual home plumbing systems.

We caught up with Vice President and Chief Environmental Officer Chris Crockett to better understand why Aqua’s determination to rebuild and repair our nation’s water infrastructure isn’t just important—it’s essential in order to maintain public health.

How your water travels to you matters—a lot.

It might seem like water simply rushes out of the tap, but its journey from the well or water treatment plant to your area is longer than you’d think. It’s possible that water has traveled many miles to reach your home, or maybe it was waiting to be released from a storage tank. This time spent traveling or sitting is called water age, and it can cause some less-than-ideal changes to the water.

“The longer the water sits in the pipes or tanks, the more things can happen to change its quality,” Crockett explains. “For example, the chlorine in the water will slowly degrade, and if it’s there too long, the chlorine can actually disappear.”

Though chlorine makes many people think of pool water (yuck), you’ll remember from our water purification blog that the proper amount needs to be present to keep your water safe for drinking. If pipes are outdated or rusty, the quality and safeness of the water can suffer. Without the presence of chlorine, bacteria and viruses can breed in the water supply, and that’s where things can go wrong.

Out with the old—especially pipes.

Pipes make up most of our water infrastructure systems, which makes their physical integrity of the utmost importance.

“Old, corroding pipes can grow a biofilm of bacteria that lives in the rust and can reduce the chlorine levels in the water as it sits in the pipe,” says Crockett. Not only do these biofilms eat away at pipes, but they also can give the water a slight unpleasant odor or taste.

Pipe problems don’t stop there. Crockett adds that “leaking pipes not only let water leak out, but under very specific conditions of low pressure could let water outside the pipe leak in, introducing contamination and dirt.”

According to a report from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), most of America’s drinking water distribution system is more than 50 years old. Although this infrastructure was built to last, Aqua is determined to stay ahead of deterioration to protect our customers’ water supplies.

Where does public health come in?

Water traveling through compromised (or just plain out-of-date) infrastructure can be contaminated through intrusion, corrosion, biofilms, sediment, water age, or any combination of these factors.

According to the AWWA report, a 2006 national estimate attributed nearly 50 percent of the risk of contracting a waterborne illness to distribution systems. As the AWWA puts it, there are three main concerns when it comes to understanding and tracking how water infrastructure can impact public health:

Chart via AWWA (Figure 3)

Using these three pillars, it’s easy to understand that poor infrastructure conditions can make water susceptible to more contaminants, which can affect public health through consumption and use of compromised water.

Although that’s a mouthful (and can sound concerning), allow us to give you peace of mind: Aqua is one step ahead of the game.

How, exactly?

Upgrading water infrastructure is no small task, but we know the benefits are worth it. By now, you understand the impact that outdated systems can have on your everyday life, but rest assured that Aqua takes plenty of action to keep your water safe and reliable.

According to Crockett, in addition to using sophisticated computer programs to monitor the state of the system, replacing old pipes, and flushing newer pipes with chemicals to keep them from corroding, Aqua also has plenty of boots on the ground.

“We conduct extensive flushing exercises,” he explains. “We go out in areas that may need help moving the water, and we flush it via hydrants to get out the rust and bring in fresh water.”

If you keep an eye out, you might even see members of our team in your area flushing hydrants. It’s one simple step that we can take to continue our mission to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource.

Stay tuned for another year of exploration and education throughout our Aquastructure blog series. See you next month!

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Why fats, oils, and grease are a sewer pipe’s worst nightmare

Have you ever cooked up some bacon or boiled some chicken only to pour the leftover grease down the drain?

It seems so easy—and, let’s face it, very tempting—to dump those fats, oils and grease, aka FOG, into the sink and be done with it. But the truth of the matter is that all that FOG can cause serious havoc on your sewage system.

We talked to Joe Pearce, director of operations for Aqua North Carolina, to learn how and why fats, oils, and grease can cause damage to the pipes that take wastewater from your home.

Hot grease? More like cold, hard sludge

Here’s the deal: When you pour hot grease into your sink, it’s typically at a very high temperature, meaning the FOG flows down the drain in liquid form. 

What you might not realize, though, is that as that FOG cools off, it transforms into a solid substance that quickly clogs up the pipes in your home and downstream sewage systems.

That thick, sludgy FOG will continue to stick to the inside of your pipes and accumulate. In time, it could even block your entire drain and cause a serious backup in your home.  In the sewer system, it can cause a sanitary sewage overflow.

Meanwhile, because FOG is high in organic strength (and because anaerobic bacteria find it to be quite delicious), it begins to generate hydrogen sulfide gas. When this gas combines with water, it creates a powerful sulfuric acid that can corrode many types of piping and damage concrete and ductile iron.

Not all heroes wear capes

You might be wondering how you can be a hero and save your pipes from a clog-filled nightmare. The answer is easy: Don’t pour grease down the drain! That’s it—really.

Instead, make a point to pour FOG into empty food cans, then chuck those bad boys into the garbage. Wiping down frying pans with a paper towel to soak up the FOG before tossing it in the trash is a good trick, too.

What does Aqua do to help?

According to Pearce, infrastructure improvements are often required to fix problems created by grease damage in our sewer systems. One option is to use a type of pipe that’s less susceptible to hydrogen sulfide corrosion: plastic (PVC) pipes.

However, for a variety of reasons, that type of pipe isn’t always the best option for some of our sites. For sites that require the use of ductile iron pipe, ceramic-coated ductile iron pipe is a good alternative.

Bring on the holiday meals, please!

It’s important to talk about FOG during the holiday season since this time of year tends to come with a spike in sewage issues. All that additional cooking leads to additional grease that can quickly clog your pipes and overflow your sewage system the morning after a big holiday get together!

If you’re on your kitchen’s cleanup crew this holiday season, do yourself (and your drain) a favor by making sure all that FOG meets its fate in the trash instead of the sink.

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Science is everywhere—especially in your purified water

 

If you’ve been following Aquastructure, our monthly blog series that breaks down all the details about how we bring fresh drinking water to our customers, then you know we put a great deal of effort into purifying our water.

From filtering out dirt and debris to zapping away bacteria and adjusting pH levels, we closely monitor our water at the source, during treatment and after treatment to ensure the final product meets and exceeds regulatory requirements.

In the past, we’ve discussed the different types of filtration processes for both surface water treatment and groundwater treatment, but we wanted to dig even deeper into the scientific details. We sat down with Director of Treatment for Aqua Pennsylvania Matt Miller, whose team is responsible for optimizing the treatment of drinking water and wastewater throughout their state, to clear things up. (Pun intended.)

Welcome to the fantastic world of filtration!

If you take one thing away from this blog, we hope it’s the importance of coagulants in the filtration process. Coagulants are vital chemicals that help tiny pieces of debris particles in surface water stick together and form larger clumps so they can easily be removed from the water.

All those organic particles that creep into the surface water have a negative charge. The coagulants, meanwhile, have a positive charge, meaning that they act like magnets and repel against each other when combined. When this happens, we’re able to neutralize those unwanted particles. They begin to stick together, which makes it easy to flush them out of the water.

Remember these diagrams? Behold: Coagulation and filtration!

Coagulants aren’t the only substances working wonders on our water, though. There’s also sand, gravel, and anthracite, which more or less act as filters.

“If you have ever been to the beach, poured a pail of water onto the sand, and watched it disappear, you have witnessed filtration,” Miller explained.

Just like sand at the beach, in a water filter, the water moves down through tiny pores in sand and gravel, trapping all of the little particles that don’t need to be in our drinking water. From there, the filtered water flows through an ion-exchange filter that trades undesirable contaminants, like calcium and magnesium ions, for harmless substances, such as potassium or sodium. 

Aerate, chlorinate, repeat.

Sometimes, the pH levels in surface water and groundwater are a little out of whack. That’s because when carbon dioxide is in the water, it forms a weak acid called carbonic acid. Carbonic acid isn’t very fun for the body to digest, so we implement a process called aeration, which is a fancy term for the addition of air into the water. This removes any carbon dioxide and normalizes pH levels.

Last, but definitely not least, is chlorination. According to Miller, the use of chlorine is the most common and effective process for disinfecting drinking water. This powerful substance is used to kill bacteria and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. However, too much chlorine is no good, so our operators carefully monitor the amount of chlorine added to each batch of water. 

Welcome to chlorination nation!

How does chlorine work, you may ask?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that chlorine, which is an oxidizing agent, has a neutral charge, meaning that it’s able to sneak into the negatively-charged pathogens and destroy them so they don’t multiply and make us sick. 

With all this talk of positive, negative and neutral charges, do you feel like you’re back in elementary school science class? We sure do!

It’s time to get sludgy. 

Now that we’ve covered the science of our drinking water, let’s talk about wastewater. We’ve already walked you through what happens to the water after you flush, so you’ll remember that there’s some pretty intensive cleaning done by itty-bitty microscopic organisms. This wastewater cleaning process is appropriately termed The Activated Sludge Process. (Can you think of a cooler name? We sure can’t.)

“Most times, we think of sludge as a bad thing, but in this case, sludge is a community of bacteria that each have a particular function,” Miller says. “The sole purpose for these bacteria is to eat and reproduce.” 

The sludge loves to eat all the not-so-yummy leftovers in our wastewater, like ammonia and nitrate. Interestingly, depending on what type of contaminants the sludge needs to eat, Aqua will monitor the bacteria’s access to oxygen, since the gas can affect the processes. By the end of their meal, the bacteria are full and happy, and our water is ready to head back to the local rivers or streams. 

All this technical talk has us sure of one thing: Science is all around us, from the water we drink to the processes and technologies that make it clean enough to do so. 

Thanks for joining us on another part of our Aquastructure journey. We hope you’ve learned as much as we have!

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