Why the SFPUC Takes Advantage of Dry Weather to Prepare for the Rainy Season

“We bring our trucks out that have cranes on the back end. We carefully lift the wastewater pumps from 30 feet down. It takes precision, practice and most of all, teamwork to do it.”

Julio “Jules” Fontes is a Senior Stationary Engineer for the SFPUC’s Wastewater Enterprise at the Southeast Treatment Plant. Every year during the dry, summer months, a team of SFPUC Wastewater workers come together to perform preventative maintenance work on the pump stations during the “dry weather”. Fontes describes the effort as bringing together various experts of the trade, to make sure key equipment is maintained. One way to look at it, is preparing for the next big storm.

“You can’t do what we’re doing out here when it’s raining. It doesn’t work that way. The pump station would be filled with stormwater, and it’s not safe to do the work when it rains. That’s why we do this work during the summer. You’ll have vac-con truck drivers, laborers, planners, engineers, electricians, maintenance and operations staff all standing by and having key roles, to get the work done,” explained the 17-year veteran working at wastewater plants.

The preventative maintenance efforts take place at all 18 wastewater pump stations throughout San Francisco, and each wastewater treatment plant can have several pump stations to check. Depending on what piece of machinery or equipment is being inspected, it can take a crew of up to eight to make it all happen. Crews are doing overall maintenance and have a checklist of items to go through, for example, checking for levels of coolant and oil, inspecting the pumps for wear and tear, checking electrical cable for damage, and fixing or replacing anything that needs it. Alfredo Ramirez, another Stationary Engineer working out of the Southeast Treatment Plant, supporting the preventative maintenance efforts, has 13 years under his belt. He explains, “there is strategy behind every moving part”.

The SFPUC’s crews make sure nothing stands in the way of water flowing freely through the pumps and to the wastewater treatment plants.

“Everything happens simultaneously. While someone is using the crane to get equipment unhooked, others are getting ready to wash off the equipment. We make sure every check box is done so safely. As operators, we are monitoring all activity and documenting it,” explained Ramirez. “We are doing one station at a time and depending on how old or new the equipment is, each pump station can have different needs. We know what to look for and take great care to ensure each inspection is done thoroughly.”

SFPUC Wastewater Enterprise Planner, Lolita Wilkins works behind the scenes to plan, schedule and communicate cross functionally with the other teams. Months prior to the start of the annual preventative maintenance efforts, she’d already be laying out plans on how to efficiently coordinate all of the inspections with the various teams. This type of organization is key, yet a difficult task, as each team has another set of their “day-to-day” work that they have to prioritize.

Before the pumps are put back into place, vactor crews come in with their trucks to suck up any debris and sand that may have made it in there. The crew makes sure nothing stands in the way of water flowing freely through the pumps and to the wastewater treatment plants. The SFPUC’s three wastewater plants collectively treat 250 million gallons of combined sanitary sewage and also stormwater during the rainy season. That is equivalent to 250 large swimming pools. No small feat for the pump stations to handle, unless crews maintain on a regular basis – just like this summer, and every summer.

“Heavy rain brings into the pumps things you wouldn’t think of, like rags, anything littered on the street, grit and sand, so we have to make sure we clean all that up. Of course, some stations that process more wastewater with more flows, need to be checked more often, and we would plan on additional maintenance for those,” exclaimed Fontes.

For the week that this crew is scheduled to work together, they work as one, putting their hard hats together, knowing they can’t afford for any wastewater treatment plant to have to go offline during a wet weather event. During heavy rain, when it’s all hands-on deck, this team knows all too well that the job they do prevents potential issues from occurring while also protecting the environment. Ramirez gives a scenario that many people can relate to.

“It’s like demoing a wall of your home and finding dry rot. The more you open up that wall, the more you find the dry rot is widespread.”

Fontes, who was born and raised in San Francisco explains that he has a sense of responsibility to take care of the City in which he grew up and that he loves dearly.

“Even though we haven’t seen a lot of rain last year, we still have to be ready. We just never know what mother nature has in store for us.”

This team works hard to get through all the preventative maintenance they need to before the weather changes. But for many of them, it’s all in a hard day of work. Fontes and Ramirez explain, the crew enjoys the work they do, knowing they are protecting San Francisco, and the health of those who live, work or play in the City.

The SFPUC’s wastewater crews work hard to get through all the preventative maintenance they need to before the weather changes.