OSWEGO – There weren’t many trees, and so, not a lot of wood, across the Great Plains of the 19th century. But there were a lot of buffalo. And so, necessity being the mother of invention, and heat being a necessity, the Plains Indians discovered the heating properties of buffalo dung.
Fast forward to Oswego of the 1970s and the then newly-built westside wastewater treatment plant. Sure, there were plenty sources of heat available in those days. But one thing a sewage treatment plant has that most other places don’t is pretty close to what the Plains Indians had a hundred years before. They called it “buffalo chips” or “meadow muffins” or “Plains oak” or “nik-nik.” In a sewage treatment plant they call it sludge.
They used to boil that sludge and later incinerate it down to ash. They don’t do that anymore, but the process certainly gave off a lot of heat, and for the building itself, in the midst of cold Oswego winters, that was a lot of warmth. So, who needed a great, and probably expensive, heating system?
Those days, however, are over. Incinerating sludge and spewing that ash out into Oswego’s air, is surely no longer acceptable. Today, Oswego spins that sludge in centrifuges to remove as much moisture as possible, then consolidates it and trucks it out to the Bristol Hill landfill in Volney in a trade whereby Bristol Hill takes Oswego’s sludge, and Oswego takes and treats some of the county’s chemical waste.
“When we used to burn sludge, we didn’t really count on the building heat as much as we do now,” said Sixth Ward Councilor Ron Tesoriero. “We don’t burn sludge anymore. The sludge is taken offsite. So, the boilers don’t operate ‘cause we don’t need them to operate, so for heat in the building, we’re more reliant on the hydronics system now than they ever were.”
Today’s is undoubtedly a much cleaner and healthier process. It is also undoubtedly a much colder one. And though most of us never give two seconds thought to sewage treatment plants in our daily lives, we do need to consider this: people work there. The remaining, minimal, original heating system can’t really keep up with the weather here, the system is 50 years old besides, and parts for repairs are becoming hard to find.
“This project is primarily focused at addressing the heating system and ventilation system for the wastewater treatment plant,” said the city’s recently-appointed City Engineer Jeffrey Hinderliter. “A number of years ago, they put in new boilers, but didn’t upgrade any of the piping in between. So, you have the boiler and then you have these ceiling-mounted radiators, essentially, with fans that push the heat into the rooms, and they’ve had a chronic problem of those units just either stopping working or leaks developing. So, this project seeks to overhaul that entire system, put in new boilers, put in new piping, put in new heaters, and also, update the ventilation for the building.”
And that’s the other half of the issue. In the winter, you need heat. But in a plant whose main reason for being is the processing of sewage, you need air-conditioning all year long.
“You can imagine that a wastewater treatment plant smells pretty ripe at times,” said Hinderliter, “and that can be difficult to work in. Our facilities have the administrative office spaces attached to the treatment buildings, and so, sometimes those spaces can get pretty ripe, pretty difficult to deal with. So, part of this project is to also address the ventilation of the building.”
Only two companies bid on this project: J & A Mechanical Contractors, Inc., of Oswego, and Ontario HVAC Solutions, Inc., of Dexter, NY, about eight miles northwest of downtown Watertown. J & A’s bid came in at $606,000. Ontario HVAC Solutions bid $681,000.
And so, as part of its commitment to maintaining its city-owned facilities, Oswego’s Common Council, at its Jan. 13 meeting, approved J & A’s bid to install a new hot-water heating and air-conditioning system in the Westside Wastewater Treatment Plant. Some of the preliminary demolition work can begin any time now, but the majority of the new installation will take place once the weather turns warmer and the heat in the plant can be shut off.
The existing system does actually still work. But it works far from well. Hinderliter says it works “intermittently.” One room can be 84 degrees, and the room next to it can be 60, he said.
“The system is out of kilter. And that’s really the reason that’s driving this. You can’t have that. It just needs to be corrected,” Hinderliter said.
The air-conditioning system is made up of multiple units. Presently, Hinderliter said “some work well, some don’t. We’re not air-conditioning the entire facility.”
Both Hinderliter and Tesoriero believe the project will be completed this year. Tesoriero estimated it’ll take three months, start to finish.
For now, not only can some of the demolition get started, but some of the specialty items needed for this kind of project can also soon be ordered.
So, for instance, Hinderliter noted, “This is considered an industrial environment, so, the various fans and parts that are exposed to the air need to be corrosion-resistant. So, that stuff will have to be coated.” Those kinds of parts aren’t just sitting on shelves, ready to go, said Hinderliter. They have to be specially ordered, and that can take four to six weeks.
This project was put together by Brown and Caldwell, a national engineering and design firm headquartered in CA with an office in Syracuse.
“It’s a project that’s well overdue,” said Tesoriero.
Hinderliter, 35, has had years of experience as a professional engineer, a title earned only after earning a bachelor of science degree from an accredited school, in his case, SUNY Polytechnic, followed by six years working under another engineer. Only then can you take the exam to get your license. Hinderliter’s been a licensed professional engineer since 2014. He worked in Utica for the NY state Department of Transportation for 11 years and the state Department of State for two.
But this is Hinderliter’s first big project in Oswego.
“It’s a good project,” he said. “It’s something that needed to be done. It’s part of our commitment to investing in our city-owned properties and our infrastructure and making sure that we’re doing good housekeeping. This is part of that commitment and what we want to do.”