Alaska’s Lifewater Engineering designs and builds small-scale sewage treatment systems, then trains energy and mining sector employees to operate them at remote camps
A whitewater canoe trip in Alaska convinced Bob Tsigonis, P.E., he never wanted to leave. Construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline made it possible for him to find employment troubleshooting sewage treatment plants at worker camps, while gaining first-hand experience of which systems did and didn’t work in the North Slope’s brutal winds and sub-zero temperatures.
Establishing Lifewater Engineering in Fairbanks in 1998, Tsigonis turned ideas that had rattled around in his head for years into aboveground onsite wastewater systems with surface discharge that were simple to operate, affordable, and functioned at 60 degrees below zero. As the business developed through word of mouth, he branched into designing treatment units for hotels, then camps on the North Slope housing workers who build and maintain the ice roads.
But most of Tsigonis’ environmental solutions enable workers to extract energy and minerals in remote six-person exploration camps to 1,000-person construction camps.
Watching his father manage reservoirs and dams for the City of New York water supply triggered Tsigonis’ interest in water and wastewater. He earned a Bachelor of Engineering degree focusing on sanitary engineering from Thayer School of Engineering.
“I wrote my thesis on membrane treatment of septic tank effluent,” says Tsigonis. “The technology was fairly new then; now it’s central to our cold-weather wastewater treatment designs.” Tsigonis earned his Masters in Engineering and Science Management from the University of Alaska in 1985.
When construction began on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in March 1975, worker camps were spaced 40 or more miles apart from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope and the Port of Valdez. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. charged with designing, constructing, and operating the sewage treatment plants at the camps, was unaware of what constituted good or bad technology, and purchased units from every vendor.
As one of four engineers assigned to help Alyeska troubleshoot the plants, Tsigonis learned early on to respect the wastewater system operators and work with them. “Most of what we learned about the plants came from the operators,” says Tsigonis. “They would call us with a problem, then share their solution to another situation with us. When other camps encountered that situation, we knew exactly what to do.”
Tsigonis gained additional experience working for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, several contractors, and as an environmental engineer and land manager at the Fort Knox Gold Mine before the arrival of a career-changing challenge. In 1999, a year after he opened Lifewater Engineering, a couple asked him to design a replacement onsite system so they could sell their house.
“The husband was proud of the home’s perfectly level wooden floor, which he achieved by keeping the permafrost frozen,” says Tsigonis. “He wanted a system that was totally above ground, simple to operate and maintain, and worked at 60 degrees below zero. It was a tall order.”
Tsigonis searched the Internet for technology to which he could apply arctic engineering. He selected submerged fixed film treatment technology from Bio-Microbics. “The technology is reliable, yet simple. More importantly, it looked as if I could turn it into a product that would work in extreme cold,” he says. The solution became the ExtremeSTP arctic package, a plug-and-play unit treating graywater and blackwater.
After Tsigonis installed the first unit, he made a second for another customer. Although confident his design would work, Tsigonis mounted data loggers on both tanks to learn what was happening inside them. “When the temperature dropped to 60 below, I could hardly sleep worrying if the systems would work, but they did,” he says. “I got some good data and learned things I hadn’t anticipated.”
As the business developed, Tsigonis moved production from his garage to a facility with office on Metro Airfield in Fairbanks.
“Fairbanks has the best weather in Alaska, but most oil companies, their consultants, manufacturers, and suppliers are in Anchorage,” says Tsigonis. “It’s hard to become known and respected there when your firm is in Fairbanks.” To attract such clientele, he joined the Alaska Miners Association and the Resource Development Council.
The AMA membership led to a contract to design a wastewater system for a small mining camp. Being listed as a state-approved vendor brought more mining and oil clients, but working as a subcontractor for Jon Dufendach, owner of CampWater Industries in Delta Junction, really broke the ice. The company designs and builds potable water treatment plants.
“A client of Jon’s wanted a water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plant for a camp building an ice road,” says Tsigonis. “We provided the wastewater component. Since then, Jon and I market and work together to offer complete treatment packages.”
Tsigonis finds securing contracts challenging and with no easy answers. Marketing dominates his schedule, alternating between face-to-face meetings to understand client needs and following up on existing and upcoming projects. He also promotes the company at industry conferences and other venues. “I probably should market in North Dakota because that is the place to be right now,” he says.
Working with clients on new designs often places Tsigonis in his old role of consultant, guiding camp owners and residents to a full understanding of what they need. In one case, a company had acquired a camp for use on the North Slope, but built for the climate in Texas. “It was hardly insulated,” he says. “Sewage flowed to lift stations that froze and broke down. Uninsulated hoses lay on the ground. Workers had wrapped fiberglass insulation and plastic around them, but it wasn’t enough.”
Camp managers in Anchorage had ideas on what they wanted, but workers on site had a different vision. Lifewater manager Jerry Fleishman visited the camp, interviewed the operators, took measurements and photos, and talked to the owners. “This was a joint effort to understand the situation and envision a solution, making the project fun,” says Tsigonis.
The solution was three small and three large lift stations, designed on the ExtremeSTP principle. “The biggest problem on the North Slope is high winds,” says Tsigonis. “They suck heat from anything you’re trying to keep warm. The ambient air might be 50 degrees below zero, but the wind chill is 90 or 100 degrees below.” The lift stations performed as designed.
Besides weather, another big challenge is transportation. Trucks or barges move treatment plants in summer. In winter, trucks on regular roads or ice roads and occasionally Hercules aircraft and helicopters deliver portable units, especially to remote mineral exploration camps.
“Timing is critical in all that we do,” says Tsigonis. “Everything must be staged and ready to move when the ice goes out for summer transport on the waterways or when the ice roads open for about 60 days of winter travel. Those are our deadlines.”
Camps are bitterly cold and outfitting workers is very expensive. Anyone headed for the North Slope must take an eight-hour safety course taught by the North Slope Training Cooperative, then renew the certification annually.
“We can’t drive onto an ice road without passing through security and showing our NSTC card,” says Tsigonis. “My name also has to be on the guard’s manifest, and the company requesting my presence attends to it. There are checkpoints at every road out of Prudhoe Bay to the oil fields. Security is very high.”
Once on the North Slope, alert levels govern when it is safe to venture outside. During severe blows, camps immediately implement water conservation procedures, as no one is allowed outdoors, including the water truck driver. Moderate alerts allow only those individuals who must be out to leave the enclosure. Lesser alerts require workers to check in more frequently and be even more vigilant of conditions.
THE TECHNOLOGY FRONTIER
Camp-sized units treat wastewater with tubular membranes from Membrane Specialists in Hamilton, Ohio. Tsigonis chose tubular membranes because they transport better than flat-plate membranes. They are immersed in a tank of aerated wastewater that must be drained to a manageable weight in a few hours, yet hold enough water to keep the membranes wet.
“Tubular membranes hold the dirty water inside so there is no sloshing, which could damage or destroy them, and they require much less glycol for winterizing,” says Tsigonis. “They also withstand rough handling.”
Just before Lifewater ships a plug-and-play unit, camp management and system operators arrive for training. Upon delivering the plant, Lifewater staff does whatever follow-up training is necessary. If need be, they can access the control panels on the systems via the Internet.
As the plants treat wastewater, they discharge permeate onto the tundra. Where available, vacuum trucks remove the solids for disposal or they are dewatered inside heated, insulated 40-foot shipping containers.
Tsigonis, however, is designing a dewatering system for homes, lodges, and mining camps reachable only by helicopter or bush plane. The system will disassemble into components, enabling one person to handle them. He turned to low tech, lightweight, portable dewatering filter bags and a pump to force the wastewater through them. Lifewater tested a prototype this past winter.
Tsigonis enjoys devising wastewater solutions for workers stationed in some of the roughest weather conditions imaginable.
“I hope to continue doing what I do because I enjoy it and I believe it’s valuable to society,” he says.