Cover Story: Lightning strikes lift stations

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Recent lightning strikes doing a number on our city.  Crews were busy all day checking not only our power lines but our sewage stations.  At least three were hit, putting our water and our community at risk.

It happens all of the time, lightning strikes, we can lose our lights, our power.. and many times lightning strikes the substations that pump our sewage.

If they're not checked --things can get really messy - really fast.

You don't want to think of sewage overflowing into your home.. or getting into our creeks.

As important as electricity is to a hospital.. just as important for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities wastewater system.  And recent power outages are keeping workers busy.

They're like firefighters.. on call 24-7.

But instead of a fire.. they respond to one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities' 74 lift stations scattered throughout the county.. an integral part of the city's wastewater treatment system.

Once you flush.. and it goes down the drain.. wastewater typically flows naturally by gravity through sewer system pipes.

But at times sewage has to go up hill on its way to a treatment plant.. and needs a boost.

And that's the job of the lift station.

"They're pumping it from a lower level up and out of the station itself."

Tony James and Ron Sykes showed us around the Long Creek Lift Station.. Utilities' biggest and one of the newest.

Electricity powers the pumps which lifts the wastewater and moves it down the line.

And if power goes out they can run into big trouble.

"I'm not quite sure how many lightning strikes we had yesterday but it did affect quite a few of our stations," says James.

All 74 lift stations have a backup generator.. (most aren't this big) but a few of the generators had to kick in yesterday when lightning strikes caused power to go out at some of the lift stations.

What they don't want to have happen is this.. having to flush raw sewage out of a creek.

Nine years ago wastewater flowed out of this manhole when a lift station's power system failed.. and the sewage had nowhere else to go.

Stations.. which are all automated.. now have more backup alarms to alert crews.

And big ones like Long Creek have huge holding tanks to hold backup wastewater.

Vic Simpson is spokesman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.  He says, "Over the past few years we've really continued to beef that up with redundant alarm systems, back ups to the back up as well as on-site visits frequently just to make sure everything's running smoothly."

Tony and Ron and others crews like theirs are critical to keeping the stations running around the clock.

When the alarm goes off.. it's up to them to spring into action.

"It is valid that we have generators running at all times. We have power at all times. Proper communication to keep it flowing just for health reasons. No one ever thinks of that part there," says James.

If power goes out.. the lift station automatically switches to a generator.. but it's up to the crews to respond to make sure it's running smoothly.

Sometimes lightning causes the alarm system phone lines to go down and that causes them to race to the lift station as well.

Are these lift stations more prone to lighting strikes?

It seems that way.  The stations.. remember there are 74 of them.. are out in the open.. often surrounded by trees so that may make them more prone in these kinds of pop up thunderstorms.