Minutemen of the Water Industry

Small Massachusetts water utility’s progressive approach to new technology improves efficiency.

Minutemen of the Water Industry

The Groton (Massachusetts) Water Department’s Baddacook Pond Treatment Facility was constructed in 1897. The community’s history predates the Revolutionary War. (Photography by Noah Willman)

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What the Groton Water Department accomplished in 2019 is impressive and indeed worthy of recognition by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

The Boston suburb was recognized for optimizing two existing sources of water. But Groton’s Whitney Pond Wells pump station optimization project did far more than keep the water flowing from town faucets.

The project transformed system management, produced a measurable boost in capacity and deferred the expenditure of millions of dollars. And it all happened because the town enhanced the usefulness of two of its existing wells.

Setting up

“The project involved a few different moving parts,” says Thomas Orcutt, Groton water superintendent. That matter-of-fact summation understates the planning and execution involved. The project occurred because Orcutt and technicians in the Groton Water Department had used a previous state grant program to perform an energy audit. The information gleaned from that process readied the town for additional funding opportunities from the state.

“You could say we were well-positioned for the second round of grants,” Orcutt says. “The Water Department has a very attentive operations staff who always strives to do things better and be more efficient. This improvement project was sort of on the back burner, awaiting funds from our reserve fund balance.” The utility ultimately funded the project with a combination of grant money and low-interest loans.

The “moving parts” of the project included getting permission from the state Department of Environmental Protection to modify the pumping permit for the wells without increasing actual drawdown of the underground pool. The aim, after all, was to optimize the pumping process rather than augment it.

Since the older pumps and motors had been oversized in terms of what was permitted, Groton was able to install smaller Sulzer pumps and GE Power motors without any loss of capacity. The same amount of water is being pulled to the surface but more efficiently. Also, the new pumps are variable-speed units, giving department engineers more flexibility in operation. The two wells have a combined pumping capacity of about 1 mgd

The relative complexity of the new pumps started a cascade of other technological upgrades. Because the pumps required a more sophisticated control panel for operation, the department replaced two older panels, including one utilized since 1989. A SCADA panel was also installed to more closely monitor the rejuvenated pump stations. The SCADA panel transmits Whitney Pond data to a central pumping office for integration into overall well operations.

Chain reaction

A pump station upgrade may seem minor, but in this case, the payoff was considerable: a 40% increase in pumping capacity for meeting peak water demand in summer and deferral for at least five years of spending $3 million for a new well. Groton water officials also lowered electricity costs. They wrangled a special deal with the town-owned electric company that trims $8,000 from the department’s annual electricity bill.

“We worked with the general manager and commission to offer us a new lower electrical rate,” Orcutt says. “In return, we’ll turn off our pumps each month during periods of peak energy demand. It was truly a win-win for both utilities. They lower demand requirements for their generators, and we get a reduced rate.” When notified of a peak demand, Orcutt and colleagues rely on their SCADA system to make the necessary pumping adjustments. The town water system has a million-gallon storage tank.

In sum, water management in Groton was significantly changed and made more cost-efficient because a couple of pumps were upgraded. Not every Groton Water Department project is as impactful as this one, but there is a pattern. “We try to complete innovative projects that make the operations better and more efficient,” Orcutt says.

The department is currently phasing out its monthly manual meter-reading routine with a cellular-based automated system. The system delivers meter readings via two-way wireless electronic meters (Badger Meter) with ORION encoders. Besides reducing labor costs, the cell readings are real time so monitoring techs are instantly aware of any leaks. Some $50,000 has been budgeted for the replacement project in the current fiscal year.

Operational history

Groton is a town with an important history predating the Revolutionary War, and Orcutt is a 45-year veteran of the water and wastewater industry, working the past 22 years at the Groton Water Department. While Orcutt and the town’s leaders are clearly focused on the future, some of that history still comes into play.

The town of approximately 10,000 dates back to 1655. Minutemen assembled in a Groton town common to fight the British. Various Roosevelts attended Groton School, which opened its doors in 1884. Given all that history, it is no surprise the town has cast iron water distribution pipes laid in 1897. “A great deal of this pipe remains in active use today with no structural or quality impediments to its operational ability,” Orcutt says. “There are plans to replace some pipe systems, but this is pending local funding.”

He adds that Groton has experienced no water-quality issues in the two-plus decades that he has helped oversee the system, but the department is developing a plan to reduce or eliminate manganese from the water supply. The undertaking will cost in the vicinity of $7.5 million over several years. The proposal is being implemented piecemeal as the funding issue is resolved.

In addition to potable needs, the town’s 12-inch water mains deliver plenty of volume to meet the Fire Department’s emergency needs. Consequently, the town boasts a Class 2 ISO fire rating, which Orcutt says is true of just 10% of water supply systems.

Contracted services

There is irony in the fact that the bane of every water system is water. It corrodes and rusts, erodes, leaks and floods. Keeping water flowing cleanly and dependably within proper channels is what maintenance is all about. To that end, many large and small water departments have at least a small fleet of equipment to roll out in response to a burst main or a corroded connection. Not Groton.

“We are a very small department and operation,” Orcutt says. “We’ve found that purchasing large capital equipment is not a good investment unless you’re utilizing the equipment 50% of the time or more. So, we mostly contract out services and equipment as we need it.”

The department’s field staff consists of only two technicians, which is too few to safely undertake repair projects of any magnitude, but the water distribution system obviously is sound despite its oldest parts. Emergency repairs and wholesale replacement of lines aren’t part of the regular routine.

“We try to do maintenance work in-house, depending on the level of sophistication. All electrical work and SCADA technology work, for example, is outsourced,” Orcutt says. The award-winning Whitney Pond Wells pump station project was bid out to contractors.

Affordable product

The value of the Groton Water Department — and every other water system — is measured in how reliably water appears when the tap is turned on at home or the sprinkler system is triggered. The proof is in the puddling, so to speak. Orcutt believes the department, year in, year out, is making the right operational decisions and delivering an affordable product.

“Water costs for a family of five in town — such as my own — is very reasonable and affordable. A family of five might spend around $400 a year on domestic water use.”

Water billing is pegged to a four-tiered domestic and irrigation rate structure. Furthermore, Orcutt says the town requires “all nonessential water use — outside water consumption — to be metered separately. Every dwelling unit must have two meters. No exceptions. This program was started 20 years ago and is an effective tool in managing demand during the summer. It explains to customers where they used their water and how they can be more efficient in their use.”



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