By David Berlew
When I was growing up in Orono, Maine, eight miles north of the mini-metropolis of Bangor, I drew comfort from the idea that Superman, Batman or some other super-hero protected my family and friends from villains. In the 1930s and early 40s I listened to the Green Lantern and the Shadow on the radio, read Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel comics, and on Saturday afternoons, watched short serials starring Zorro and the Lone Ranger at the movie house in town. All of these super-heroes shared a similar mission: they watched over and protected the law-abiding citizens who lived in places like Gotham City or Metropolis, or they roamed the Wild West on horseback, putting men who wore black hats behind bars. I imagined that Bangor, a city with perhaps 20,000 inhabitants, had its own super-hero, perhaps Superman Junior, who also kept his eye on neighboring towns like Orono.
Not long ago I had a tour of Eastman’s waterworks, courtesy of two Village District of Eastman (VDE) employees, Neil Perez and Josh Worthen. VDE has a four person staff: Bill Weber, the district manager, Pat Conroy, office manager, and Perez and Worthen, both certified water system operators who double as VDE’s field crew. I confess I didn’t expect to see what Bill Weber, in an earlier article, called “a state-of-the-art Cadillac of a facility,” but that’s what it looked like to me.
Perez and Worthen, friendly, down-to-earth young men, have been in their jobs for nine and three years, respectively. Perez joined VDE after 12 years in the Army, eight as part of a rapid deployment unit that set up portable water systems for incoming troops. Worthen came to Eastman as a recreation intern after studying mechanical engineering for two years at Northern Arizona State University in Flagstaff and then earning a degree in sports management from Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH. At the end of his internship and a short a layover in Eastman’s maintenance department, he moved on to VDE. Two things struck me after spending five minutes with them: their commitment to the job and a working relationship that let them finish each other’s sentences.
Eastman’s Cadillac water plant is housed in an unimposing but solidly constructed cement-block building with a thick concrete floor. You enter a large room that houses three floor-to-ceiling mixing tanks; this is where Eastman’s well water is filtered to remove manganese and iron, and chemicals are added to insure water quality. The purified water is then pumped out to storage tanks at Snow Hill and Hilltop and then gravity-fed to most of Eastman. Booster stations at Snow Hill and Link Road pump water to homes higher than the storage tanks.
Another room at the plant houses two large generators that automatically come on-line in a power outage. Smaller rooms include a chemical room, mechanical room, electrical room and, what Perez and Worthen call the brains of the operation- the control room and laboratory. In their words, “The control room is the brain, but it doesn’t communicate much. The computer in the lab talks to the control room, but if the control room is down, it has nothing to say.” The panel in the control room displays the flow rate of water leaving the plant and the water level at each storage tank. It also has over a hundred alarms, each for a specific problem. If an alarm goes off during working hours, the technicians receive a cell phone alert and immediately check the computer in the lab, or if they are away from the plant, they boot up the laptop they always have with them to identify and get detailed information about the problem.
Some alarms, like low water levels at one or both storage tanks, a communication breakdown or plant flooding, because of their severity and/or safety concerns, require both technicians to be on-site. Other problems they can fix from their computer, such as shutting down a non-performing well and bringing a replacement well on-line, or increasing or decreasing the amount of chlorine being added to the water.
On a morning when the plant is running smoothly and they have completed their lab tests of water quality, they go into the field to work on repairs, maintenance projects and upgrades. We have all received VDE notices that our water will be shut-off on a particular day because water mains are being flushed or water valves replaced. Perez and Worthen do most of the repairs and routine maintenance themselves, but contractors with heavier equipment are brought in to help with major system upgrades.
One ongoing maintenance goal is to test half of the 1,360 residential hookups for leaks each year. Over time, some residential shut-off valves get buried by new landscaping, road widening or rebuilt driveways and have to be located and uncovered. Perez and Worthen look for leaks using an electronic device to “listen” to the pipes. If the leak is between the valve and the main line, they fix it. If it is on the house side, it’s the homeowner’s responsibility, and they work with the resident to find a contractor and get it fixed.
I began to get hooked when both mentioned they alternated weeks when they were on-call 24/7. Anytime an alarm goes off outside of business hours, the on-call technician gets an automated call on his cell phone. Wherever he is, he boots up his dedicated laptop to communicate with the control panel. Just as during work hours, some problems can be fixed on line.
Occasionally he has another option: because there is enough water in the storage tanks to last for up to 36 hours, he can shut down the system. This allows him and his partner to wait until the next morning to fix the problem. More serious issues, like a broken pipe in the plant or a storage tank malfunction always require both technicians to come in to work immediately. Off-hour telephone calls from Eastman residents to report a water problem are also forwarded to the on-call technician, who
immediately returns the call. If the customer is without water, one or both technicians make a house call.
When I first asked them what they liked about their job, they said it was a pleasant place to work, they appreciated the responsibility and independence they were given, and their work was so varied they were never bored. Then they seemed to switch into another gear, and I paraphrase: “Actually, we are the only ones who know the nitty-gritty of what goes on in the system. Without us, no one would be taking care of it on an hourly basis. In a sense, we feel like the heart of the system, and we really like that!” Then they sat there beaming at each other.
Listening to Perez and Worthen describe their work reminded me of the super-heroes who helped me sleep at night when I was a boy. I’m old enough now to know that people like Perez and Worthen don’t change into multicolored costumes at night, can’t fly faster than a speeding bullet and don’t drive Batmobiles. Still, I needed to be reminded that the many people who watch over us 24 hours a day are not that different from the super-heroes of my childhood.