Water safety is top priority for City’s Erwin

Each morning for nearly 23 years, Tom Erwin arrives at the Sheffield Lake Service Garage 20 minutes or so before he must officially clock in at 7 a.m. He spends those first few minutes checking overnight emails to see what questions or concerns residents have, whether a frozen pipe, request for installation of a water meter, or a date when waterline work will begin or end on their street. He also looks at social media posts, knowing some residents ask other residents questions about various city water matters.

At 7 a.m., he drives to the city’s sewer lift stations to make sure the pumps are working properly, removing water and sewage from homes and businesses for treatment. “That is the heart of the city,” he says, adding, “If the pumps aren’t going well, we could get calls about sewer back ups.”

In recent years, the city has invested 1.5 million in improvements to the pump stations, which has resulted in far, far fewer calls about back ups.

After checking the three stations, Erwin returns to the garage because the city’s water must be tested everyday for chlorine levels and to ensure that water coming into homes and businesses is safe. He explained the readings must be carefully recorded and then reported to the state each month.

What happens next varies. Some days he is on site when the service department or contractors are digging for road repairs or replacements, making sure a waterline is not accidentally struck. He explained it is challenging because some of the pipes were placed as long ago as the 1920’s. As a result, they are not sure about the condition of a pipe that has been underground for decades. They are further challenged because they do not always know how deep the pipe was buried. Other days, Erwin and fellow workers are called upon to repair a break in a line, replace an aging valve that is sticking, or install a residential water meter. The list goes on.

Hired initially to repair waterline breaks and maintain fire hydrants in working condition, he advanced through the years by earning certifications including a Class 1 Water Supply license so that today he is the City’s Operator Responsible Charge or Operator of Record. He explained that is government lingo for “the guy who manages the water. It’s like being a plant manager except I manage the water system.”

Truth is, Erwin may be the perfect guy to be in his position. He likes fixing things. His hobby is working on his house and his earlier career included construction and remodeling work as well as a stint at Davis Besse Nuclear Plant in Painesville.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that his favorite part of the job is fixing things. “I’m a pipefitter by trade.” He cringes a bit admitting while water main breaks aren’t fun, he relishes the challenge of fixing it quickly. “We have a good crew. We come in and fix it and get out.” He emphasized that, whenever possible, “We do try to do these fixes ‘live’ so residents’ water is not shut off. It’s a challenge,” he said.

Erwin said the water department’s next big project is identfiying lead piping for every waterline going into a house or business in the city. He said that the number is no longer large as the city has been removing lead lines “since before I started working here.” Nonetheless, like all communities post Flint, Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency wants these pipes identified. He said the City plans to pursue federal funding to replace any lead pipes they find.

Despite the weight on his shoulders of ensuring the adequate flow and safety of Sheffield’s Lake water supply, Erwin’s demeanor remains relaxed. “It’s just what I do,” he said.