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Posted on 12 February 2016 by Editorial team
Posted in FluksAqua Community, Innovation, Spotlight, Utility management, Wastewater Management, Tagged infrastructure,


Ask Senior Plant Operator Nick Hansen about the biggest problem he faces in his work in wastewater management, and he answers without hesitation: “Trash.”

The employee of Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in the San Francisco Bay Area barely pauses to take a breath when he begins detailing the trash he and other operators find in North American waterways.

“I actually wrote a blog post about how every holiday has its own pollution,” he says.

He starts with the wrappers from Halloween candy, flushed by kids whose parents have forbidden the sugary treats. Then it’s the turkey and other animal fats from Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s dinners that holiday cooks pour down the drain. But the one that surprises non-operators is Valentine’s Day.

It’s the condoms,” explains Hansen matter-of-factly. “They should go in the trash, but they get flushed instead.”


From condoms to baby wipes, there isn’t anything people won’t try to flush down the plumbing.

“People see the toilet as the best trash can,” Hansen says.“Once you put something down the drain, you are done. Then someone else needs to remove it.”

That “someone else” is someone like Hansen — a wastewater operator. Hansen didn’t start out his worklife pursuing a career in the wastewater industry, but after graduating with a communications degree in college and a stint in Internet advertising, the economic downturn in 2008 meant he had to look at other options.

“I had worked for the company I now work for as a summer student. I started as a temporary employee and asked what do I need to get a job. They showed me an operator training program they invested in. So I got the education and put in the time,” Hansen explains.

His timing was perfect. Hansen says there are now thousands applying to work in the industry: “From what I have read and heard, in the years before the recession, the number applying was in the 10s or 20s. Now it is in the 1000s.”

“It’s different; it smells weird, but I got used to it,” says Hansen. “When you work for a utility, you know where water goes. Most people go home, turn on the tap, water comes out, goes down the drain, and you never think about it again.”

Hansen thinks about water a lot. “Most people don’t know what we do,” he says simply. His goal is to share what he knows, including supporting innovation in his industry.


For Hansen, the issues facing the water industry are many and varied. One of the biggest challenges is the aging infrastructure of the water system. Hansen believes we have to start talking about the price tag and where the money is going to come from, given that estimates for upgrades in the United States are exceeding $250 billion. Almost daily, he says, he reads reports regarding water mains and sewers collapsing in major cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta.

“(Our) infrastructure is failing. People don’t understand the physical costs. Systems need to be replaced,” Hansen says. “We have talked about having somewhere north of $500 million in assets (for his employers’ system). If something big enough were to happen (to the wastewater system), we would have to replace it.”

The lack of money to do these big repair projects is frustrating as is the lack of public awareness of how the wastewater industry and its systems function.

“My big takeaway is the public saying we are spending all this money on what you do, and we aren’t seeing any of it put to use. But we totally have to invest in wastewater to ensure quality,” he explains.

At the same time though, Hansen believes that even if unlimited monies were available, it would not necessarily fix the issues the industry is facing: “I don’t think throwing money at a problem ever fixes it. We need the general public to do their part too, like not putting trash down the drain.”

“Take a problem like replacing piping in a city. A municipality could decide to choose cure in place piping, or a trenchless pipe installation — both cheaper than open cut,” he says. “Open cut also means digging up streets, and raises the issue of finding a different problem needing a different solution. There are ways to do this effectively and efficiently, and still be cost conscious.”


One significant opportunity is identifying and using the resources that exist in the wastewater his plant treats.

In India, they mine out the organic solids from the water streams, and dry it to form briquettes they use to heat hen houses. Take fertilizer for instance. All that comes out in the sewer pipe but we don’t mine it out. Every plant should be able to remove the phosphorus and nitrogen. Why do we need all the fertilizer plants mining it out of the ground when it is already in the wastewater supply?”

In fact, it is those elements which is making wastewater recycling so successful in California. Hansen created his blog, RecycledH2O, to help people find filling sites for free recycled water. With the drought in California, water is at a premium. The recycled water has been hugely successful, particularly because it works so well with feeding plants. “The compounds are already in the water so the uptake to the plant is instantaneous, compared to (commercial fertilizer).”



Hansen believes learning from each other’s experiences in the industry is critical. He encourages operators to visit different plants so they can open their minds to other solutions.

“Share that knowledge; video it; take pictures; talk about it online; talk about it with your friends. A problem in Florida may be the same problem in Seattle or Toronto or New York. We are all dealing with the same material coming down the pipe.”

He points to Flint as a good example where collaboration could reap huge results: “I think the best minds in the industry should get together and say ‘Here’s Flint with this problem. Can we figure out a solution?’ and ‘let’s do it elsewhere.’”

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