Operator Ingenuity Winners

Sometimes, you tackle a persistent problem using just what is at hand and a big shot of ingenuity. We are excited to hear about your great, simple, and creative fixes. Not all innovations come from a research lab. Sometimes, you need to tackle a persistent problem using just what is at hand and a big shot of ingenuity.

OpIngenCrest-grunged.jpgWe celebrate and admire our past annual winners and have updated this competition to an ongoing recognition program in Water Environment & Technology magazine. This series of articles will continue the tradition of the WEFTEC Operator Ingenuity Contest, with year-round opportunities to learn from clever people throughout the water sector.

Submit Your Clever Fix

2019 winners   2018 winners   2017 winners   2015 & 2016 winners

2019 Winners

The Muckraker Award

This award will go to Mike Wenner of the City of Napoleon (Ohio) for creating a tool to help solids dry more quickly. Wenner fabricated a large rake from a piece of steel angle welded to it several portions of cut pipe. The rake gets attached to a front-end loader. The loader can now be used to rake the solids in the drying bed, increasing the solids surface area for faster drying.

The Goody Bag Award

William Paddock of the South Orange County Wastewater Authority (Dana Point, Calif.) will receive this award for his invention of a fisheye filtration system. After discovering fisheyes (globules of polymer) were blocking his facility’s polymer flow switch and ball checks and triggering multiple “low polymer flow” alarms daily, Paddock knew something had to be done. Paddock and his staff decided to create a filter using an old chemical tote. They cut a hole in the tote and fashioned a filter from screen door material. It worked, but the process was labor intensive because they had to frequently clean the filter to maintain flow. After a few iterations, they landed on using a replaceable 600-micron bag filter that could be replaced easily when full. They also installed a removable filtration platform that could be placed on top of any tote, and a pneumatic double diaphragm pump, which enables them to place the filtration system above the tank. Paddock credits his success to communication with staff: “I went to every single operator and asked ‘what would make this better?’ We got some really good ideas.”

The Tight Squeege Award

This award goes to Charlotte Water’s (Charlotte, N.C.) Johanna McHone for inventing a device to peel polymer slime off the polymer aging tanks at her facility. Before her invention, she had to use a heated pressure washer to clean the tank sides. This had the risk of splashing scalding hot water or chemicals on the operator. It also consumed a lot of diesel, electricity, and water. Her fix was incredibly simple. She fixed a squeegee to a flexible broom handle. The tool just peels the slime off the tank wall.

The Sewer Sailor Award

This award goes to James E. Segrest Jr. from the City of Auburn Water Resource Management Sewer Department (Auburn, Ala.). Segrest had a wide-diameter sewer main that had to be inspected. The flow in the main was too great for the facility’s crawler camera to be feasible. So, instead of sending a human in, Segrest attached a GoPro camera and flashlights to a cooler lid and floated it through the main. He attached the float to a reel of kite string to control its progress. The facility has used the Sewer Sailor several times.

The Bottle Bump Award

Perhaps the simplest and cleverest of all, this award goes to James Petalio of the Rodeo Sanitary District (Rodeo, Calif.) who was dealing with constant chlorine dosing alarms after hours. The alarms triggered the facility’s sodium bisulfite metering pump to run at 100% automatically to prevent a chlorine violation. The problem was solved by simply raising reagent bottles (acetate and potassium iodide buffer solution) from below the chlorine analyzer unit to above it. Removing the need for the reagent dosing pump to overcome the head of lifting reagents up to the analyzer stabilized the process and eliminated the alarms. This straightforward fix saved the district $1,200 in overtime costs and more than $12,800 per year in sodium bisulfite costs.

The Smooth Move Award

This award goes to John Presta and George Pelzowski of the Corbett Creek Water Pollution Control Plant (Whitby, Ontario) who were dealing with jammed, manual, aluminum channel sluice gates. The aluminum gates had fused to the aluminum channels. Staff often were resorting to cutting out the gate to resolve the problem. To address this issue, the Corbett Creek team ordered new gates from various suppliers. Their clever twist came in how to install them: They welded side slide tabs to the new gates that let them fit in the original channels perfectly. They also added a rubber stop at the bottom of the gate to help the seal.

The Rag Spear Award

Matt Haggler from the City of Meridian (Idaho) gets this award for skewering an irritating problem. The city’s 3-million-L (800,000-gal) anaerobic digesters hadn’t been cleaned in several years and the influent screens weren’t working well. This meant wipes, rags, and hair had built up in the tank. The bound-up material had created massive rag flotillas, which soon began to affect digester performance. Haggler’s solution was a 7.6-m-long (25-ft-long) long, 50-mm-thick (2-in.-thick) solid steel spear head with collapsible tines. The spear can be attached to a crane and forced into the rag balls. Once stabbed in, the crane pulls the spear back out and the tines unfold. The tines hook into the rag ball like barbs, and the mass of material can be pulled out. The spear has removed rag balls weighing nearly 450 kg (1,000 lb). The spear cost less than few hundred dollars and has saved the city significant money in down time, and enabled the digesters to work properly.


2018 Winners

The Trifecta Award

This award went to Elias Ruiz from Inframark (Horsham, Pa.) for creating a level-sensor calibration tool that provides quick, safe, and accurate results. The calibration staff tool allows for a known, precise measurement between the transducer head and target, while the bottom of the staff rests on the channel bottom. The “trifecta” refers to this invention representing the three judging criteria — safety, resourcefulness, and transferability — to such a high degree.

Ruiz fabricated a tool from aluminum square channel stock; a nylon, flexible tape measure section; a fish-eye level; and three pieces made with a 3D printer — the target platform, staff handle and staff foot. The entire assembly cost was about $200.


The Totally Tubular Award

This award went to the Jackson Pike Wastewater Treatment (Columbus, Ohio) Plant Maintenance staff — Chris Lathem, Chris Daugherty, Steve Slayton, and John Kleoudis. The award is named for the square tubing they used to build a mechanical float level indicator. This simple device ensures they can always get an accurate level measurement in their facility’s flow diversion structure. It works even if the electronic level sensors go out — the situation that prompted the fix. It also can confirm the reading on the electronic sensors.


The Goop Scoop Award

This award went to Brian Avino from the McDowell Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (Huntersville, N.C.) for a “fish eye” remover that saves good polymer and prevents slippery spills. Before this invention, Avino used a mesh pool skimmer to remove the unmixed “fish eyes” from the polymer aging tank, but this method also trapped too much good polymer. The pool skimmer also led to a slippery mess as it dribbled polymer.

Instead, Avino modified a sample scooper by drilling small holes in the bottom. The scoop still catches the fish eyes and allows virtually all the good polymer to drain out.


2017 Winners

Vacuum Virtuoso Award
Andy Loudermilk from the Bigfork (Mont.) Water and Sewer District received this award for his invention of the “scum sucker.” Loudermilk repurposed an old rotary-lobed positive displacement blower into to vacuum to remove scum from the top of the facility’s membrane bioreactor tanks and deposit it into the facility’s solids holding pit.

Alternate Acid Activist Award
Zenon Kochan and Matt Seib from the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan Sewerage District received their award for assembling a low-cost, safe, and efficient acid pumping system. Instead of carrying 25-kg (55-lb) bags of powdered acid to the top of a 10-m-tall (30-ft-tall) reactor, operators now use a portable pump that Kochan built to deliver a liquid acid directly into the process tankage.

Chemical Capture Chief Award

Mark Cataldo from Suez (Paramus, N.J.) and the Killingly Water Pollution Control Plant (Danielson, Conn.) earned his award for installing a trough to catch any spills during sodium hypochlorite deliveries. Catalado attached a simple trough to the wall beneath the inlet pipe to replace a bucket propped up with a board.

Thinkers Who Tinker Award

Kevin Barry, Jeff Leonard, and Jim Wilson from Woodard & Curran (Portland, Maine) and the Pinehills Wastewater Treatment Facility (Plymouth, Mass.) won for applying the motto “work safer, not stronger” to find safer, more efficient approaches to routine tasks. Their changes include using davits and hoists throughout the facility to lift heavy equipment.

Root Assassin Award
Tony Hale from the Cottonwood Improvement District (Sandy, Utah) won for devising an in-pipe spot applicator for chemical herbicides. He built a floating rig that holds a camera and a swiveling nozzle to help deliver foaming root removal chemicals precisely where they are needed. This leads to halving the amount of chemical needed for the job.

Tidy Tester Award

Jason Patty, Ron McClure, Pat Fountain, Glen Holz, and Brad Gillis from the El Dorado (Kan.) Wetlands and Water Reclamation Facility received this award for building a simple and effective return activated sludge (RAS) sampling station. The operators plumbed the RAS line to a bucket, which has a hole in the bottom that is plumbed to the sump pit. Closing the drain valve on the bucket and opening the RAS flow line fills the bucket. Opening the bucket drain valve send the RAS into the sump.

Helpful Hitch Hand Award

Travis A. Fisher from the Ojai (Calif.) Valley Sanitary District won for creating a ball-hitch-mounted arm to hold spools of cable. The “bumper hitch reel” fits over the ball hitch on a truck and helps manage the cables associated with a pipe patch kit and a push camera.

The First Responders’ First Responder Award

Sidney Homer and Tomas Martinez from the 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Facility (Houston, Texas) each received an honorary Operator Ingenuity award for ensuring services that enabled emergency response work following Hurricane Harvey.

2017 Judges

We are grateful to the following volunteers who spent many hours reviewing the entries and selecting the winners:

  • Deb Houdeshell – Head judge and session moderator
  • John Hart
  • Mike Kyle
  • Jorj Long
  • Russ Martin
  • Jon Meyer
  • Christine Radke

Download bios of the Judges

2015 & 2016 Winners

Award winners and select other entries will be converted into articles for the Operator Ingenuity section Water Environment & Technology magazine.

2016 Winners

2015 Winners

October 16, 2019

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