On the Fast Track

Award-winning distribution operator Justin Clemones has embraced challenges and opportunities in the water sector
On the Fast Track
Compliance specialist Justin Clemones tests a hydrant in Easley, S.C. (Photography by Patrick Collard)

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Justin Clemones wasn’t thinking about becoming a water compliance specialist when he graduated from Pendleton (S.C.) High School in 2005. His love of tinkering enabled him to repair marine motors and outfit boats for an Evinrude/Johnson dealership.

In his spare time, he worked on cars and rebuilt engines in a little shop behind his house.

But when the Powdersville Water District advertised for an operator trainee, Clemones seized the opportunity. The district, based in Easley, S.C., distributes water purchased from three suppliers. His father worked at one of them, Anderson Regional Joint Water System, for more than 25 years.

“I learned a lot from my dad about how water is treated and flows into the distribution system,” says Clemones. “He also talked to me about job security, the good benefits, and the rewards of the work. He was right and I have never regretted my decision.”

In one year, Clemones earned his D level distribution license and advanced to his present position.

When charged with developing a compliance schedule, he did so, then maintained it flawlessly since its implementation in 2008.

“Justin is a very conscientious, dedicated employee,” says operations and maintenance superintendent Chris Rasco. “He’s mechanically inclined, eager to learn, and a quick study. Show him something once and 99 out of 100 times he’ll understand it.”

Four years after Clemones joined the district, the South Carolina American Water Works Association named him the 2010 Water Distribution Operator of the Year, recognizing him for excellence in distribution operations. He was 23 years old.


Opportunities abound

The district has 12,000 customers and 21 employees, eight in operations.

“We look for people who have the drive to better themselves and who will seize the initiative,” says Rasco. “New hires learn in the first few weeks if they want to do this job or not. We expose them to everything. Advancement is always left up to the operators. If they want it, we’ll give them plenty of opportunities.”

Clemones broke in his boots repairing leaks and making taps with the field crew. He also locked meters for nonpayment or repaired manual-read units for customer service, an activity that satisfied his curiosity to learn how things worked.

At the same time, the district still had some 7,000 old meters to change out before it could switch from manual to automatic meter reading and convert from bimonthly to monthly billing. Rasco believed doing the work in-house would condense years of work into months. In the end, it also saved customers more than $250,000.

“On rainy days, Chris would call everyone into the shop to assemble Sensus meters and transmitters,” says Clemones. “When we had enough for a route, he would send all of us into the field and we would change out the meters in two or three days. I learned the system inside out, all the road names, and where they are in the district.”

Flush with confidence, the operators even tackled programming and integrating the AutoVU software, then backed up the previous generations of transmitters.

“Performing core functions with the staff has paid dividends far beyond what I can describe,” says Rasco.


Attention to detail

Within a year, Rasco acknowledged Clemones’ drive and maturity by promoting him to compliance specialist. His duties include fire hydrant maintenance and flow testing, cross-connection control, valve maintenance and exercising, system flushing, sampling for lead, copper, and disinfection byproducts, bacterial analysis, and oversight of the SCADA and GIS mapping systems.

“Being promoted was a turning point because I knew then that I was advancing and I could keep advancing if I set my mind to it,” says Clemones.

At first he did his work alone in the field, and it required interacting with the public.

“I was forced to take some baby steps in overcoming my nervousness when talking to people,” he says. “Chris advised me to tell customers what I was doing and why. That helped start the conversations.”

The young man’s shyness was obvious. “When Justin arrived, it was tough to get him to look you in the eye,” Rasco says. “But as he matured and became more comfortable in the job, his confidence increased. It’s been great watching him grow and develop. I have a few employees in my department with the potential to run a water company one day, and Justin is one of them.”

Rasco also notes that since Clemones took on his bigger responsibilities, there have been no lags in the routine for three years.

“Through his hard work, dedication, and attention to detail, the district has six years of satisfactory ratings on our South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control sanitary survey,” Rasco says.


Targeting trouble

A tenacious problem solver, Clemones refuses to give up on customer questions until he has the answer and solution. For example, he responded several times to complaints about hot water heaters spitting out short bursts of water from the relief valve.

“The fast solution is to pull the meter at the box, check the flow and pressure, and if they’re good, tell the customer to call a plumber,” he says. “I want to find the root of the problem.”

His investigation revealed thermal expansion caused by issues on the customer side. He then made recommendations and provided names of local plumbers.

In one case, Clemones found two pressure-reducing valves on the service line. While the homeowner knew the location of the first valve, it was the second unknown valve that was causing reductions in pressure and flow.

When a customer called late one Saturday night with low water pressure, Clemones found a leak on the service line. He showed the homeowner the meter and the leak, then explained the repair process and why a service provider could not dig until a utility locating service verified that it was safe.

“Justin never loses sight of the fact that we are in business to serve safe, reliable drinking water to our customers,” says Rasco. “When they have questions or complaints, he is prompt, courteous, methodical in his explanations, and sensitive to their needs.”


Path to improvement

Clemones learned the mechanics of the distribution system and valve configurations from supervisor Donnie Nabors, a 23-year veteran with the district.

“I’m trying to involve myself more in some of his work to gain more experience and move up the ladder,” says Clemones.

Rasco encouraged him to interact with the public and to learn government regulations and the business side of water distribution. “I couldn’t ask for a better company to work for or better people to work with,” says Clemones.

Clemones is part of a team of motivated employees with a strong work ethic.

“Other companies would need twice the personnel to match what we do,” says Rasco. “My guys and ladies understand that they hold the lives of our community in their hands. Sometimes they’re out there at 2 a.m. working in the cold mud making repairs and taking pride in their work. We are fortunate to have them.”

Besides the opportunities to learn new things, Clemones enjoys working outside, managing what he’ll do each day, and the changing circumstances that keep the work fresh and often challenging.

“I’ve been given a great deal of responsibility and it makes me feel good that Chris and Donnie trust me at such a young age,” he says. “As long as I’m not stuck in an office, I’m happy here.”

Clemones intends to earn his A level distribution license and take advantage of the district’s tuition reimbursement policy to pursue a degree in chemistry or environmental science. It’s just another step in what his superiors believe will be a long and productive career in the water industry.


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