Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fire Hydrant Inspection Training

City Receives Highest Fire Protection Classification

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) has reclassified the City of Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services as an ISO Class 1, their highest awarded classification.

Of the nearly 45,000 Public Fire Protection Districts in the United States, only 270 are ISO Class I and only seven are located in Virginia. This puts Richmond in the top 1 percent for fire protection in the nation.

ISO collects and evaluates information on municipal fire-protection efforts in communities throughout the United States. ISO then assigns a Public Protection Classification from 1 to 10. Class 1 represents superior property fire protection and Class 10 does not meet the minimum requirements of protection.

ISO evaluates a community's fire protection, emergency communications, municipal water supply system, and community risk reduction efforts. The city's fire hydrants are maintained by the Department of Public Utilities.

A community's investment in fire protection is a reliable predictor of future fire losses. Insurance companies use ISO classification information to help establish premiums for fire insurance. Communities with better protection generally are offered lower premiums.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Richmond Gas Works Breaks Record

Kent Foley monitors the demand for natural gas throughout Richmond and Henrico
On Sunday, January 7, 2018, the predicted low temperature was -3 degrees, but in Natural Gas Control Manager Kent Foley’s truck, the temperature gauge was reading -7.

He had two crews on standby that Sunday morning, ready to roll if the natural gas distribution system developed any safety issues. Back in the 1980s, before all the system improvements and replacements were made, if the predicted low for the day was 28 degrees, a crew had to go out at 4 a.m. to manually ensure there would be enough pressure in the valves. If the temperature was 24 degrees, they started at midnight.

Now, without the need for a crew to manually adjust the pressure, the automated system broke a new record, sending out 190,000 decatherms (dth). The previous record was in February 2015 with 183,000 dth.

(A decatherm is a unit of energy used to measure natural gas equal to 1 million BTUs [British Thermal Units]).

Foley, who has been on the job for 32 years, said, “A typical send-out on a cold day would have been 90,000.” If the record low temperature had been reached on a Monday instead of Sunday, the send-out would have been even greater because commercial demand increases on weekdays, and residential users use more natural gas earlier on weekday mornings than they do on weekends.

The increase in natural gas demand in January was a combination of low temperatures and more customers, brought on by DPU’s expansion into developing areas of Henrico County. Westgate is currently the biggest load station. A new station was recently built at Staples Mill and Hungary Road in Glen Allen, connected to the one at Woodman and Hungary roads.

“We’re always trying to get more gas to the West End,” Foley said. As the customer base expands there, and new commercial business is added on the Southside, expect more records to be broken.

Women of Wastewater -- A Great Career

Vernia Hawthorne, Barbara Jackson and Jewel Minor
Getting the job as a utility operator was the easy part for Vernia Hawthorne, Barbara Jackson, and Jewel Minor. Actually doing the job, and for so many years, has been more of a challenge. No other women who have been hired as utility operators at the Department of Public Utilities have lasted as long as this trio at the retention basin. In fact, they currently are the only three in the position.

“It’s still a boy’s world,” Jackson, a supervisor, said. “I feel I always have to prove myself. You don’t get the immediate respect the guys give each other. We have to fight for it.”

Vernia Hawthorne has been with the city almost 28 years. While working for an insurance company, she saw an ad for entry-level utility operators. As a single mother, she was looking for better pay, and the work sounded familiar to her.

“My father had worked here as a custodian, so I knew something about it,” she recalled. She was immediately hired along with a second woman. The job, at the time, required a third grade education, she said, so experience in the field was not a requirement. The woman hired with Hawthorne did not stay.

Hawthorne, though, found the work interesting enough to make it a career. Rotating shifts is “what I’m used to now. The work is what I know. I know the people, the operations. It has good benefits.” For women seeking a good job in the 1970s, it was an opportunity.

Jackson has been with the city 41 years. She started as a temporary employee with the Department of Public Works, driving the leaf collection trucks. Her supervisor recommended she apply for a utility operator position. She was pregnant and “I needed something to do for a short period of time.” That short period turned into a long-term career, even though “They didn’t know how to deal with female employees, or pregnant ones. There was no support. We just had to deal with it.”

Jackson and Minor both met their husbands at work, and all three women have raised families while working. What got them through the difficult times was positive thinking. “You had to have the state of mind that you were supporting your family,” said Minor. “We’d come in and work any shift we were assigned, in any weather. You couldn’t expect to be treated differently than the men.”

“You have to put it out there that you need to get the respect,” said Jackson. As a supervisor, “sometimes I feel like I should explain why I’m asking guys to do things, but I shouldn’t have to do that.”

All the women agree they especially feel the difference when new contractors or vendors come to meetings and immediately gravitate to the man in the room. “And they try to pull things over on us, like sell us new equipment or parts instead of fixing things,” said Jackson.

Minor has been with the city 39 years. She was still in school when she applied to be a lab technician and she stayed at the lab for 12 years, but there were few avenues for advancement there. Utility operations was more money and more challenging, so despite the shift work, she applied and was hired.

All three women attribute their longevity in the position to “making it work. I can do it,” said Jackson. “Once you have a history here, it’s something you know. I’m making a good living. It works for me.”

Still, despite the opportunities for women in the wastewater field, they often find themselves alone at trade conferences. “We go to a lot of conferences,” said Minor. “You see very few females. You get the trade magazines and seldom see a female featured. But it’s challenging and different. Being a secretary is not me. This stimulates my mind. Things constantly change here. It makes you think about things, even at home, like not pouring grease down the drain.”

“That’s a good thing,” Jackson agreed. You think about things like not littering. We know the results of it. You’re more aware of the quality of water and sanitation wherever you go.”

The women participated in the Lunch Buddies program, spending time with children at Blackwell Elementary School, and found what they learned on the job gave them new ways to explain the importance of protecting the environment to children.

“A lot of people don’t realize what the wastewater plant does,” said Minor. “People see you in your uniform and want to ask you questions.”

They all recommend their jobs to other women, even though it’s a seldom publicized career track. “I get a whole lot of looks when I talk about it as a career. People just think it’s a smelly place,” said Jackson. (The smell actually originated more at a pulp paper plant near the Wastewater Plant, and now that it's gone, travelers on I-95 are not aware of the plant nearby.)

There are currently no other women working as utility operators. The ones that have tried over the years have left, or didn’t complete the requirements to get their license, which requires independent study and online courses to prepare for and pass the tests. New hires are expected to acquire their licenses within two years. The women agreed that the swing shift hours are a deterrent for many. The shifts are small -- three to four people -- and most of the work is performed outdoors. Also, good jobs for females and minorities are not as difficult to find today as they were 30 or 40 years ago.

“You have to learn to get along with your co-workers on your shift, because that’s all the people you see most days. And you can’t be easily scared working at night,” said Minor. She said the Wastewater Plant “feels very different at 4 in the morning” than it does during the day. “None of these other people (administrative staff) are around.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

City's Wastewater Plant Wins Award

The Wastewater Plant set new records in 2017 for nutrient removal after investing $100 million in plant upgrades, thanks to the hard work of the operations, maintenance and support staff. Total nitrogen released to the James River was reduced by 24,000 pounds over 2016 and phosphorous was reduced by 6,000 pounds.

As a result, the plant received the 2017 NACWA (National Association of Clean Water Agencies Award) for its environmental performance upgrade project.

“I expect the plant to again be the best performing plant on this stretch of the James River,” said Grace LeRose, program manager. “Richmond’s ratepayers are experiencing the benefits of their investment in this infrastructure with a cleaner James River and Chesapeake Bay.”

“We couldn’t have done it without our personnel,” Ed Edmondson, utility operations superintendent, said of the approximately 100 wastewater employees. As for the future, “We’ll focus on biosolids,” he said.

Two important ways citizens and Richmond businesses can help with biosolids management is to not pour grease and oils into drains and to properly dispose of medications, especially antibiotics, through means other than flushing down the drain. Conserving water and repairing leaks are other things citizens can do that will directly benefit their own utility bills.

Wastewater management is a challenging career for young people looking for steady, reliable employment.

“The schedule is tough, the work is tough. You spend a lot of time monitoring, and you always have to be ready to go if something happens. The stress is mental,” said Edmondson. As a result, there’s always vacancies to fill and opportunities for advancement. Successful wastewater personnel need quantitative, logic, reading and comprehension skills for analyzing data and solving problems.

“The pay is good, but there’s that ‘ick’ factor and it is rotating shiftwork,” he said.

Applicants, even those with a high school education, can look forward to a fulfilling career with opportunities to train and learn more about the profession. New hires have two years to earn their certification licenses.

It’s not an all-male profession either. Three women have advanced successfully through the operator ranks including Barbara Jackson, utility operations supervisor at the retention basin, and utility operators Jewel Minor and Vernia Hawthorne.

Supervisors Ed Edmondson (fourth from left) and Clair Watson (eighth from left) celebrate setting new nutrient removal records at the Wastewater Plant with some of the 100 division employees.

Just one section of the Wastewater Plant, which runs from near Ancarrow's Landing at the river end of Maury Street to across the river from Rockett's Landing.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Richmond Gas Works Announces Increase in Purchased Gas Cost

Richmond Gas Works customers will see a small increase of the purchased gas cost (PGC) in their February 2018 utility bills. The cost for purchased natural gas will increase from $0.450 per 100 cubic feet (1 Ccf) used to $0.525. The average customer who uses 70 Ccf’s of natural gas will see an estimated $5.25 increase in their monthly bill. 

By law, Richmond Gas Works passes on the cost of natural gas purchased and delivered to customers, dollar for dollar, without any markup. Other components of the natural gas bill – the distribution charge and customer charge – are unchanged.

Richmond Gas Works’ PGC rate is currently less than or equal to surrounding natural gas franchises. Richmond Gas Works’ Interim Director Rosemary Green, attributes the increase to demand. “An extended cold snap along the East Coast, and greater demand in the natural gas market, is responsible for this increase.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the PGC (purchased gas cost)?

The PGC is one component of your natural gas bill and it represents the cost of the natural gas that Richmond Gas Works purchases for customers. By federal law, the wholesale price of natural gas is unregulated and fluctuates with market conditions. The PGC enables utilities to adjust on a regular basis the amount they charge their customers to reflect the actual cost of the natural gas used by those customers. Without the PGC, natural gas distribution companies would have to adjust their base rates much more frequently and those adjustments would be much greater.

What are the other components of my natural gas bill?
The monthly service charge or customer charge ($12.98) and the distribution charge $5.52/Mcf ($.552/Ccf). These components have not changed.

Why has the Purchased Gas Cost increased?
The increase is due primarily to an extended cold snap along the East Coast and as a result of the associated increase in demand, which in turn has also resulted in an increase in the cost of natural gas for Richmond Gas Works and the entire natural gas market in the northeast and New England states. 

What is the dollar amount that my natural gas bill will increase?
A customer who uses 70 CCf's of natural gas per month currently pays $83.12. Beginning with the first bill in February 2018, that same customer will pay $88.37.