untold stories and fascinating people from the world of civil engineering. This is Episode 15,
wastewater with Maia Tatinclaux and D.J. Wacker. Inside Engineering is an RK&K podcast. Learn more at rkk.com/podcast.
And welcome back to another episode of Inside Engineering. We've got a couple of great guests with us today. To my left is D.J. Wacker. D.J., thanks for joining us. Thank you Tim. Yep. And all the way on the end, we have Maia Tatinclaux. You are welcome, also to you. Thanks for being here. Thanks Tim. I tried to jump into the next section, but I welcome you. That's a good but. You both are in our Water/Wastewater group. And you've already said some things before we started recording this morning about how much you love wastewater. So we're gonna get into that. But first, why don't you each go through and tell us what it is that you do here at RK&K. D.J. Yes. So I guess as a wastewater engineer, you basically help our clients with. Anything related to wastewater treatment, as our group likes to put it, kind of inside the fence. So once the wastewater gets to a treatment plant, we do studies. We do designs. We help with construction of upgrading, designing new features, new facilities inside of wastewater treatment plants. So what Maia and I do on a day to day basis is very similar. We communicate with our clients. We've find out their problems. We relay them back to our team and then figure out a way to actually solve those problems. So that's kind of the simplest way to put it. Without getting to any of the technical and dirty details of wastewater. Sure, no pun intended right?. No. Alright Maia, what can you add to that and or extend into some other facet of what you all do that it was something that you especially enjoy doing? Yeah. So as D.J. said, it's you know, it's all from the. From the planning stages of wastewater treatment and improvements all the way through construction. So that can range from an evaluation or a study. Like right now, we're looking for a client to see if they should just build a pumping station for a certain area and convey that wastewater to an existing plant or if they should build a whole new plant. And that's really cool because it gives us the opportunity to look at all different unit processes of the treatment train and kind of compare and see what would be best for the client. And then obviously like the best part of seeing it built and in operation at the end, that's like really when you when you get to see all your efforts realized. Sure. You just used the phrase 'treatment train'. I don't know what that means. I have some ideas in my mind. But could you could you explain what the treatment train is? Sure. So basically always water treatment plants have a certain a bunch of unit processes in series that wastewater goes through. So in the beginning you'll have screening and grit removal, which is just removing the big stuff that's in there. Then it goes through sometimes the sedimentation, sometimes straight to a activated sludge process, which is just aeration where bacteria eat up the organic matter — the bad stuff. From there it goes on to be either further treated for enhanced nutrient removal or just filter to remove any remaining suspended stuff in the water and then it gets disinfected and discharged into, generally, a receiving stream. Around here we really worry about the Chesapeake Bay, so we try to get our water really clean before it goes back into the Bay. Sure. Are there any other uses for processed waste? Yeah, I've heard some different things. So one thing that the Maya didn't mention was that when you come into the wastewater plant, there's almost like two different treatment trains. You have the liquid one, which she just explained, and then you have the solid one. So the solid one, basically all the actual solid waste that comes out from the wastewater plant, whether that's actually in the sewer pipes or developed actually grown within the treatment facility itself. And we actually employ these bacteria to biodegrade the soluble waste. And so you have these two different solid waste streams, they come together, they go through multiple different processes, thickening de-watering, stabilization to basically kill any sort of pathogens in those. And you create what's called biosolids, as we call it in our industry, formerly called sewage sludge. Biosolid sounds a lot better. It's a lot more marketable. A lot a lot better. A lot a lot more marketable. That's right. So you actually have... We work with a sub consultant that is called Material Matters and they actually market this product to be used as fertilizer, whether it's on agricultural fields or if it's processed really well and has a really fine product, a really dry product. You can actually use it on golf courses. You can use it for potting soil ployo blending, compost, a lot of different uses for it. We're actually helping a client recently with the new dryer facility we put in and that we found a landscaper that wants to buy, literally buy all of their material and use that in his fertilizer for his landscaping work. So that's something that doesn't typically happen in our industry because you would think of this solid material as waste. And anything's that waste, I have to either send it to a landfill and pay someone to take that. But we're actually, you know, designing a project that's saying, hey, we're now producing a product, a valuable product that someone wants to use and wants to pay for. That's exciting to see that level of sustainability at a wastewater treatment plant. Like you said, you wouldn't think you would just think that it's it's it's nasty, it's completely useless. We're gonna do what we can with it and and try to get that water clean again so that we can discharge it. But to actually have a product out of that that you can do something with. And they actually, I guess recently has been a shift in our industry from was formerly sewage plants then to wastewater treatment plants and now it's more so of a resource recovery facility is what people are referring it to, is not only can you recover the actual organic nutrients that are in organics and the nutrients that are within the solid waste, but you can actually extract the phosphorus out of the — soluble phosphorus that's in the water — and then harvest that, then use that or fertilizer, as well. So there's a bunch of different ways that people are doing that. And then also one way would be anaerobic digestion, which both Maia and I are very passionate about. Ok, alright. And you say I basically put all this solid waste if you don't use that for, say, fertilizer for, you know, for agricultural fields or for golf courses, whatever the end use may be, you put it in a reactor, you keep that at a hot temperatures so the bacteria are happy and they break down that solid waste and produce methane gas. You can then harvest that methane gas either for fueling, say, heating purposes or actually run it through an engine, generate electricity. We have several clients that do just that. So they actually able to generate electricity, reduce their power consumption off the grid and, you know, stable, you know, some operating costs through that. So, yeah, quite a bit more than you probably realized, right? I don't even know what to ask next because it's just like a thousand things I want to know.
Maia, he can you tell us more about. I just want to know more. I need to know more. Maia, what else can you add to that? I think the sustainability element is really interesting, especially for people that might be looking to get into this industry. I don't know. Tell me tell me something that really excites you about what you do. D.J. I just mentioned mentioned something, but you go for it. Well, anaerobic digesters are particularly interesting because they are an energy positive process. So wastewater treatment plants, you use a lot of energy in treating the wastewater. When you're aerating the water treatment train, like I said, that uses a tremendous amount of energy. But the interesting thing about anaerobic digesters is that you have to put some energy into it through pumping and then mixing and heating. But the amount of energy that you get out through the methane gas that D.J. mentioned is much more. So it's an energy positive process, which is great. And then I can go into all the configurations of reactors and the way you can optimize that process to best suit that plant or that client. And then just like kind of interesting technologies that have kind of sprung up, because now I think a lot of research has been put into how do we how do we get just a little bit more bio gas out of it every time to try to to try to optimize it even further, rather. Yeah. So there's been some some new developments and how to do anaerobic digestion for that. Interesting. So. So a typical. If we're talking about a typical water/wastewater treatment plant or. Water reclamation. Water reclamation facility,. Or resource reclamation or resource recovery facility. There's a couple of different acrynoyms for it. Well, there's a couple in the Baltimore area. But how
many people are typically being served by that facility? Let's see. I guess in the Baltimore metro area, there are two different facilities in those probably serve, what, maybe over a million people between Baltimore County, Baltimore City, parts of small parts of Anne Arundel and in Howard County. But you have I would say it varies. One of our smaller clients on the eastern shore, they may be serving at most 500 to 1000 people. OK. And you're you know, you have less than a million gallons of wastewater treat their day actually less than a half million gallons, which on our scale it's typically pretty small. But then you have communities that are anywhere from, say, 20 to 30 thousand people. And you know, of those might be a couple million gallons of wastewater a day that they're producing. And typically in those kind of environments, Maia mentioned that it's really energy intensive. You're oftentimes the wastewater facility in a, say, a town of that size 20, 30 thousand people, the wastewater facility is going to be actually the highest consumer of electricity in that town, assuming there's not going to be any sort of really large type of manufacturing or industry there. There's typically the most power consumption coming out of those facilities. That processing takes that much energy. And I guess that's then why the anaerobic digesting stuff is so exciting. Did I say that right? Yeah. Yeah. You got it. You nailed it Tim. Yeah. That that makes sense now why having that positive energy process when you have something that's drawing so much energy. What would happen in one of those facilities if everybody flush the toilets at once. They
would be just fine. Yeah, I would say that's actually not that that big of an issue really. OK. You would say if everyone decided to take a shower at the same time, then you'd have to consider, well, if everyone shower at the same time, then does the water supply system actually have enough water to supply all that that demand right there. But as far as rainwater is actually the biggest issue. OK. For a wastewater treatment plant, so we talk about dry weather conditions, which is just, you know, actual wastewater coming from businesses, homes, industries that are actually meant to go in the sewer system. And then you have wet weather conditions where you get a lot of infiltration from saturated ground flows into the sewers. It ends up at the plant. And there's a variety of things that I guess different clients of ours, whether it's equalization based and saying, alright, I'm getting a huge influx of wastewater right now. I need to divert this around my treatment drain, put it in equalization basin, and then slowly go back into treatment or sometimes just kind of have to not necessarily bypass, but you have to basically hold on and say, alright, I'm going to try to maintain all my processes right now, just get it through, treat it the best I can. And then, you know, get back to normal treatment. There's a wide variety of things that our clients have to do. But rain, especially in the past year or so with I think it was Baltimore's wettest season last year. So wastewater flows of all of our clients were very, very high. It was pretty difficult for a lot of them actually meet their permits. So there's some of the things that we actually had to help them with, especially with on the biosolid side, many of them actually do employ, I mentioned land application of these residual waste. And so with wet on the ground, you actually can't land apply. MDE or other state agency like the EPA has limitations as far as when you can land apply the biosolids. And so when it's wet out and with all the rain that we had, there were just stockpiles of all these biosolids of different facilities. So we actually were helping our many clients figure out where can we send those facilities, compost facilities, you know, landfills, places that we typically don't look to for a lot of our clients. But had to look, I think, outside the box in that situation there. Sure. Well you both are clearly very passionate about that wastewater, which is great. And I want to know how
you got to be so passionate. What has led you to to this point in your career. Maia, you want to go first? Well, I wasn't always a wastewater engineer. I actually started as just like an environmental scientist. I worked for the EPA for a few years, and that was not for me. It was just not. It was a little administrative.
And I was looking for something more technical. I also spent some time in Africa. I did the Peace Corps there and sanitation was by far the biggest public health issue that they dealt with there are much more than like Malaria or AIDS or other diseases that you hear a lot about. So
when I was kind of looking for this career change, my mid 20s, late 20s, I decided that this is where I wanted to go. I went to grad school for environmental engineering and then I got a job at a treatment plant, which was the dream. Absolutely. I love this. This episode is so amazing. I love it. The dream. And I worked there for a few years and I was great. And I learned a lot about that treatment plant specifically on their biosolids processing. Everything about those different sludges that D.J. mentioned. I knew everything about those and how to treat them and how to process them. But then I wanted to learn a little more about all aspects of wastewater treatment and how other plants do it. And so actually, I met D.J. there. And when I told him I was kind of looking for a change, he was like, Oh I work for RK&K, I think you should think about it. It's good over here. Here I am. Here you are. Nice job. D.J., how about yourself? Yes. So I guess I when I was first going to college, I was thinking mechanical engineering, nothing to do with wastewater. Never, never even crossed my mind. I grew up on a septic tank. I never thought about wastewater treatment. Just wasn't it wasn't a thing at all that I ever crossed my mind. But I got an internship here when I was a junior in college. I
was just exposed to wastewater. So it was kind of interesting to me all the different biological and chemical processes that go into it. And so when I applied to grad schools, I applied both mechanical engineering and environmental engineering. Truth be told, the reason I picked environmental engineering. I got a scholarship to go environmental. But I'm glad I made that choice because I ended up really enjoying it. I actually operated small reactors for like two years straight throughout grad school. I learned a lot. Not probably as much as Maia did really operating a multi-million gallon reactors at her facility. And but no, I learned a lot about the actual bacteria that we employed do all these different treatments, whether it's breaking down organics, producing them, methane gas, converting nitrogen, measuring gas to get it out the water, absorbing phosphorus to get it out of the water. There's a lot of different biological components that go into it. And it was very interesting to me. And so end up, you know, going full time here in RK&K after interning for a couple of years after grad school and yeah,
just kind of hit the ground running. And here we are between, you know, studies, designs, construction. So. Yeah. It's been fun so far. I want you to think back, both of you, back to the beginning of the career, which we just talked about. What's something that you wish you had known earlier on in your career? Maybe a little a little snippet of what would be advice for for someone listening. I would say public speaking.
At least from what we do, we get engaged by clients a lot and as well as if you give us we go to different conferences, whether it's local or national. We do speak at those on occasion. So you're talking to your peers, you're talking potential clients, engineers, professors, and you're speaking to a lot of different people. And I would say that's something that I've developed I've gotten better at in my career. But it's something I wish I probably would have focused on early on through college, through high school, things like that that I really didn't think about as you think engineer, you don't think public speaking. We hear that a lot. But it's a lot of what we do. And when we have to go in front of clients, explain how we're going to you know, how we're actually going to perform their project. You know, you have to make sure you're, you know, able to do that. You're not too nervous. A little bit nervous is good. You're going to be want to be sharp. But that's something I think I would have liked to, you know, kind of going on a little bit earlier in my career. Oh, nice. That's good. Yeah, we hear we hear a lot of people talking about those kinds of unexpected things that they didn't know when getting in engineering and public speaking, that's a good one. Maia, how about you? Well, personally, I wish I had chosen engineering a little earlier. My guess the advice would be to push herself. Technically, I think it's something that I just didn't even consider. I was like, I can't do that. I can't be an engineer. But then when it came down to it, I was kind of like, Oh, why not? And so then, you know, I didn't I think that engineering school is tough, technically, but I think it's tough for just about everybody. And you work hard and you get through it. That's good. And just add on to the public speaking thing. The other part that we do a lot of is writing and I think that I had no idea how much writing I would do, especially in consulting. And so that is that is huge. I think my writing has improved a lot just in the two years that I've been here. But it was really rusty when I got here, if I hadn't probably used it since college and grad school, just writing my thesis. But that was that. So I think focusing on those like things that we think of as English skills or liberal arts or whatever are really important. It matters, because you have to sell the project, you have to sell the team doing it like why. You have to convince the client. Explain to them why you're the best team, the best fit for the project. And you can't do that if you can't write or if you can't speak in front of them about it and explain it to them. That's those are those are both really good pieces of advice if you're listening or watching out there, take that one to heart. Both of those. Impromptu poll here for the two of you, which water is the better water, wastewater or drinking water? Wastewater. Wastewater. Definitely wastewater. Okay. I don't know why I'm not surprised. You want to know why? Yeah, of course I want to know why. Tell us why, please. Alright. Well, I guess I'll give my my short answer in that, you know, there's really nothing to water. It's you know, you take out some some particulate matter, you know, maybe you put in some minerals, whatever it may be. But it's just water
comes in, goes into a couple of tanks, settles some solids out. And that's really about it. There's there's a there's no fluctuation flows because you're typically, you know you have a community. You know, they need eight million gallons a day during the wintertime, more the summertime, they use 10 million gallons a day. It's a — not to talk down to
any of our water engineers. Right. Of course not. They can be on for the answer. They're waiting for you outside the studio right now. But no, it's it's just there's a lot so many different facets in unit processes that go into waste water that are just simply not there on the water side. And so, I mean, it's kind of I would say there are a lot more wastewater projects out there than water because of that, you have to upgrade facilities because equipment goes down. There's a lot more equipment involved. I mean, I would say one of the different things that we do, not just our wastewater treatment, but as wells are municipal engineers and you've waters that we use a lot of equipment. Well, a lot of pumps, blowers, screening equipment, valves, piping that not all the transportation people even realize. We design
systems that have power controls and things that actually need to be, you know, actuated at the right time, opened, closed, all these differents things that that go into actually designing these processes. It's pretty intricate and it's challenging at times, but that's kind of the fun of it. It's actually problem solving, figuring out ways of how you are you one going to fit this in this confined space and then how are you actually going to make it work and operate so that it's user friendly. So this will kind of the challenges that we go through. And I think it's kind of getting off task here. But there's a lot more of that in wastewater than there is in water. So I mentioned that beginning to be a short answer. But that was quite a long answer. So, you know, there we are. I mean, I have to say, I've always the couple of facilities that I've
been lucky enough to to go out to. Lucky enough, huh?. You liked that 6 A.M. flyover? The sunrise drone flight. That produced a really nice video. Yeah. Uh huh. Thank you for coming out with us too. But those are massive facilities like it, at least from my perspective. Like because you think of wastewater treatment, like you said, it's much more complex. I think of it. You know, you you flush your toilet. It goes to the place. It goes to a screen. You have whatever it is, it's done. But now, I mean, how many acres was that facility on? Do you have an idea. I mean, it's huge. I would say it's a couple hundred, but I don't know how many. That's OK. You don't have to know exactly. But the point is, it's big. Like it would take you a few minutes to drive from one end of it to the other? You know, and these are large places. And because of all that equipment, all that piping that you mentioned. Maia, do you have a complimentary answer to why wastewater is better? I mean, I I agree with what D.J. said. I think ultimately it's just more complicated. And so that's why it's more interesting because that's wastewater is just more challenging. There can be stuff in it that comes in. It can have
pathogens, corrosive gases.
It's just a more complicated substance than pulling water from, say, a river. And so there's more things
that you have to do to treat it, to get it clean. Now, I don't want to disparage drinking water too much, like, I enjoy it. I drink it every day. I'm happy to have it. We're drinking some right now. So it's very important. I just think it's more interesting to design wastewater treatment facilities than water treatment. Fair enough. So all the water engineers out there. Know, we'll have we'll have one of you on the episode soon and you can defend yourselves. What's
something that we haven't talked about yet that the two of you would like to talk about? I would say when I was thinking about it, we were kind of going over this and all the different complex systems that we have to deal with is I would say Maia and I are lucky in the fact that where we are is the Chesapeake Bay region and that we deal with some of the most stringent limits as far as organics, nutrients, specifically nitrogen, phosphorus. So we're kind of always on, not necessarily the cutting edge of technologies of treatment trains, but as far as Maryland's concerned, it has some of the most stringent limits. So that means that the systems that we're employing here compared to rest of the country are pretty technologically advanced and they are some of the best treatment systems in the United States. There's places, Florida has pretty low limits. Much of obviously you have mentioned the Chesapeake Bay. So Virginia as well, some places out in the Midwest. But for the most part, Chesapeake Bay region is really, really tight. And so it's a lot of different projects that go into making sure we're able to meet those limits. And it's kind of been a wide variety of projects that we're able to get our hands on. So that's something that's pretty cool and been fortunate. I'd say to be in this region. And that's all because of the Bay. And it's a sensitivity of it. Yeah. Trying to limit the nutrients that go into the Bay. So as you probably know, it's they have issues with beautification or dead zones in the Bay. And so MDE or EPA have really regulated the amount of nutrients that that all point sources, which wastewater treatment plants are, can put into the bay. And so that's like regulated on a pound per day basis. So basically that means you have to go down to a really low concentration and as D.J. said that keeps us on that pretty much on the cutting edge of technology for specifically nutrient removal. I mean, so now it's interesting because to limit the nutrients going into the Bay, you have to look at other sources like stormwater, runoff, farms, things like that. And so I feel like on the wastewater side, we've we've done a lot. But there's other contributors that also need to work on treating their runoff or the water that goes into the Bay to continue that improvement at the Bay's health. Sure. But it's exciting to be sort of at the forefront of of doing well in that area, you know. Of the nutrients that you're putting into the Bay. That's that's pretty cool. Mm hmm. It was actually I think it was 2004 is when leave I believe it's Maryland implemented, it was called the Chesapeake Bay Flush Fee. And so at that point, they started taxing everyone in Maryland, whether you had sewer system or not. So if it was if you had it, you know, if you flushed and went to a wastewater treatment facility, you paid X amount. I think it was like 25 dollars a year. And that was just tacked onto your sewer bill each month. If you didn't, it would go onto your property taxes. If you even if you're on a septic system. And that whole idea is because if you have a septic system, you have water, it's blowing out of your septic system. It's going into the ground, eventually getting into the Bay still. So that's why just because you didn't, you know, weren't on an actual sewer treatment facility, you still. You were still contributing. And so that funded a lot of different projects through the mid to early 2010s. And so that's why a lot of projects were able to happen and have in the past 5-10 years. So that's a great sounds like a great good use of the tax dollars. Yeah. Alright. We've arrived at that point in the show where you're each gonna give us your pick of the week. Dun dun dun dun. I should have I should have had music cued up for that. I need a little a little ditty. Maia, your pick of the week is what? My pick of the week is the Suspended Brewing. It's a little brewery in Pig Town. It's right by my house. So that makes it really convenient to me. Right on Washington Boulevard. It's a little brewery that was started about a year and a half ago, I think, by UMBC grads. And it's real nice. It used to be a theater. They have these big chandeliers still. They have old marquee up. Everything they brew there they serve there in their tap room. Super family friendly. There's always people with dogs and kids and kids running around. And it's just like a nice atmosphere. You can bring food in if you want. They also have pop ups there. They had last night. They have other stuff. So it's just like a nice place to hang out. They're open on the weekends, I think Thursday through Sunday nights. Suspended Brewing. Suspended Brewing. Ok. D.J.? I will say, Raven's Tailgates. Raven's Tailgate. Ok, yeah. I mean, the Ravens are right now the best team in football. 12-2, you know, take care of the Browns this week. But no, I tell you, it's I live a stone's throw away from Ravens Stadium, so I would cement almost every tailgate whether I go to the game or not. Always fun as far as just everyone's excited, especially this season with how good we've been. And, you know, got Lamar leading all the way right now. And yeah. So I would say Raven's tailgates. Tailgates are a good time. Alright. Well, good. Thanks to both of you for coming by. This has been a lot of fun. I've learned a lot: treatment trains, anaerobic digesters, and why wastewater is better than drinking water. So it's a solid episode. Thank you all for joining us for another episode of Inside Engineering. We released a new one every Tuesday, so be sure to subscribe. You can check us out at our home at rkk.com/podcast where you can watch or listen or subscribe on any of the channels that we're on. Also, we have a short anonymous survey there, you can rate this episode and tell us how we're doing. We love your feedback, so we appreciate that. D.J., thanks for stopping by. Thank you. Maia. Thanks for being here. Thanks, Tim. We'll see you all on another episode of Inside Engineering.
Pick of the Week
Maia’s pick is Suspended Brewing, a local brewery in Baltimore’s Pigtown.
DJ’s pick is Baltimore Raven’s tailgates. He lives near M&T Stadium and with the Raven’s being on fire this season, he’s enjoying the tailgates more than ever.