It Keeps Getting Better

Palm Bay draws on employees’ knowledge to enhance all aspects of utilities operation while taking good care of the environment.
It Keeps Getting Better
Jody Ballard, utility foreman, replaces the case of the automatic flushing device he made as it runs a cycle. (Photography by Keith Carson)

Palm Bay, Fla., is an ecotourism destination in a delicate environment, and the community has made a major commitment to green principles. At the forefront of the effort is the award-winning Palm Bay Utilities Department. But it’s not just about being eco-sensitive.

The utilities department has been on a crusade to show consistent, steady improvement in all aspects of its operations, says Utilities Director Dan Roberts. The campaign is carried out in all four divisions of the department: water distribution, wastewater collections and maintenance; business operations; engineering and plant operations; and Enterprise GIS, which provides geographic information services for all city departments and operations. Tending the utilities’ impact on the environment is a part of that overall focus.

Last year, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) recognized the utilities department for the way it has carried out the goal of getting better, honoring Palm Bay with AMWA’s platinum award. But that’s no reason to be complacent, Roberts says: “We want a culture of continuous improvement.”

Groundwater source

Palm Bay is mainly a residential city of 100,000 people that lies between the environmentally sensitive St. Johns River to the west and the Indian River Lagoon, an endangered estuary, to the east, near the Atlantic coast. For anglers, the area is known as one of the best sites for freshwater, as well as brackish, fishing in the country.

Although situated in the St. Johns River Drainage Basin – putting it under the jurisdiction of the St. Johns River Water Management District, one of five water management districts in Florida – Palm Bay doesn’t draw its water from that source. Instead, it draws water from the surficial aquifer and from the deeper Floridian Aquifer. The Floridian Acquifer water is an alternative brackish groundwater source treated using reverse osmosis, Roberts says, and sanitized with chlorine.

The water comes from 40 active wells, all but five of which draw from surficial aquifers ranging from 80 to 140 feet underground. The other five are deep Floridian Aquifer wells that reach as deep as 850 feet down. The utility also maintains a 100 million gallon underground aquifer storage and recovery well; treated water is held there until it is needed for use, when it is drawn up and chlorinated before distribution.

Environmental consciousness

Between the local residents and ecotourism, the community has developed a strong environmental consciousness, Roberts says, and those values extend to the civic culture as well. Palm Bay adopted a master plan in 2010 geared to ensuring long-term environmental sustainability, and the utilities department has been a leader in that effort.

In 2008, the utilities department applied for certification of its environmental management system under ISO 14001:2004, a standard set forth by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We’re the only water and wastewater utilities department in the state to have its entire organization certified in accordance with the ISO 14001:2004 environmental standard,” Roberts says. “We wanted to be a world-class utility, and it is a world-class standard.”

To show the agency met the standard, officials had to complete an application that included extensive documentation of the utilities department’s standard operating procedures, work instructions, policies and the like. But it wasn’t just an exercise in paperwork. The application process required measurement and objective evidence of improved performance in a number of aspects of the operation, including safety practices, employee morale, customer service, cost-saving strategies, ways of boosting revenue and more.

The backbone of the standard revolves around three principles: continuous improvement, pollution prevention and regulatory compliance. Rigorous, continuing self-assessment is a must. “Any improvement of a process has to be measured,” Roberts points out.

Engaging employees

For continuous improvement efforts to really work and last, the entire workforce has to be on board. Palm Bay utilities went about systematically engaging all employees to jump in with ideas and strategies.

Teams of workers address various problem areas. A suggestion program helps harvest ideas from throughout the operation. But Roberts says that a lot of process improvements are more basic and faster to implement than even the suggestion system or the team structure can keep up with.

Palm Bay’s work on maintaining adequate levels of residual chlorine in its water system illustrates how the focus on process improvement works.

The residual chlorine was a problem that would crop up from time to time, particularly in lines that didn’t get a steady flow of water because of their location.

The utilities department decided to target the problem head on.

“We needed to be very proactive about it,” Roberts says. The first step was just to do more sampling. Then came a pilot program to start systematic unidirectional flushing of the lines.

The city’s northwest section was the first to experience the new approach. The utilities notified customers in that quadrant that crews would be flushing hydrants, “so they would be aware of what was going on,” explains Jody Ballard, a water distribution foreman.

Workers exercised the valves and documented their location to make sure the department’s asset management software was up to date. Hydrants were opened to flush out sediment that had settled in the pipe over the years. In the northwest section alone, crews went through some 500 sequences, cleaning out perhaps 100 miles of pipe by flushing water through it at 5.2 feet per second.

Water-quality software was used to help plan 40 separate zones in the pilot area and flush them in a prescribed order, Roberts says, “so you weren’t pushing out debris through pipe you’d already cleaned out.” Sampling before and after the flushing checked for residual chlorine, turbidity and total suspended solids.

Homemade solution

Palm Bay has about 30 flushing devices in place throughout its water system, says Bob Hinkel, distribution, collections and maintenance division manager. Supplied by a variety of manufacturers and vendors, they are operated by automatic timers and mainly serve dead ends in the line where the water is more likely to sit inert instead of moving through.

“We are always looking for areas where we may need to add additional ones,” Hinkel says. Dead-end mains are flushed annually, but the systemwide flushing program identified areas where additional devices might be needed.

“We looked at the cost of buying these from the manufacturer, but it was kind of a challenge,” Ballard says. Once again, the focus on process improvement and getting input from everyone came into play. Instead of buying ready-made units, workers were able to develop a simple homemade device built from standard plumbing and irrigation components at a fraction of the cost. Simple automation components activate the flushing device, allowing water to move throughout the system and maintain appropriate chlorine residuals.

Sticking with it

ISO certification must be renewed every three years, Roberts explains, so in 2011, Palm Bay went through the recertification process. Last year the utilities marked the fifth anniversary since its first certification in 2008. And this year, recertification will be required again.

It’s been nice to get noticed, Roberts acknowledges, but in Palm Bay, there are a lot more concrete rewards for the improvement program: cost savings, improved safety in the work environment, higher morale, more effective operations and more environmentally sustainable practices day to day.

And as busy as everyone is just keeping up, they’re also always looking to the future, he adds.

“If you’re not anticipating, if you’re not continuously trying to improve, you’re going to lose effectiveness in everyday operations; the pace of change will make yesterday’s improvement obsolete over time,” Roberts says.

Based on Palm Bay’s work over the last several years, the city doesn’t seem at risk for that.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.