Confessions of a Water Treater

This blog continues my reminisces from over 42 years of working in the fascinating world of water treatment. My particular area of that field is known as “industrial water treatment” which distinguishes it from municipal water treatment. My world involves steam boilers, cooling systems, closed hot and cold circuits, process waters, Legionella and Pseudomonas control and a host of other fascinating subjects.

This blog is not a technical one, it is more about interesting happenings…

As I have said elsewhere, I started in the early days of the “new era” in water treatment…1980. Solid chemicals, powders and black magic were a thing of the past. The 1980’s brought new chemistries and technologies, staff with science degrees and a new optimism

One of these new chemistries was a biocide that was particularly good at removing biofouling. A large wooden cooling tower on a chemical manufacturing site in the Northeast of England had developed a large “boil” on its side. The wood had warped out of shape presumably because of the large amount of biological growth in the cooling tower.

This new biocide had excellent biodispersing biocide so we used it everywhere to clean up cooling systems. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the biodispersal properties was that it foamed…rather a lot, which we didn’t find out until too late.

Seeing this “boil” on the side of the cooling tower we decided that we had a solution so we dosed up the cooling tower accordingly and left site, expecting that when we came back a week later the cooling tower would be now magically cleaned. However, we didn’t know about an underground sump in the service yard next to the offices.

The sump had a lot of agitation as the water entered it, which led to the biocide foaming, so much so that the foam lifted the inspection hatch and started to pour forth across the service yard. As this happened overnight the foam’s steady march across the yard wasn’t noticed until the following morning when the staff returned to find their fork lift truck, which had been parked in the yard overnight, was now submerged in a wall of foam. The foam had also crept up to the door to the adjacent building and prevented access to the building.

A panic phone call to our office followed and it became all hands on deck with drums of antifoam and a rush to the site to clean up, which we eventually managed.

Obviously, we expected a severe dressing down but as it turned out the “boil” had been lanced, in that the biocide did its job and the biofouling was cleared, so our dressing down turned into a job well done…well nearly.

I’ve already described company cars in the early 1980’s with one of their features being individually locked doors resulting in it being very easy to lock the doors whilst leaving your car keys inside. This happened to me on my first day out with my boss’s new boss which resulted in him having to stand there in the freezing cold tutting and foot tapping whilst I had to quickly learn a new skill of breaking into a car using packing case strapping. For the next few years  I had secreted about my car a length of packing case strapping so that if it ever happened again I would be suitably “tooled up” to break in to my car.

The most interesting things happen when you are out with somebody else. One day in Hartlepool I was with my colleague rooting around the steam boiler house which unfortunately had no lights available at the back of the boiler. My colleague went searching for something, I know not what, behind the boiler when all of a sudden there was a yelp… Rushing to the side of the boiler I found my colleague limping out from behind the boiler with a shoe missing. He told me that there was a leak of heavy fuel oil behind the boiler which he didn’t see until it was too late. He stepped in to the leak and the thick, tarry oil, grabbed hold of his shoe, which being a slip on shoe was sucked from his foot. I must admit it took me a long time to stop laughing at the look on his face as he limped, one-shoed from behind the boiler as I think they were his favourite shoes.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

On another trip out with a colleague, actually the same colleague as the shoe incident, we visited the boiler house of a Category A prison in the Northeast. Something you need to know is that boiler houses can be very noisy places and that this particular boiler house had inmates who worked there. My colleague was testing the boiler water and couldn’t hear me talking to him. He was part way through the testing for phosphate using a comparator so was facing away from me and looking into the light as required by the test. He still couldn’t hear me, so I walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. I should say that my colleague is of a nervous disposition which I wasn’t aware of until he dropped the comparator in shock and span round with his fist flying which just missed the end of my nose. It turned out that he thought an inmate was after him and he thought he would get the first punch in, being a Category A prison!

Category A prisons can be daunting places and you can be met with wolf-whistles and worse from the inmates as you walk around the site, however this was nothing in comparison to a visit to a suit making factory where all the machinists were women. The comments from the machinists as I walked across the shop floor there was enough to make me blush as I kept my gaze on the back of the site engineer as I followed him, certainly worse that the prison visit.

In 1983 I was visiting a high security site, not a prison this time, again with a colleague and we were sat in the engineer’s office when the fire alarm went off. We were actually below ground and were told that the engineer had to go and attend to the fire so we were to stay in his office. As it was a secure site, and we were not allowed to wander unescorted, he locked us into the office as he left.

We sat there, worried in case the fire spread to where we were sat, we must have been sat there for an hour listening to the fire alarm going on and off. Occasionally the fire alarm would stop, and we would relax only to hear the fire alarm restart again. This must have happened three or four times with us becoming increasingly worried about our safety. Eventually the engineer returned to his office and relayed the tale of what had happened. The office we were in was next to the air conditioning plant ductwork and there was work being carried out to remove the ductwork which involved using oxyacetylene torches. Unfortunately, the flame had set light to a filter battery which set the fire alarm off. Each time the fire was put out and the air conditioning was restarted it fanned the embers and restarted the fire. All of this was happening just the other side of a partition wall from where we were locked in an office. That was too close for comfort.

Life in water treatment is never dull, I’ve certainly enjoyed every minute of it.

Collaton Consultancy Limited provide training, consultancy, expert witness services, in all things industrial water treatment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.