The Small Town Of Edgewood, Illinois Faces Big Challenges In Manhole Repair

Edgewood, Ill., has been repairing manholes and saving money on pump repairs as a result of reduced inflow and infiltration.
The Small Town Of Edgewood, Illinois Faces Big Challenges In Manhole Repair
Operator Jason Cochran cleans out a manhole insert from Sealing Systems, Inc., on a residential street in Edgewood, Ill.

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When the Village of Edgewood, Ill., put in its first sewer system in the 1980s, many of the manhole covers wound up in drainage ditches along the roadsides.

It wasn’t the best engineering decision, says Jason Cochran. And now Cochran, the community’s sewer and water system operator, is making it right.

Edgewood, located in southern Illinois, is a tiny community of 440 people. The water and sewer service has 238 individual service points. Still, the challenges it faces can be just as difficult as any encountered by a big-city operation. And dealing with all of them falls on Cochran alone.

“I pretty much do about everything,” he says matter-of-factly – from fixing broken lift stations to plowing the snow at the village hall and the treatment plant during the winter.

Lifelong resident

Cochran, 36, has lived in and around Edgewood his whole life. The sewer system was installed in 1981 and ’82 when he was a toddler. “I remember when they put it in,” he says. “I watched them do it.” But it never occurred to him that one day he would be running it.

The sewer replaced individual homes’ septic treatment systems. “It was all personal septic back then,” Cochran says. Overflows in individual systems would run into roadway drainage ditches and smell, so village officials decided it was time to change over to a municipal system. “It made a big difference.”

Edgewood is a quiet, mostly farming town where the largest commercial building of any kind is an Archer-Daniels-Midland grain elevator. If they aren’t farming, people commute to the county seat in Effingham for work. And when the village holds its annual Independence Day fireworks the population can skyrocket to 1,800 to 2,000 spectators who show up at the village ballpark for the festivities. “We’ve got people who come from 20 to 25 miles away to watch them,” he says.

Jack of all trades

Cochran’s job isn’t limited to running the water and sewer systems. He handles mowing on village lands and routine repairs of village roads – patching and oiling them, sending out the bid papers for bigger jobs. About the only aspect of public works he doesn’t handle is sending out the water and sewer bills – that’s the village treasurer’s job. “She helps me out a ton,” he says.

Cochran wound up running the village’s sewer and water system by happenstance. He’d worked there as a summer helper after high school and during college and kept in touch with the operator even as he went on to other work. When the man decided to retire, he put in for the position and studied for his operator’s license.

The work suits him. “I enjoy being outside,” he says. “And something’s always different every day. You feel good when you fix something and make something better for somewhere you’ve lived your whole life.”

Pump burnout

When Cochran took over in 2009, he encountered a series of problems that had largely been ignored. Perhaps the most urgent was how often he’d have to replace pumps in each of the village’s three lift stations. And that goes back to those manholes in the ditches.

Heavy rains would fill the ditches and drive stormwater into the sewer system manholes. That would overwhelm the system, and the lift station pumps bore the brunt of the punishment. “We had lots of problems with pumps burning up because there was so much water getting in from storms,” Cochran explains.

Each of the three stations has two pumps, and the village is supposed to have two spares. There were times when both spares were in use and there was no additional backup. “You’re pretty nervous when that happens,” Cochran says.

Out of sight, out of mind

Problems like those had been festering undetected for years. “A lot of it was out of sight, out of mind,” he says – but its impact was anything but invisible. “I just saw a lot of money going to waste. We’re a smaller town and we don’t get the revenue we used to get. Rebuilding pumps was costing us between $2,000 and $2,400 every time. If you have six of them in a year, that adds up pretty quick.”

One year there were nine pump rebuilds. “That’s $18,000 that went down the drain for nothing.”

Since diagnosing the problem, Cochran and the village have undertaken a program of upgrading the system components.

Moving manholes out of the ditches wasn’t really an option. Instead, drainage ditch culverts have been replaced with larger ones to move water through them faster during a storm, reducing inflow and infiltration. But the village has done a lot more too.

Manholes have been fitted with Internal Uni-Band mechanical manhole insert sleeves from Sealing Systems Inc. The manholes have also gotten SSI Manhole Inserts in the tops to help keep out water. So far, Cochran has put in 78 of the top inserts with 14 more to go; he’s installed 27 of the Uni-Band inserts and has plans to put in 10 more. The manhole sealing systems keep water out of the lines even when the ditches are full of water up to 4 feet deep.

Pay as you go

“It’s helped tremendously,” Cochran says of the upgrade program. “We were going through five or six pumps a year.” Now, it’s been more than 18 months since a single pump has had to be replaced. “We’ve saved a lot of money in the last year and a half. And we’ve cut way back on the amount of water we’ve pumped in our sewer lagoon.”

The maintenance funds have largely come from the sewer system ratepayers’ monthly bills, which are also supposed to be paying off the financing for the sewer system. “The little extra we were making, it just went into pumps all the time,” Cochran says. “Sometimes we had to go into the [village’s] general fund to pay for them.”

Those repair bills were the wake-up call. “It was getting expensive – that’s why we had to do something.” The upgrades weren’t cheap, either, but have paid off in the long run. “Sometimes it costs money to save money.”

He’s looked for other ways to save money, too. About four years ago, he switched from using degreasers in the lift stations to bacteria blocks to keep them cleaner. Degreasers liquefied the grease, but it recongealed when the effluent reached the sewer lagoons, he says, while the Bacto-Block bacteria blocks destroy the grease itself. Cochran believes they’ve also reduced odor in the system.

More jobs ahead

The work isn’t over. “There’s more that needs to be done,” Cochran says. Corroded piping in the village wastewater treatment plant is due to be replaced. And some of the manholes that still need to be fixed have to be found first – they’ve gotten buried under dirt over the years and Cochran uses a metal detector to locate them.

Major rehab on the lift stations is another coming to-do item. But finances are limited: A water line replacement program starting in the spring of 2015 takes priority, so the lift stations will have to wait. The village is getting a grant as well as a rural development loan for the project, replacing 50-year-old cast iron water lines with larger PVC material; the village will have to pay $400,000 toward the $1.2 million project.

In the meantime, “we may be looking at some grant money” to try to clean out and rehab the station pits, Cochran says.

Pipes between the lift station pumps and the valves have developed cracks in the seams that pass leaking groundwater into the system. The pipes need to be replaced, and in one station, valves will too.

“We’ve come a long way,” Cochran says. He likes seeing the savings that the village has obtained as a result, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to kick back.

“I think we can get more.”

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