Sewer Simulator Shines a Light on Underground Infrastructure

June 30, 2017

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Members of the public enter the Sewer Simulator created by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD; Cleveland) to learn about wastewater treatment systems. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Elting, NEORSD.

Members of the public enter the Sewer Simulator created by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD; Cleveland) to learn about wastewater treatment systems. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Elting, NEORSD.

Two wastewater operators from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD; Cleveland) had a bright idea — if the public can’t go underground to see wastewater treatment systems, then these systems must be brought to the public. To spread the word, Pete Lehman and Todd Andexler, NEORSD field tech operators, transformed a metal storage container into a Sewer Simulator.

“The purpose of the Sewer Simulator is to educate the public about the work needed to protect public health and waterways,” Lehman said. “It’s a great public education tool and helps to tell the story about what it takes to treat wastewater.”

The hands-on, educational display features props and minature landscapes that show how water reaches the sewer system. Photo courtesy of Elting, NEORSD.

The hands-on, educational display features props and miniature landscapes that show how water reaches the sewer system. Photo courtesy of Elting, NEORSD.

The educational display features props that simulate wastewater treatment systems and signs that describe the process. Using a pipe, two water tanks, paneling, pumps, plumbing materials, and lumber, the operators created a system that shows viewers what common wastewater infrastructure looks like and how it works. The display’s pump system runs a continuous cycle of water to show how this infrastructure carries water underground.

In 2014, the NEORSD Communications and Community Relations team became inspired after seeing the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN; Pittsburgh) virtual sewer during an open house. ALCOSAN created their system more than 10 years ago to “give the public an idea of what it’s like in a sewer, and it is popular,” said Jeanne Clark, public information officer for ALCOSAN. The authority also used a storage container and retrofitted it to appear round and dark, with effluent water running across the bottom to create a hands-on educational experience.

NEORD operators transformed a metal storage container to have paneling and running water and give members of the public a feel for the underground infrastructure that carries wastewater to water resource recovery facilities. Photo courtesy of Elting, NEORSD.

NEORD operators transformed a metal storage container by adding paneling and running water to give members of the public a feel for the underground infrastructure that carries wastewater to water resource recovery facilities. Photo courtesy of Elting, NEORSD.

The NEORSD team asked ALCOSAN for permission to create a similar model. After getting approval, Lehman and Andexler built the simulator, which took 9 months and cost $20,000 in materials and labor. Starting in January 2015 whenever they had time during normal work hours, they worked on retrofitting an unused, rusty shipping container at the facility into an educational display.

“Our effort to make a public education tool was appreciated by both our colleagues and the general public,” Andexler said. “So, the effort and time it took to build the Sewer Simulator was well worth it.”

Both children and adults were able to learn something while touring the Sewer Simulator Earthfest 2017, held April 22. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Elting, NEORSD.

Both children and adults were able to learn something while touring the Sewer Simulator during Earthfest 2017, held April 22. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Elting, NEORSD.

The Sewer Simulator made its debut appearance at the NEORSD open house in September 2016. NEORSD also has taken the simulator to EarthFest 2017, World Water Day at the Watershed Stewardship Center (Parma, Ohio), and 4 Miles 4 Water events. It will appear once again at the NEORSD open house on Sept. 16.

“Feedback has been great,” said Jeannie Smith, manager of community and media relations for NEORSD. “It’s a fantastic public education tool as it gives individuals a better understanding of how sewers work.”

— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

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