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Water-Treatment-Plant Operator


Water is a big issue these days. Bottled water, spring water, water contamination, E. coli, tap water . . . it is important to think about where the water we drink comes from. It is unlikely that anyone would go to their neighborhood fountain and take a sip, however is that water any different than the H2O that comes out of the tap? How safe is it to drink? What happens to it before it gets into the faucets and where does it go when it is poured down the drain? All of these questions are very important to ask, as people should be aware of what they put into their bodies.

Water treatment plant operators monitor and operate control systems and equipment in water purification and treatment plants to regulate the treatment and distribution of water. It is their job to make sure the water people drink is pure and free of chemicals. As water flows into the treatment plant from rivers and wells, it is chemically treated and filtered, then distributed into the community.

Each city and town has their own methods of water treatment and different regions have differing standards. However, all plant operators have the same goal in mind: to clarify, purify and disinfect surface or well water for human consumption. Their duties and responsibilities vary depending on the size and complexity of the plant.

In larger plants, for example, water treatment plant operators are often assigned to a particular task or station. In small plants, they may also operate a water distribution, wastewater treatment and wastewater collection system as well. A significant proportion of those employed in this field work in small towns or villages where they are expected to work on street and utility maintenance (i.e. water and sewer line repair). This may involve pick and shovel work as well as machine operation such as pneumatic jack hammer, grader and backhoe.

Water treatment plant operators must make sure the machines and processes are properly functioning. They operate feeding devices, read meters and gauges and adjust controls as necessary. They also make minor repairs to valves, pumps and other equipment. Water treatment plant operators collect samples daily for chemical and bacterial analysis. Since the treatment machines are not designed to eliminate every kind of amoeba, antibiotic or disease that enters our water system, the plant operators have to constantly do special tests on the water. If they neglect this duty and there turns out a certain chemical in a city's water system, there could be grave consequences.

Water treatment plant operators analyze the test results and make the required adjustments to the system. They must keep a detailed log about all of the different changes and events that take place within the treatment system and any abnormalities they find in the water. Again, duties vary, depending on the size and location of the plant and the level of certification of the worker.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Water treatment plant operators need good eyesight and color vision, with excellent hearing and manual dexterity. They are mechanically minded, have the agility required to climb ladders, and are usually in good shape. They also enjoy using tools and instruments to control systems and equipment, analyzing test results and instrument readings, and taking a methodical approach to collecting samples.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Operate and monitor computerized control systems and related equipment in water filtration and treatment plants to regulate the treatment and distribution of water
  • Read flow meters, gauges and other recording instruments to measure water output and consumption levels, bacterial content, chlorine and fluoride levels
  • Monitor and inspect plant equipment and systems to detect equipment malfunctions and to ensure plant systems are operating normally
  • Adjust controls to regulate the flow of water coming into the plant and monitor its progress through various processes
  • Collect and test water samples for chemical and bacterial content
  • Operate chemical-feeding systems
  • Analyze test results and instrument readings and make adjustments to plant equipment and systems as required
  • Complete and maintain detailed plant logs and prepare annual reports
  • Water treatment plant operators work both indoors and outdoors in sometimes noisy environments. They must take proper safety precautions to reduce the risk of injury from working with dangerous gases, open tanks, electrical equipment, chemicals, confined spaces and slippery walkways. Since treatment plants generally operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, operators may work shifts that include the graveyard shift, weekends and holidays. Longer hours may be required during spring runoff or for emergencies such as flooding or equipment failure.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Most water treatment plant operators work for municipal governments. Otherwise they are employed by regional water/wastewater boards, the federal government, private utility companies, or large industrial plants.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Advancement to supervisory positions generally requires water treatment plant operators to be certified or licensed. The level of certification required depends on the size and complexity of the treatment plant. For example, supervisors at village treatment plants may need a level one certificate, but senior supervisors at large city facilities may need a level four certificate. Advancement to management positions in large facilities may require a bachelor's degree in science or engineering.

  Educational Paths  
The educational path for water treatment plant operators requires that they take a college or industry training program in water treatment pollution control. Usually, on-the-job training is provided and previous experience as a laborer or utilities maintenance worker with the same employer may be required.

Some regions require water treatment plant operators to be certified. There are four levels of certification and each level has different education, work experience and examination requirements. The level of certification required depends on the size and complexity of the treatment plant. For example, an operator in a small rural area may only require level one certification, whereas an operator in a large urban center may require level three or four.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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