Technology Choice – Why Grinder Pumps?

questions-687560__340Why was low pressure the technology of choice for so much of the Cudjoe Regional area?  I don’t know.  To be honest, I never really pursued the answer until recently.  I certainly questioned it but I was up to my ears in alligators at the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District).

My main concern was, and still is, the excessive financial burden placed on Key Largo by the county’s grossly unfair funding practices.  But as I read more and learn more, the more I realize that the problems with the two projects are interrelated.

As the cost of the Cudjoe project increases, the chance of funding equity for Key Largo decreases.  While the customers in Cudjoe Regional may not suffer financially on the capital cost side, who’s to say what will happen when it comes to operating costs?  At the end of the day, a financially out-of-control project of this magnitude will hurt all taxpayers.

Clearly, Key Largo acts as a slush fund of sorts for the Cudjoe Regional project.  It doesn’t take a genius to see which way the money is flowing.  If the county under-funds one area it frees up cash to go wild in another.  Not only that, the county moved aggressively to deprive its taxpayers in Key Largo of federal funding.

There were also some noteworthy maneuvers when it came to securing state funding, but that’s a story for another time.  This, to me, smacks of desperation.  The county needs money so badly, there’s no telling how low they will stoop to get it.  I’ve written extensively about the county’s misbehavior here, here, here and in many other posts.

Both Key Largo and Cudjoe Regional use low pressure systems.  The Key Largo area is served primarily by a vacuum system.  There is also a decent amount of gravity.  So what goes into choosing which system to use where?  I’ll give you the run down here.

Vacuum is typically a good choice in the Keys.  The combination of flat topography, high water table and hard digging makes gravity expensive to install and challenging to operate.  Vacuum usually makes economic sense for densely-settled single-family areas.  Much of Key Largo fits this profile.  So does Cudjoe Key, Summerland Key, and the middle area of Big Pine around US1.  A vacuum pump station costs around $1 million.  For this reason, a vacuum system isn’t usually cost competitive unless its serving 300-400 connections.  In Key Largo, gravity was used in densely settled areas where vacuum couldn’t reach or wasn’t cost competitive.

The District reluctantly came to the conclusion that low pressure was the right choice in certain situations.  Why so reluctant?  The District really disliked the idea of going on private property.  So why did they do it?  If they didn’t, these homeowners would have to provide their own on-site systems un-subsidized.  That’s a $25,000 expense.  When averaged across all the properties served, the cost of a low pressure system was about $18,000.  These customers will pay a $9,000 assessment.  I hope folks in the Cudjoe Regional make note of that.

In Key Largo, properties served by low pressure systems are isolated properties that slope away from US1 or very sparsely settled areas where vacuum won’t reach and gravity is not cost competitive or technically feasible.  The District will serve about 140-150 properties with low pressure.  Another point I want to make is that vacuum usually is not cost-competitive for properties with very high flows.  Typically you won’t use vacuum to serve large condominium complexes or hotels.  The District has a couple of these but usually a property like this will tie directly into the force main.

All that is to say, there’s a method to the madness at the District as there is with most government entities.  There’s no special love or hate for any particular technology.  The District uses what works the best in a given situation.  It seems to me, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) takes an all-or-nothing approach to technology choice.  They used vacuum in Little Venice and when they had problems there, they decided that vacuum was a problematic technology and embraced gravity as the “Cadillac” of sewer systems.

Then, so I’m told, they started having some significant problems with the gravity system at Big Coppitt that affected the performance of their wastewater treatment plant.  This, I theorize, is one of the reasons behind the sudden switch to low pressure systems.  There’s a similar pattern with the wastewater treatment plant technologies.  The FKAA is a notoriously secretive organization so we may never know the full story, but this is what I’ve been able to piece together over the years.

Another possible factor in the sudden embrace of low pressure could be the extraordinarily aggressive marketing approach taken by the manufacturer’s representative for E-One pumps.  I spoke a little bit about that in an earlier post.  I’ve provided an excerpt below.

I will say that E-One was extremely aggressive when the District was bidding its grinder pump project.  The manufacturer’s representative relentlessly lobbied the wastewater commissioners in an attempt to undermine staff’s efforts to put together a fair, competitive bid.  E-One seemed very determined to bypass the competitive bidding process.  In the end, the grinder pump purchase was competitively bid and E-One was the pump chosen, mostly due to its much lower cost. Based on that experience, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that FKAA staff was under similar pressure to sole-source E-One grinder pumps.

After two attempts, the District only got two proposals.  That was disappointing.  I had expected at least five or six.  District staff reached out to as many manufacturers as they could.  Part of the reason could be the small size and relatively isolated location of the project.  But I think some of it had to do with the shenanigans surrounding the RFP process.  If proposers think the process is tainted in some way, they are less likely to participate.  It takes too much time, effort and money to put a proposal together.  They want to know they have a fair chance.

The District actually negotiated down to the unit price secured in the FKAA’s sole source contract.  The take-away from all this is that both entities got a good price on the purchase of the grinder pumps.  The District’s RFP process, though not perfect, provides a check of sorts on the negotiated sole-source price secured by FKAA.  In light of that, it makes the behavior of the manufacturer’s representative hard for me to understand.  If you’re quoting your best price anyway, why fight so hard to avoid the RFP?  I don’t know the answer to that.  All I can do is speculate.  Perhaps the real money was to come through change orders or an operating contract?

My understanding is that the FKAA is using quadplex and triplex lift stations containing E-One pumps.  According the rumor mill, some lift stations will actually have up to eight pumps, and they are E-One pumps.  This is something I still need to confirm.  I find it very odd.  The vast majority of lift stations are duplex stations.  Why would the FKAA want to maintain four pumps when they can maintain two?  It’s double the maintenance not just for the pumps but for the control panels and other ancillary items.  Also E-One’s were designed to serve single-family homes not to be used in a gravity lift station.  What due diligence was done to make sure they will be reliable in such an application?

I’ve been gathering documents in the hope that maybe I can answer some of these questions.  Please stay tuned.

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