One of the things that Robert Pearson said he really enjoyed about working at the City of Lincolnton Water Treatment Plant was the puzzles he got to solve. He started working the night shift at the water treatment plant, straight out of high school, more than three decades ago. He moved his way up to the day shift, then to assistant maintenance and centrifuge operator, to the lab analysist, to superintendent, and then on up to water resources director. Now he’s the city’s utilities director over distribution and collections, the wastewater plant, the water treatment plant and the electric department.
“I don’t really like the word ‘over,’” he said. “I work with these guys. I don’t like the word ‘boss’ either. I’m with them. I’ve had bosses in my life and I’m not one.”
When Pearson first started at the water treatment plant, there was a lot more industry in the city, so they produced around 5-6 million gallons per day. The plant would run all week long but shut down over the weekends, but that’s since changed.
“We haven’t shut down the water plant in 20 years,” he said. “We discovered early on that every one of our failures, breakdowns and problems came after start-up. We found if we slowed everything down, you’d get a wonderful product (clean water).”
The Lincolnton Water Treatment Plant is doing a good job. They’ve received the AWOP (Area Wide Optimization Program which judges the cleanliness of the water) award for the past 19 consecutive years.
Also, when Pearson first started, the pH of the water was typically around 6.7, now it runs neutral most of the time. Flooding is more of a problem now than it was.
“I was hooked the second I started water treatment because it’s a puzzle that’s never ending,” he said. “You’re constantly putting that puzzle together – the chemistry of the water changes, it gets hot, it gets cold, the pH goes up and down, it gets dirty, it gets clean. I love puzzles. The thing that I love is to treat water – the night shift operator was probably the best job I’ve ever had.”
While he doesn’t get to treat water anymore, Pearson has a new set of puzzles to solve.
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he said. “That’s actually in our water treatment manual. It says at a small water treatment plant such as ours is necessary for you to be a jack of all trades, master of none. I think I embody that for sure.”
When he took over the water treatment plant, Pearson realized there was water going missing – the plant was putting out more water than what was being billed to the customer. This was one puzzle that Pearson said almost drove him crazy.
Through a joint effort with David Ramsey, now Lincolnton’s business services director, they developed and deployed smart water meters which are able to track water usage, which saves both the residents and city a considerable amount of money. Pearson is now implementing a similar meter program for electricity.
With the sewer treatment plant, one of the issues Pearson learned of when he first took it over was a lack of communications between the 19 lift stations. Staff would have to visit every lift station, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Pearson reached out to the company that did the communications for the water treatment plant to see about having a similar system installed for the lift stations.
“All alarms of failures are now emailed to the operator at home,” he said. “If something happens and they don’t get it, then the wastewater treatment plant calls the operator.”
Staff from the sewer treatment plant built and installed the communication boxes for each lift station which saved the city $175,000.
The learning curve comes with the electrical department, which is new to Pearson, but he’s already putting the puzzle pieces in place.
“I can’t walk by a puzzle, see a piece and not try to put it where it belongs,” he said. “It’s addictive