Experiences of a Water Works Superintendent

Experiences of a Water Works Superintendent

President Elect of the American Water Works Association Philosophically Reviews the Work of the Water Bureau— Some Amusing Instances—Comments on Many Subjects

Superintendent of Water Bureau, Rochester, N. Y.

HAVING been actively engaged in water works affairs ever since leaving college almost thirty years ago, and having about thirty minutes to tell of my experiences, possibly some details may be accidentally left out. Once before, when entering a hall where I was to read a paper, I was questioned by an outsider as to what was going on. When he was told, he asked what it cost to go in. I told him “Nothing”, and he then asked, “Is it worth it?” Since then I have tried to avoid being put in a similar position. However, when your Publication Committee wants anything, they should have it, and this paper, therefore, is a result of such a request and an acknowledgement, though an immensely inadequate one, of the great work which this committee are doing.

Beekman C. Little, President, American Water Works Association

Once I remember in our town the Vaudeville Theatre Manager called me up and asked about the temperature of our water, and was it too cold for the Six Dare-devil Diving Girls, and would I come up and witness the first performance? Would I? We strive to please, and the water was not only just right for that performance but for all of them. People are different however. Later that same year the swimming tank of the Young Woman’s Christian Association developed some complaint, algae, or red water, or a noisy meter, I’ve forgotten what, but although I spent some time in remedying the trouble, I never found out from personal observation how the Young Christian Women stacked up with the Diving Dare-devils.

Department Served Hot Water

Many queer complaints come to the office. Not long ago a woman complaining over the telephone about a high water bill, said it was an outrageous and impossible charge because she had not washed any for the past two months., —until she explained that she meant,—no laundry work! I agreed that it was outrageous.

The oddest problem, however, came up when a customer objected to having hot water served to his house by our Water Bureau. I told him that he must be mistaken, that if the water from the cold water pipe was hot, his pipes must run in some way too close to the furnace or kitchen range; but no, he had had no furnace fire for several months and his kitchen range was a gas stove, and that there was no way of accounting for the cold water faucets giving forth hot water. On investigation we found part of his statement true. Warm water was issuing from any faucet we turned on and the service pipe where it entered the cellar was warm to the touch. There was a way to account for it, however, as we discovered after some little difficulty. Across the street from the house was a large brewery and it seems that this plant was discharging exhaust steam directly into a sewer, and this water service pipe when it crossed and touched this steam sewer became so warm that the water was heated and no cold water could be had in this house. The brewery, upon notification, found a different point of discharge for its steam, and everyone was satisfied. Now that the brewery is tamed and is manufacturing ice cream, we may expect, I suppose, a complaint that ice water is flowing from the hot water faucets.

When the Prohibitionists knocked the breweries in the head, they also, strange to say, hit us water purveyors a pretty hard blow. In Rochester, not especially known as an extensive beer-making community, our water revenues in 1920 show a loss of about $1,000 per month, from six breweries, compared with their bills before the nation went dry. It would be interesting to hear the “before and after” tales of such cities as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati, and learn how their water companies weathered this storm. While prohibition was bad enough, the great war of course was worse in a financial way to water works plants. We water works men were among the few, evidently, who did not profiteer. We have kept watching the soaring prices of other things, shoes and clothing, bread and butter, house rents, cast iron pipe, valves, chemicals, coal and drinks of all kinds excepting water, but only lately has there been a general agitation for raising water rates throughout the country. This rate raising must come however, otherwise the private water companies face bankruptcy and the municipal companies only fool themselves into a false position which some day will stagger the taxpayers who will have to foot the bills.

While the war hurt us in many ways, there were several ways in which it helped. Many a water works manager, who for years had unavailingly advocated the use of meters, suddenly found a great ally in the exorbitant price and the scarcity of coal. The need for coal for pumping purposes could be lessened immensely by a decreased consumption of water, and meters would bring this lower consumption about. So that now there are many advocates of meters among social, business and political circles where formerly there were only bitter opponents of the system. It has even reached the point where state legislative bodies are considering making the meter system compulsory in order to prevent the great waste which prevails without it.

Yet the meter man must also see the lesson in this. Should the price of meters get excessively high is there not the possibility that we will find some way also of lessening our need for these measuring devices? Perhaps we cannot get a substitute for meters, but why not some method of grouping a number of similar consumers under one meter, or experiment with a system of metering in rotation for certain test periods long established consumers, and average their bills, thus making one meter do again for perhaps ten or a dozen consumers?

The same principle holds true with other water works materials. High prices alone may not do it, but unreasonable or unfair prices surely will cause us to find a way of doing without or at least, of doing with less.

Care and Economy in Experiments

In trying to keep down our expenses, care must be exercised to see that our economical experiments do not turn out to be unwarranted extravagances.

If you are considering the substituting for the bell and spigot cast iron pipe, a pipe of another material or another pattern, or changing from calking lead, to a metallic mixture, which requires no calking, you must use extra precautions in your tests and inspections and endeavor to have no lowering in your standards of ultimate results. The same must be true of all expedients you try.

If you are going to do away with the wiped joint and used one of the patented couplings or install a lined service pipe instead of the all-lead service be sure you get the best of each thing with the strength and quality of the thing that you are giving up, and then use it properly and according to the best established custom. Also get advice from those who have gotten results from these other methods. Do not be over-enthusiastic over the apparent great superiority of the newly tried thing, nor downcast over its seeming failure at first. In other words, use your head, and when you try an experiment give it a good fair trial.

Helpful Knowledge Gained From Salesmen

These days of high prices give, I think, the salesman of the “little-out-of-the-ordinary” article a better chance, and this is a good thing both for the seller and the prospective customer. Certainly the salesman of any water works article should get a good deal of useful information from contact with water superintendents, and I know that we can get a lot of helpful knowledge from most any salesman. If you don’t believe this try it on the next one that calls on you. Ask him some questions about the cities he visits. —what water bureau has the best accounting department, what one keeps the best meter records, what repair shop has the best equipment, what superintendent is particularly interested in leakage surveys, what one is a good politician, and what one is a good practical man. You may not get correct answers of course to all your questions as there are all kinds of salesmen. I even had one come into my office with spats and a cane, and he got away with it too. We naturally have them all ticketed and placed, but don’t forget that by the same token these salesmen have us all sized up and our failings and shortcomings are not minimized as they talk us over. So for your own sake, if not for theirs, give them welcome. In another article I hinted at the value of these salesmen to the Association. I seldom meet one who is not an enthusiastic and loyal rooter for our organization, and many of us were led to become members of it through these joyful travelers. The three great factors which keep us superintendents in touch with our jobs and with each other through the years are the conventions and meetings, the Journal, and the traveling salesman, and I feel that the last named easily does his third share of this work.

To the younger men who are traveling for the water works manufacturers I would suggest that they cultivate and increase this enthusiasm. Get your man interested in the Association and tell him what other members of it with whom you come in contact are thinking and talking about.

Takes Salesmen Over the Department with Him

Always, when occasion offers, I invite any particular salesman who happens to be on hand to go out with me if my presence is demanded by any one of the hundred happenings which call me away from the office. It may be a tour of inspection of the water shed, a break in a large main, a big fire, about which a superintendent should always be informed, or just some everyday construction work; and on these trips I find the salesman good company, not in the way, and frequently of help with advice and suggestions. And surely my guest, if he keeps his eyes open, must gain something useful himself from this contact with the management and practical operation of the water works business; something which must be of benefit both to his employer and himself.

Not alone from these representatives of our associate members, but from correspondence and from our engineering journals we learn that all over the country there is a great let up in new construction work. Anyone knows that every water works manager deserves a rest, but long years of experience have taught me that he never gets one, and that when seemingly a chance like this for one appears, then is the time for him to dig in and be busier than ever; it gives him an opportunity to devote his attention to overhauling, repairing and bettering his whole plant. Hydrants can be painted and repaired; stop-valves relocated and tried out for operation; mains tested for leakage; pumps and engines gone over, and new efficiency figures and pump slippage obtained. Meters can be removed for tests. It may be a good time to flush, or better yet, thoroughly clean out some of your mains. We have had excellent success with contractors who do this work.

Always proud of the quality of our water, I confess it is a strain on that pride to see the actually black water and mud and rusty tubercles that flow out ahead of the go-devil or piston which is forced through the main! Very soon, however, the water clears up and the result is always a much better flow and increased pressure. The fire insurance men approve of this work and the contractors don’t exaggerate in their advertising claims, and oftentimes this cleaning of a main will delay for several years the apparent need of a larger pipe.

Inspection of Check Valves on Fire System

The mention of fire insurance makes one think of the fire service connections. Don’t neglect, whenever you have any time, to look after these connections and the check valves on them. If the sprinkler or fire system is connected up with a secondary, contaminated, or even suspicious supply, my experience would say—throw away the check valves and cut off the supply. There are check valves which will work, and methods of inspection which prove the functioning of these valves, but no valve and no system of inspection will prevent the trying experience that we went through some years ago. Very briefly stated the occurrence was as follows. A lift bridge over a canal in Rochester was so constructed as to be operated by either of two water systems; one, our domestic supply and the other our entirely separate auxilliary fire system of nonpotable water. The two systems, however, were never intended to be turned on and into the operating house at once. The street gate on one system or the other was always shut, but as an additional precaution check valves on each system were installed. Between inspections, however, an over-zealous, ignorant canal employee obtained secretly a gate wrench, closed the open street gate and then proceeded to unbolt the flanges on the check valves in the basement of the operating house and remove the checks or flaps entirely. He then bolted the flanges on again so the valves appeared to be in order and opened both street gates. The result was that contaminated water entered our domestic system and a number of typhoid cases followed. It is assumed that he imagined that a higher pressure would be the only result of his work. This system of ours had operated successfully for some thirty years but it was not proof against deliberate tampering with the fixtures.

Meters Installed by Own Men

Our own meter men did the installing of all the meters and I think it much better, cheaper and faster than if we had had it done by contract, and we were able to keep better records of the meter installations. With three teams of two men each and a wagon, we averaged about 18 meters set a day—our record was 30 in one day. Our consumption is between 90 and 100 gallons per capita per day. Besides the sprinkling of the streets, we do a great deal of washing and flushing of the paved streets and are very generous in our use of water for parks, public bath-houses, drinking fountains and the like. We are also perhaps rather lenient in our hydrant rules. It has finally seemed to the writer impractical to keep the operation and use of hydrants confined to the Fire and Water Departments.

The Street Department with the sprinkling and cleaning of streets and flushing of sewers, and the public utilities corporations, such as the gas, electric and street railways companies, and the contractors on street improvements. —all these have to use water in the streets more or less frequently, and the hydrant is the most available and often the only means of obtaining water. With the beginning of spring, therefore, for such purposes, we attach to the nozzles of a great many hydrants a 2 1/2-inch substantial valve, and on request other smaller or so-called contractors’ valves. Neither of these has to be removed in case of a fire and they do not hinder the operation of the hydrant by the firemen. We have a certain number of men constantly looking after the hydrants, and with this method manage to keep them in pretty good shape. In winter these men with additional ones are kept constantly on the go to prevent or report frozen hydrants.

Repeated surveys show comparatively little leakage from mains and services, and all leaks and breaks when disclosed are fixed as promptly as possible. Considering the good condition of our, piping system and the care we use to keep it so, I have come to the conclusion that a 100-gallon per capita rate is a fairly low one for cities of about 300,-000 population or larger.

Good Repair Force of Sufficient Size Necessary

To properly maintain the system of mains, valves, hydrants, services etc. of a water system, it is very necessary to have a good repair force; one of sufficient size and always available. In addition to our regular day force, we have on hand at nights, Sundays and all other holidays, a certain number of men ready for emergency calls and the whereabouts of most of the others is known so that they can be gotten hold of by telephone, automobiles or the like, in case of necessity. The key to our repair shop was practically thrown away forty years ago and the door has never been locked since then as someone is always there ready for action.

Unfortunately no one has yet been able to foretell where or when a water main is goin gto break. In a general way the old experienced water works man will tell you that they always break on the busiest corner of the most congested street on the coldest day of the year, with the crowds standing around wondering why it takes so long to shut the water off. It always does seem a fearfully long time before the gates can be closed, but I think as yet there is no better or quicker way than the old familiar, laborious method of hand-operation: that is no method which would not be so excessive in cost, that the expense would far out-weigh the advantage gained by speed or ease of operation.

The number of bursting mains per mile of pipe per year is after all—in spite of appearances—not so alarming. We have averaged about 7 per year for the last four or five years for some 500 miles of pipe. All sizes break and the larger ones do not always cause the most damage, it depends on the locality principally. Also all kinds break. The last serious break was in a 12-inch wrought iron main, which was caught by the long drawn out severe weather of the past winter and the freezing cold, and bursting, it had to be repaired or replaced at several different points. Query: Has the question of insuring water mains against breaking ever been broached?

Properly Located Mains Important

The speed in shutting off mains can be greatly helped if gates are properly located and easily found and the men thoroughly familiar with their operation. The gates in the large mains should be especially known and kept in working order. Care should be taken that they are not needlessly obstructed by building operations or rendered inaccessible in any other way. I call to mind that once when a 36-inch main let loose, one of the gate covers as well as the whole street was quickly covered with a foot or two of rushing water and another gate up the street a block or two, was surmounted by a large temporary election voting booth which was too heavy to move without jacks.

The water covered gate could not of course be helped, but the placing of the election booth where it was never should have been allowed. It was what might be called a political blunder, something the water works superintendent frequently runs up against; but the politics side of this story must be told at another time, for already these experiences have run away with their narrator beyond the time limits and have. I fear, wearied his hearers, for the comments have been rambling and the tale disconnected.

Superintendent George C. Earl of the water board of New Orleans recently called attention to the fact that the city’s water supply has practically reached the limit of its capacity and stated that improvements are needed in the various municipal departments costing from $6,-000,000 to $7,000,000. Among the improvements that the superintendent suggested were a second 48-inch pipe to the river, a mud discharge line back to the river to dispose of mud from existing reservoirs; a 50 per cent, increase in capacity of the purification plant at Carrollton which is running to its limit: the addition of a fifth pump and the addition of another large supply line from the water works.

No posts to display