Systemwide Approach

Dramatic transformation reduces Pennsylvania utility’s I&I and SSO issues.

Systemwide Approach

The team at Upper Montgomery Joint Authority in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, has led a comprehensive overhaul of its wastewater collections and treatment systems. (Photography by Hannah Beier)

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The Upper Montgomery Joint Authority’s infrastructure was aging, and a combination of substantial inflow and infiltration along with increased frequency of weather events was causing problems for the entire community. 

For UMJA, the solution wasn’t as simple as fixing an I&I issue because the collections system and the treatment plant are inextricably linked through age, climate change and a growing community.

While collections system improvements were necessary, the authority decided to start with the treatment plant upgrades, including converting from trickling filters to an activated sludge process and tertiary filtration, adding a third final clarifier for capacity, and a pump station upgrade.

“Prior to the 2020 upgrade, the treatment plant was often hydraulically overloaded when it rained. During rain events and high flows, a portion of the flow was diverted into a storm basin bypass and treated with gas chlorine before being directly discharged to the reservoir,” says Jenn Leister, the authority’s executive superintendent. “We don’t have a combined system, but it performed like one.”

Even during a relatively insignificant rain event of just 1 or 2 inches, manholes were overflowing and pump stations were either running at high levels or overflowing.

First steps

The treatment plant sits on an idyllic point overlooking the Green Lane Reservoir in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. It is surrounded by meadows, wildflowers and water. In 2012, amid the I&I challenges, Leister’s predecessor at UMJA and the board of directors started discussing how to fix the problem of bypasses at the plant. The board decided on activated sludge to meet future-focused low nutrient permit limits such as those required by the Chesapeake Bay standards while also addressing the high flow situation. 

UMJA settled on a combination of well-established and more innovative technologies to help augment the process performance. Two of the more innovative implementations were the sidestream enhanced biological phosphorus removal and FuzzyFilters for tertiary treatment. 

Woodard & Curran, an integrated science, engineering, design-build and operations company consulting on the project, was in the midst of a Water Research Foundation study to look at the fundamentals of the S2EBPR process while the UMJA project was at the conception stage. 

Paul Dombrowski, chief technologist with Woodard & Curran, says that while only a handful of other S2EBPR plants were online in the U.S. then, dozens more had been operating successfully in Europe, proving the reliability of the technology.

All in all, the entire plant upgrade comprises several new updates:

-A new operations building and SCADA upgrades

-A new influent screen building

-A new filter building

-A new grit removal system

-Influent PS-EPS-1 upgrades

-Fuzzy filters for tertiary treatment

-New CCT (chlorine disinfection tanks) and post air tanks

-New biological nutrient removal reactors with sidestream fermentation

-Sludge pumping upgrades

The plant and collections system upgrades weren’t mandated by the state or EPA, but Leister says everyone felt like it was the right thing to do. “We had to fix the flagship system and take care of our residents and customers,” she says. “As far as here at the treatment plant, the right thing to do is not bypass into our drinking water source.”

I&I Issues

Even after the plant upgrades, UMJA saw flows above the 11 mgd that the new plant was designed to handle. That’s when Leister decided to take a hard look at the collections system. While minor work had been done previously, it was time to put a comprehensive plan in place. 

That plan included the purchase of a new inspection van to replace their outdated equipment and a new jetter truck to clean lines. Next, they upgraded to flowmeters with real-time monitoring. “Once we discovered excessive flow in a particular area, we televised the area to identify if the I&I was coming from breaks, cracks, root intrusion or illegal connections,” Leister says. “These findings allowed us to build a project in-house, saving on engineering costs. We would also smoke and dye test as needed during the illegal connection inspections and after lining work to verify that the lining was effective.”

They were able to move quickly using the state’s cooperative purchasing program, COSTARS, which also saved on procurement costs and provided competitive pricing. With the $6 million in their reserves, the authority targeted approximately 78,000 linear feet of mainline, about 8,500 feet of lateral televising, cured-in-place pipe lining of 600 laterals and about 83,000 feet of mainline, sanitary manhole lining, installation of 11 backflow preventers for homeowners experiencing backups, smoke testing and third-party sump pump inspections. 

On the private side, many of the lateral inspections are done during a home sale. The authority works with the title company and the real estate agent on a pass/fail inspection. If it’s determined that the lateral needs to be upgraded, they can hold it in escrow. However, Leister explains that while they were doing lateral inspections on UMJA’s side, they would peek at the laterals on the homeowner’s side too. Once problems were found, UMJA sent out a notice of violation and a repair deadline. Their roles and rights state that homeowners must fix any deficiencies on their side.

It’s been a challenge, but Leister says that once they communicate with the homeowner why it’s so important to do the repairs, they are usually on board. 

Since UMJA has done the collections system work and the plant upgrade, they are seeing a 39% flow reduction.

Dedicated team

While Jason DiPietro, the chief operator of UMJA, credits much of that reduction to the work on the collections system, Paul Dombrowski, chief technologist at Woodard & Curran, says the credit goes equally to the knowledgeable, capable and dedicated staff. 

“Even my collections system guys have an excellent understanding of how this plant works and can troubleshoot a lot of things,” says DiPietro, who was a lab tech when the upgraded plant went online. “I want my whole crew to understand this plant as well as I do,” said DiPietro. “We push this thing every day to run as best as it can. Our goal is to use no chemicals and make this run as good as we can, and that just starts with caring.”

The UMJA staff’s passion is evident in the amount of outreach they do. Leister’s eyes light up when she talks about community involvement — everything from tagging along to a trout release with a group of second graders to inviting kids on site to paint manhole covers. You can’t help but have some of that passion rub off on others. 

For example, when DiPietro is speaking at a local high school, he’s looking for kids like him — students who get that spark in their eyes while he’s talking. He pulls them aside and shows them a door to a potential career. One that doesn’t require a college degree, but if they work hard, one where they can earn a good living. 

UMJA also developed and implemented an outreach program to get their FOG problem under control.

They go to every restaurant equipped with flyers and a slideshow and speak with the owner. They explain what’s happening at the plant because of FOG and, to top it all off, they show them a video of their restaurant’s lateral caked in grease. That drives the message home better than anything. 

“I feel there’s been a noticeable difference in grease just by making people aware of what it’s doing when they don’t clean their grease traps. And I don’t know if it goes hand in hand, but we’ve also seen a significant reduction in SVI (sludge volume index) over the past couple of months. I’m sure it’s not solely related to the FOG program. But I’ve seen less FOG in the bar screen. I’ve seen less FOG in the wet well.”

Outreach and education were the carrot, and soon UMJA plans to begin using the stick. They will start conducting unannounced inspections at restaurants with fines attached for non-compliance.

Environmental science

DiPietro says they had seen an uptick in the number and severity of wet weather events in recent years. On an average day, they have 1.5-2 mgd, and during a storm, that increases to 15 mgd within an hour. 

The work to cut back on the infiltration has helped. Where those surges would last for three to five days, now as soon as the rain stops, they see the flow going down within minutes. During a significant wet weather event, they come out of their storm mode within 12 hours of the rain stopping and return to a baseline within 48 hours. 

But for Leister, she received the best news from an AP environmental science class at the high school just down the road from UMJA. They were, of course, recently at the plant for a tour. Unbeknownst to her, the class had been tracking nutrients in the reservoir just behind the treatment plant as part of a capstone project. 

“The teacher said he has seen a significant reduction in phosphorus and nitrates in the reservoir. We didn’t even know he was doing this. And I’m like, oh my gosh, this is wonderful news!”


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