Collections Department Keeps Up with the Challenges

Palm Coast handles the pressure of hurricane season and significant growth in an environmentally sensitive area.

Collections Department Keeps Up with the Challenges

Foreman David Cousin maneuvers an Envirosight Rovver X crawler during a sewer line inspection. INSET: The Rovver X in position to enter the sewer line from the manhole.

The Palm Coast, Florida, wastewater collections department is getting good at dealing with “more.” More rainfall, more people, and more growth.

“It seems like this past year has been one of the most unusual, as far as rainfall is concerned,” says Danny Ashburn, wastewater operations manager, who has been with the city for more than 36 years.

Storms dumped 15 inches of rain last July, and with the ground already saturated, the flow through the treatment plant doubled. Hurricane Irma, which roared up the Florida Peninsula last fall, brought 75-90 mph winds and 10 inches of rain in just two days.

Meanwhile, the city’s growth is recovering from a slump brought on by the 2008-09 recession. “Now it’s picking up,” Ashburn says. Statistics show the city’s population increasing 18 percent to over 85,000 since 2008. Typical of Florida, it’s expected to double by 2030.

To deal with these increases, the city is nearing completion of a brand-new wastewater treatment plant that will not only help handle the additional load, but will also relieve pressure on the city’s collections system.

Collections system

Ashburn and his team of 27 collections specialists manage a system consisting of 600 miles of pipe and 159 pump stations. What’s unusual in Palm Coast is the existence of over 14,000 Pretreatment Effluent Pumping, or PEP, units owned and maintained by the city, each one serving a household. They were installed as a less-costly alternative to gravity sewers during the development of Palm Coast by ITT Community Development Corp. They act like a septic system, except the holdings don’t drain into the surrounding soil; they are connected to the city sanitary sewer system.

“It’s about a 60-40 split between gravity sewers and PEP units,” Ashburn says of the collections system.

The city has no stormwater sewers. Rather, stormwater is collected in 70 miles of freshwater and saltwater canals, more than 150 miles of interconnected ditches, and more than 1,200 miles of roadside swales. The water is directed to the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs through the city.

Stormwater can also drain to the several lakes, tributaries and wetlands in the area, including Graham Swamp — a huge storm flow collection area.

Inflow and infiltration can overload the treatment facilities during unusually heavy wet weather. “It can inundate us at the treatment plant,” Ashburn says.

Cleaning and maintenance

The Palm Coast collections team strives to televise, clean and repair 20 percent of its system every year — covering the entire system every five years.

To accomplish that, the city uses its own Envirosight portable inspection system to identify areas that need attention. Any problems in the line are recorded and added to the repair list to be completed by the construction crews. “We have two vacuum-jetting trucks. One is a Vac-Con, and the other is a Vactor,” Ashburn says. “We use them for cleaning both the gravity mains and pump stations.” The city also uses root cutters to clear lines. “We televise and clean almost every day. Rags can be a problem when we flush the lines.”

A trio of 4,500-gallon capacity tanker trucks is another collections maintenance tool. “Whenever we have high flows, we use the trucks to help us keep up,” Ashburn says. The trucks can be dispatched to manholes to pump excess water from the system and deliver it to the treatment plant.

Other maintenance programs include smoke testing of gravity sewers to identify infiltration sources, and repairs to failed gravity lines utilizing CIP fiberglass liners. Ashburn’s team is also responsible for grouting leaks in manholes and wet wells, and addressing backups or power failures in pump stations.

Because many pump stations are located close to private property, the utility has odor control technology on approximately one-third of them. “We use BIOREM Biocubes, as well as ozone, wherever we have the most problems and complaints,” Ashburn says. “Plus, we are experimenting with a new UV process.” The utility budgets for odor control every year in an effort to address and reduce customer complaints.

Daily calls

Ashburn’s crew has maintenance responsibility for the 14,000 PEP systems as well, and they can be labor-intensive. “We have 24/7 responsibility, and that includes after-hours and weekend calls,” he says.

Each system consists of a 1,050-gallon fiberglass tank equipped with a 1/2 hp pump, float switches and a control panel. The systems use polyvinyl chloride pipe placed not as deeply in the ground as conventional gravity sewers, eliminating the need for gravity sewer manholes.

The systems are primarily located in geographic areas west of Interstate 95, and once the existing 27,000 residential lots are built out, no more PEP systems will be allowed. “Housing developments beyond that will require gravity sewers,” Ashburn says.

Ivan Sanderson is the lead PEP technician, responsible for repairs and expansion of the system and the six technicians who operate and maintain the system. “We respond to alarms on a daily basis,” he says. “Customer service generates a work order, and a technician is dispatched to the site to make the repair.”

Educating the homeowner is an important first step. The city maintains extensive information on the PEP system on its website in an effort to keep homeowners informed. They are also given information about the system when applying for service.

Going forward, the utility will concentrate on upgrading the size of the PEP pressure mains to accommodate expected residential growth and to determine the need for upsizing the pumps. Tank size will remain the same.

Tanks can be damaged and sometimes need replacing. “Sometimes if you have flooding, the combination of weight on top of the tank from saturated soil and groundwater pressure from the bottom of the tank can cause the tank to crack or fail,” Ashburn says. “We’ll need to replace it.”  

Heavy vehicles driving over the tanks can also cause damage. All new tanks have an H20 traffic load rating. “It’s worth the extra expense,” Ashburn says of the tank material. “They generally last a long time.”

Emergency protocol

One good thing about wet weather: You can usually predict it and get ready for it.

That’s exactly what Ashburn and his team do. Their emergency preparedness plan is not just a three-ring binder on the shelf, it’s frequently put into practice, especially as each new hurricane season looms in the fall.

“We take special precautions,” he says. “First we go out and make sure everything works properly and everything is battened down at the sites. We get everyone prepared, make sure our tanker trucks are working properly and are fueled up and ready to go. We make sure we don’t have any obstructions in the lines. If we have any new construction going on, we secure those sites.”

Ralph Hand, utility supervisor, has special responsibility for wet-weather response and makes sure Palm Coast is ready for the worst. “For one thing,” Hand says, “we smoke test our sewer lines all year-round. That way when the rains hit, the infiltration’s not as bad. We also shoot and coat our manholes.”

As a storm approaches, Hand and his team pump out as much as they can from the sewer system to increase capacity. In addition to the trio of tanker trucks that the utility has on hand, Palm Coast has agreements with three outside contractors to supply additional tanker trucks if needed.

For hurricanes or severe storms, Palm Coast adjusts its staffing as well. “We go to two 12 1/2-hour shifts,” Hand says of his team’s wet-weather protocol. “We get set to handle the tank trucking stations, the PEP systems, help at the treatment plants and take calls. This isn’t anything new to us. We’ll stay on two shifts until we get caught up.”

Emergency generators at the pump stations also play a role during storms. “We employ a seven-technician team and continue to make upgrades to our pump stations, based on what we experience during storms,” Ashburn says. Recently, the city received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to purchase 35 additional emergency generators for areas where power outages occur frequently.

That will add to the city’s current 19 standby generators located at critical sites, plus nine portable generators that can be moved around the system. Ashburn says the city typically uses Tradewinds, Caterpillar and Generac Industrial Power generators.

“Ultimately, we’d like to have standby generators at all key sites, including pump stations near environmentally sensitive bodies of water — freshwater lakes, canals, and retention ponds that ultimately drain into the Intracoastal Waterway,” Ashburn says.

The PEP systems on the west side of town can be problematic during storms, too. Hand explains that it’s common in Florida for residents to have their own emergency generators to employ when the power goes out in their homes. “What they don’t realize for those who do not have generators,” he says, “is that they’re able to use water, which goes into their PEP tank, but there’s no power to pump it out.” This is one of the major issues during prolonged power outages in the PEP areas.


Operating with a staff-written, five-year capital improvement plan, Ashburn, Hand, and Sanderson do their best to be prepared for the future. “The main thing we plan to do is upgrade our pump stations, force mains, and the PEP systems to accommodate expected growth,” Ashburn says. That, plus the new generators and improvements to odor control are the top items on the list.

But the biggest step forward may be the new wastewater treatment plant Palm Coast is starting up on the city’s north side. At 2.0 mgd at startup and expandable to 4.0 mgd in the future, the plant will be able to take the load off the existing plant and help keep it from becoming overloaded. “It will help us out a lot with storm flow,” Ashburn says. “Instead of having everything end up at one place, we’ll be able to divert flow to the new plant.”

Startup of a new plant, increasing growth and development, hurricanes, I&I, PEP systems, storm runoff, power outages, you name it. “We get a little bit of everything in Palm Coast,” Ashburn muses.

Making a Difference

People, and what they do or don’t do, can have a big impact on stormwater management.

With that in mind, the city of Palm Coast, Florida, has developed an extensive web-based information program designed to let people know they can help mitigate the impact of stormwater in the community.

The information is called Making a Difference and resides on the city’s website,

Citizens are advised on improving lawn and gardening practices, controlling runoff of oil and chemicals, reducing stormwater runoff from their property, protecting stormwater swales, and more. “Proper watering techniques conserve water, reduce runoff, produce healthy roots, and train your lawn to be more drought-tolerant,” the website says. “But too much of a good thing will actually hurt your lawn and the environment. Limit application of chemicals and apply properly. Do not apply chemicals or fertilizers when it rains because they may wash into our wetlands, lakes, and canals.”

“Plants native or adapted to Florida make sense,” the website says. “They require significantly less water, require less maintenance, and support local wildlife. Ask a local landscape professional or city staff to recommend the proper plants and grasses for your area.”

Homeowners are urged to keep stormwater swales on their property clear and functioning and are given numerous examples of how they can reduce runoff from their property — such as rain barrels and rain gardens.

“If 20,000 homes in Palm Coast harvested and reused 500 gallons of rainwater from every 2 inches of rainfall (average 50 inches per year), the benefit to the city’s stormwater system would be significant,” the website points out. “That would equate to 250 million gallons of water per year that would not be pumped from Florida’s aquifers and would not have to be disposed of in the city’s stormwater system.”

The website contains numerous links to other websites that encourage environmentally friendly homeowner practices.


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