Nor’easter Winter

May 8, 2018

Facilities on the eastern seaboard combat record snowfall & damaging winds

About the author:

Bob Crossen is managing editor for WWD. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

Through the first two weeks of March 2018, the Northeastern U.S. was slammed by four winter storms that earned the name “nor’easter.” They brought blizzard-like conditions and thrashing gusts of wind to communities on the East Coast. Winter storm Toby, the fourth storm of the month, dealt out record snowfall for the time of year in New York City, with 18 to 24 in. of snow. Many people lost power during the storms because of downed power lines, either from strong winds or the weight of the snow.

But it was not just homes that risked losing power—water and wastewater facilities had plans in place to ensure services would not be interrupted for their communities. The H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) in Woodbridge, Va., is one of many facilities along the East Coast that did not lose service during the storm.

Emergency Power

Robert Jenkins, facilities manager for the Prince William County Service Authority (PWSCA), said handling extreme weather events has become second nature after years of experience. With each storm or event, new knowledge emerges for him and his facilities to put into practice. As for the nor’easter storms in March, Jenkins said generators for backup power were critical pieces. Jenkins said virtually every facility he manages has generators in place to keep them operational during major storm events.

“I have one wastewater pump station that does not have a generator, so when we know inclement weather is coming in, we take a portable down there, get it hooked up, ready to go, so if we lose power, all we’ve got to do is flip a switch and turn the generator on,” Jenkins said.

Before the storms arrive, he said all the onsite generators are topped with fuel and personnel are alerted to any changes in schedules or shifts should there be catastrophic weather that makes getting to and from the facilities difficult. To coordinate all the plants during the March 2 storm, Jenkins said PWCSA opened its Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This center was a rally point for individual plant managers and facility operators to relay real-time information about their plants during the storm. Shifts of four to five people kept the EOC open through the entire event.

“We opened up the EOC Friday morning and then close it Saturday evening,” Jenkins said. “We have our SCADA system in there, so that gives me access and eyes on every facility we have in our network. We’re looking at pumps, what’s running, how much flow is coming from each pump station. We can actually see the power outage if there is a pump failure or generator outages.”

Jenkins said a recent update to his SCADA system has allowed him to see how much fuel is remaining in each generator, as well. With this information, targeted responses can be coordinated. 

Best Practices in Extreme Weather

For Jenkins and his crews, hazardous weather is par for the course. From hurricanes and cyclones to river floods and power outages, there is not much that his team has not had to handle. 

“We’ve pretty much learned everything over time,” Jenkins said. 

Hurricanes. When the forecast indicates a hurricane is headed toward his facilities, Jenkins said he starts his emergency response plan a week ahead of schedule in accordance with his facility’s standard operating procedure (SOP). Jenkins said, “99% of the time it’s nothing,” but not following the SOP and being wrong would be more devastating.

“If you don’t prepare, it’s going to hit you,” Jenkins said. “It’s pretty much a routine for us when we know the bad weather is coming.”

During Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, the PWCSA service area received almost a foot of rain. Although that amount of rain did not occur this year, Rachel Carlson, H.L. Mooney Advanced WRF operations manager, said preparing for excess plant inflow from storm surges is a common check box for emergency preparedness.

Flooding. In 28 years with PWCSA, Jenkins said he remembers only one facility going underwater due to extreme weather, and that facility is right on the Potomac River. With that many years of experience, Jenkins said he and his crews know where problem areas are and how to best prevent flooding damage.

“We know where the low-lying areas are. We will sandbag everything just to make sure,” Jenkins said, noting he has been able to facilitate capital improvement projects to further protect his facilities. “We’re actually building 10-ft walls around these facilities so water cannot get to them if there is a storm surge.”

High winds. High winds throw debris around and damage structures. Large tree branches can be broken from the trunks and whipped into electrical lines. Sometimes, even entire trees can be felled. 

“The biggest issue is trees coming down causing power outages,” Jenkins said of the March nor’easter storms. “We had a total of 51 sites down out of 133 in total, so over a third of our sites were down.” Despite that number of sites losing power, however, the backup generators kicked in and powered facilities until electricity was restored.

For Carlson, the to-do list also includes keeping equipment safe from shifting. Secondary clarifier cover hatches are inspected, large dumpster lids are secured and handheld equipment—like chainsaws—is strapped down.

“We strap things down or move things inside,” Carlson said. “We had some work scheduled to take place, so we made sure to secure everything and postpone that work just to prepare.”

Snow. For the nor’easter storms in March, Jenkins said the main adversary of plant personnel was wind rather than snow. The plants all were far enough south that they did not see record snowfall that New York and New Jersey witnessed.

Village of Ridgewood, N.J., Engineer Chris Rutishauser said his facilities kept everything running without service disruptions, too—a feat for which he and his crew are proud. New England, he said, can get harsh winters with lots of snowfall, and these nor’easter storms were not that much different from regular winter service.

“We were dealing mostly with snow,” Rutishauser said, noting pump stations lost power but backup generators kept them operational. “It’s just winter. It snows. It snows.”

In Virginia, Carlson said snowfall can disrupt traffic, so operators plan deliveries ahead of time. Also, the snowmelt from an extreme event often runs off into nearby waterways, putting facilites along them at risk for flooding. She keeps that in mind in weeks following snow storms.

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