The Smell of Success

Efficiency and forward thinking transform Plainfield from one of the worst collections systems on the East Coast to one of the best.
The Smell of Success

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In the bad old days around Plainfield, N.J., sewers leaked, moratoriums halted community development, and one particularly odorous location along the system was labeled “One of the Stinkiest Places in New Jersey.”

That’s all changed, thanks to the creation of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority and the efforts of PARSA executive director Robert Villée and his lean, hard-working team of just five operators.

“We’re the middlemen,” Villée says of the PARSA staff. “We are responsible for the interceptor that connects all eight PARSA member communities to the area’s wastewater treatment plant.”

While their focus is on the interceptor, they’re generous with their time. “Frequently,” says Villée, “we’re called upon to help one of the member communities with a particular issue. We’re glad to help. And we don’t charge anything extra.”

PARSA owns a CCTV truck, combination jet with numerous nozzles, lateral camera and portable flowmeters to assist the member towns and act as a backstop when the problem is unable to be handled by the town’s staff. Just within the last year, PARSA provided a licensed operator to work with a member town’s staff and resolve issues that had placed the town on the New Jersey DEP watch list.

The attitude and accomplishments of PARSA haven’t gone unnoticed in the profession. Villée received the Collection System Award from the Water Environment Federation (WEF) at its annual conference in 2013, and PARSA’s operators have racked up two Operator Ingenuity Awards for collection systems innovations.


PARSA was formed in 1995, as part of a settlement agreement to an earlier lawsuit against the former public operating agency, the Plainfield Joint Meeting (PJM). PJM had operated the sewers in the area since 1913 and a treatment plant until the late 1950s when the Middlesex County Utilities Authority opened its Sayreville treatment plant.

Unfortunately, after the PJM plant shut down, the sewer system fell into disrepair, leading to sewer moratoriums, and ultimately the lawsuit by the customer towns served by the system. As a result, the PJM was disbanded in favor of a new regional sewerage authority with all eight towns having equal voting rights.

Today, PARSA serves the townships of Dunellen, Fanwood, Watchung, and North and South Plainfield, as well as the city of Plainfield, Green Brook Township and the township of Scotch Plains. The total population served is about 135,000.

The interceptor averages 12.5 million gallons a day (capacity is 35 mgd) and runs for 26 miles, ranging in diameter from 10 to 54 inches. When PARSA took over in 1996, one third of the line was over 100 years old and the overall average pipe age was more than 65 years. Much of the sewer system is cast-in-place concrete.

Some of the issues PARSA inherited included frequent sanitary sewer overflows, pipe collapses, cash flow and employee morale issues, and the odorous location given the stinky name by a local radio program.

Riding shotgun on the interceptor is Villée, and his team of five operators, all licensed and mostly hand-picked by him from other treatment and collections operations. “It’s a talented staff, and they are the keys to our success,” he says.

Villée notes with pride that that some of his staff members have advanced to higher positions either within or beyond his organization. One has received the Outstanding Young Professional Award and another the Collection System Award, both from the New Jersey Water Environment Association.

Making it better

PARSA has made numerous improvements, and continues to implement more.

Billing is better now. And more fair. “The original billing system was based on percentage of flow,” explains Villée. “It assumed that everyone had the same quality of sewage.” Yet one community was home to several large industries with high BOD and TSS loadings. Surcharges from the WWTP could be hefty, often exceeding $500,000.

“We went back in and redid the service contracts and installed composite samplers on our bigger users, samplers on smaller ones,” he says. “We now measure for BOD and TSS [twice a week for large users, weekly for smaller ones] and send the samples out to a contract lab.”

Inflow and infiltration was another headache — or one of the many issues that in the beginning, Villée says, “kept me up at night.” But his team has managed to reduce flow in the interceptor by some 300 million gallons a year by tightening up the system.

Villée says his team has concentrated on repairing defective manholes to prevent SSOs, which have dropped to nothing from a high of 30 in 1997.

“We have our own small grouting machine from Avanti, so we can do the manhole repair work ourselves,” he says. “We mostly make sure the area around the top of the manhole is watertight.”

Since a majority of the manholes are located in flood ways, the PARSA staff makes sure the covers, gaskets and bars are functional and in place, and that the manhole frames are attached and sealed by butyl to the concrete. Villée says his team customarily does manhole tightening work, such as grouting, flow monitoring and installing manhole inserts for member communities who need it, at no charge. “Our thought is, any excess water out of the system is good,” Villée says.

Slip-lining defective pipe sections has also helped reduce I&I and overall flow.

“In 2004, we relined 12,500 linear feet with profile wall PVC pipe [Lamson-Vylon],” Villée says. “We used nine access points. The segmented sliplining process uses 13-foot sections of 36-inch PVC pipe that were dropped in the existing 42-inch concrete pipe, then pushed together.”

At one access pit, they were able to install over 2,500 feet of pipe by pushing both directions.

“We took out a box culvert and cleared a couple hundred feet of accumulated debris from the siphon — about 200 cubic yards of material,” Villée explains. “As a result, the velocity in the sewer increased by about 3/4 of a foot per second. A side benefit was that it increased the velocity in the sewer and reduced the sulfide control chemical usage by $100,000 per year.”

When segmented sliplining isn’t feasible, PARSA has used direct burial and directional drilling.

“We’ve used direct bury on two big sections of interceptor,” Villée says. “And when I got here, three siphons on what used to be the plant outfall were in bad shape and scheduled for rehabilitation. By looking at several segments as a whole we were able to lower another section of sewer that was scheduled for replacement due to sulfide damage by 3 feet while increasing the diameter to accommodate the additional flow being added further upstream.”

This was accomplished by directionally drilling an 800-foot-long twin barrel HDPE siphon (24- and 36-inch tubes) under a stream known as Greenbrook, eliminating the three old siphons and several miles of sewers in the flood plain. Plus, it improved hydraulics and saved more than a million dollars in construction costs, Villée says.

In conjunction with an Army Corps flood control project in Bound Brook, PARSA negotiated having their pipes removed from under the proposed levees. Instead, 2,000 feet of 54-inch PVC gravity sewer as well as a HDPE siphon (42- and 54-inch) were run under the internal drainage pipes in the flood project. This included micro-tunneling a 400-foot section of gravity sewer under a series of railroad tracks.

The profile wall PVC has been PARSA’s pipe of choice for both sliplining and direct burial, Villée says.

Villée’s crew has also dealt with maintenance issues by building a valved clean-out chamber on a particularly troublesome 2,500-foot-long siphon originally put online in 1913. The modification allows the crew to flush the siphon tubes into a 10-foot-diameter clean-out chamber and has prevented buildup of solids that were restricting flow and contributing to the backup problems.

Odor solution

PARSA has dealt successfully with odors and has shed the smelly reputation it used to have.

To control odors throughout the system, PARSA uses Bioxide (Evoqua Water Technologies [formerly Siemens Water Technologies]). “We add the chemical at the head of the system and let it work its way to the other end,” Villée explains. “We use hydrogen peroxide about 15 minutes upstream of the release point to remove any remaining sulfides.

At the spot that used to have the smelly reputation, changes in piping and the use of hydrogen peroxide have solved the problem. As Villée explains it, an old pipe that connected to an outfall sewer extension dropped 10 vertical feet over 100 linear feet with the drop occurring right next to a busy roadway. “Hydrogen sulfide built up in that section of pipe and escaped into the air at levels of up to 500 parts per million,” Villée says. “Odor complaints used to fill up the answering machine on a weekend.”

Emissions at the site are now averaging less than 10 ppm, and often are as low as 1 ppm. The system feed rates are managed wirelessly by the Evoqua Versa-Dose Controller and H2S data is received via wireless data-loggers.

Some of the other highlights of the PARSA improvement program:

  • Establishing a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).
  • Establishing an effective preventive maintenance plan for the interceptor system.
  • 18 years without a lost-time accident.
  • 2000 WEF George Burke Facility Safety Award.
  • 2000 Environmental Quality Award from the USEPA, Region 2.
  • Wave Awards for Best Management Practices (Segmented sliplining and wireless data acquisition) from the New Jersey Association of Environmental Authorities.
  • Winners of the 2000 WEF Operations Challenge, Collection System Event (Division 2).

Good communications

One of the reasons PARSA is able to run the interceptor system and assist member communities with a relatively small staff is its wireless cellular communications system (Telog).

“The system lets us communicate with all our different flowmeters, lets us know in real time what’s happening around the system,” Villée says. “Our operators can monitor the system on their individual laptops or phones rather than having to manually go out into the field.

“While it’s not a control system, it pushes data out every 15 minutes. If levels are going up, we can see that. The system sends us a text message.”

Villée says the cellular system not only helps his team respond to emergencies, but also earmarks specific maintenance needs, helping schedule both regular and special maintenance tasks. It recently alerted the staff to a pending backup in one of the member communities. The town staff was notified and cleared the problem before a backup happened.

Staff innovations

While Villée — who has 36 years in the clean-water business and has been with PARSA basically from its inception — is proud of his Collection System honor from the Water Environment Federation, he is even more proud of awards that have been earned by the PARSA staff.

Twice, the group has been honored with the Operator Ingenuity Award from WEF for innovations that are helping the collections system function better and more cost-effectively.

One example is a flow bench to calibrate flowmeters before they are installed in the field. Flowmeters are the critical element in PARSA’s collections system, and they must work perfectly. Yet trying to calibrate them in-situ is awkward if not inaccurate.

“The guys used a 15-foot section of 8-inch pipe and cut out a section in the top,” Villée explains. “They have a variety of brackets so they can mount a flowmeter on the flow bench and run water through the pipe at various velocities and depths so the meter is calibrated correctly.”

The other innovation involves PARSA and Villée’s passion for flushable wipes (see sidebar). The staff created the “PARSA Potty” — a flushability testing stand consisting of a scaffold and toilet that checks out the claims of various “flushable” products. It’s an important tool, Villée says, noting that one product that claimed to break apart during the flushing cycle survived the flush test intact 100 times.

Although they haven’t received an award for it yet, the staff built a replica of the manufacturers’ association “slosh box,” which suppliers use to determine whether a wipe will disintegrate. The slosh box has allowed Villée to independently run tests and gather data that the manufacturers wouldn’t share. 

“We’re using this in discussions with the wipe manufacturers,” Villée says. He jokes that the original mockup utilized a fish tank and a mini-bike fork, among other parts pulled from the scrap bin. “The finished version still has the mini-bike fork in it,” he says.


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