1.2: Operator Certification and Regulations
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There are numerous regulations that pertain to the water industry as a whole. In addition to general business and accounting regulatory requirements, health and safety requirements, environmental requirements, labor requirements, etc, there is a set of regulations that specifically govern water utilities. These regulations are referred to as the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated these regulations in the early 1970s and required states to adopt them or create similar regulations that meet the minimum requirements. The practical application of the California Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) encompasses the federal act and in some instances has added additional requirements that have made some of the water quality regulatory standards more stringent. California’s SDWA can be found in California Code of Regulations Title 22, Division 4 Environmental Health. Much of the SDWA deals with water quality regulations, which will be discussed in a later chapter. However, there are other operational requirements that are specified as well. In 1996, the SDWA was amended for the second time. Some of the changes included provisions for “Operator Certification” requirements. Treatment Operator certification requirements were part of the original SDWA regulations establishing the level at which water treatment facilities should be manned, the minimum qualifications for testing at five (5) different grade levels, and criteria for the renewal and revocation of certificates. The recent amendments now include the certification and recertification requirements for distribution operators at five (5) different grade levels.
Operator Certification refers to requirements for both treatment and distribution operators in order for them to perform certain work. Both treatment and distribution operators are classified by five (5) different certification grade levels. Treatment Operators are listed as T1, T2, T3, T4, and T5 and Distribution Operators as D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5. T1 and D1 are the lowest certification levels and T5 and D5 are the highest. Generally entry level positions require lower level certifications such as D1, D2, T1, or T2. These positions are primarily labor related jobs and require little contact and or control of the water supply. Supervisors and managers sometimes require higher certification levels depending on their job descriptions. However, there are specific regulations that spell out minimum certification requirements for certain job related tasks.
The Operator Certification regulations provide very specific requirements for becoming certified and who actually needs to be certified. In addition, there are a number of definitions. Among them are definitions for what is referred to in the regulations as “Shift” and “Chief” Operators.
- Shift Operator - “Shift Operator” means a person in direct charge of the operation of a water treatment or distribution system for a specified period of the day.
- Chief Operator - “Chief Operator” means the person who has overall responsibility for the day-to-day, hands-on, operation of a water treatment facility or the person who has the responsibility for the day-to-day, hands-on, operation of a distribution system.
Although these definitions may seem specific, they do have some ambiguity. What if you have a distribution operator who is in charge of a certain operation for the day, but he has been told to call a supervisor before making any decisions or changes in the system. Is this person a “shift operator” per the definition above? Can a manager that is responsible for a treatment facility, but doesn’t actually work on the treatment facility be a “chief operator”? As you can see, there needs to be some clarification to these and other definitions in the regulations.
The regulations do offer some clarification. For example, they specify that water systems shall utilize only certified operators to make decisions addressing the following operational activities:
- Install, tap, re-line, disinfect, test and connect water mains and appurtenances
- Shutdown, repair, disinfect and test broken water mains
- Oversee the flushing, cleaning, and digging of existing water mains
- Pull, reset, rehabilitate, disinfect and test domestic water wells
- Stand-by emergency response duties for afterhours distribution system operational emergencies
- Drain, clean, disinfect, and maintain distribution reservoirs (tanks)
- Operate pumps and related flow and pressure control and storage facilities manually or by using a system control and data acquisition (SCADA) system
- Maintain and/or adjust
What determines the level of certification needed? Each treatment facility and distribution system is classified at a certain level. Meaning a treatment facility and distribution system are either classified as a T1 - T5 facility or D1 - D5 system respectively. The facility and system classification is based on a number of different parameters and in California is specified by the Division of Drinking Water (DDW), a branch within the State Water Resources Control Board of California (SWRCB.) In general, classifications are based on a point system. Treatment Facility Classification is primarily based on the type and quality of water being treated and the treatment/disinfection processes used. Distribution System Classification is based on population served. If the population served is five (5) million or less then a point system is used based on number of pressure zones, disinfectants used, size of pumping equipment, and number of storage tanks. If the point based system total exceeds 20 points then the classification is upgraded by one (1) level. Once the facility and system have been classified, the regulations then stipulate the minimum certification requirements needed by the staff. The following table specifies the minimum certification requirements for each treatment facility and distribution system classification.
Treatment Facility and Distribution System Classification
Minimum Certification of Chief Operator
Minimum Certification of Shift Operator
T1 / D1
T1 / D1
T1 / D1
T2 / D2
T2 / D2
T1 / D1
T3 / D3
T3 / D3
T2 / D2
T4 / T4
T4 / D4
T3 / D3
T5 / D5
T5 / D5
T3 / D3
How does someone become certified? There are certain requirements and prerequisites to becoming a certified operator. As previously mentioned, the first certification level (T1, D1) is the lowest level and has the least amount of requirements to become certified. Similarly, T5 and D5 are the highest certification levels and have the most requirements to reach these levels. There are two requirements for each level, one for being able to take the certification exam and the other to receive the actual certification. Let's take a look at the requirements for each certification level. Since the requirements are similar for both treatment and distribution, they will be referred to as 1 - 5 in this discussion.
Level 1 - The only requirement to take a level 1 exam is a high school diploma or equivalent. A General Education Diploma (GED) is an example of something that is equivalent to a high school diploma. Even though there is no "water" related requirement to take a level 1 exam, most people would have difficulty passing the exam without having any experience or knowledge of water systems. For example, do you know the difference between a butterfly valve and a gate valve? Or, the difference between flocculation and coagulation?
In order to receive the level 1 certification, the only requirement is the passing of the exam with a score of seventy percent (70%) or better.
Level 2 - Level 1 is the only certification level that can be skipped. If you meet the minimum requirements of a Level 2 exam, you can skip Level 1. In order to take a Level 2 certification exam you must also have a high school diploma or equivalent. In addition, you must complete thirty six (36) hours of instruction in a water related field. A three (3) unit course meets the thirty six (36) hour requirement. The course must meet certain minimum specifications in either water supply, distribution, treatment, or similar topics. Any of these classes would provide you with the information needed to pass both a Level 1 and Level 2 exam. Therefore, it is very common for people to skip Level 1, take the required course work and then take Level 2. However, some people are curious as to the format and type of questions that are asked on these exams and take a Level 1 exam while they are also completing courses in a water related field.
The requirements for receiving a level 2 certification are the same as level 1, you must pass the level 2 exam with a score of seventy percent (70%) or better.
Level 3 - The requirements for taking exams and becoming certified for Level 3 and higher are a little more restrictive. In order to be able to take a Level 3 exam, you must complete two (2) thirty six (36) hour courses. One course must meet the same requirements as described for a Level 2 and the other can be a supplemental water related course. A supplemental course can be a less specific water related course such as, waterworks mathematics, water quality, or some other course that don't specifically focus on distribution or treatment. Once you successfully complete and pass the required coursework, you can take a Level 3 exam.
Once you have successfully passed a Level 3 exam with a score of seventy percent (70%) or better you are not automatically eligible for a Level 3 certification. In addition to completing and passing the required two (2) courses, you must also be a certified Level 2 Operator for at least one (1) year. Therefore, you cannot skip Level 2 and become a Level 3.
Level 4 - The requirements for Level 4 certifications are similar to Level 3. In addition to the two (2) classes required as Level 3, an additional supplemental course is required. Therefore, a total of three (3) thirty six (36) hour (or 3 unit) courses are required to be able to take a Level 4 exam.
After successfully passing a Level 4 exam with a score of seventy percent (70%) or better and you have been a Level 3 certified operator for one (1) or more years you can obtain a Level 4 certificate.
Level 5 - Four (4) thirty six (36) hour (3 unit) courses are required to qualify for taking a Level 5 exam. One (1) class must be specialized training and the other three (3) can be a supplemental course.
After passing a Level 5 exam and meeting a minimum of one (1) year experience as a certified Level 4 operator a Level 5 certificate can be obtained.
Division of Drinking Water Certification Exams
The DDW website provides recommended reading material and an expected range of knowledge section to help prepare for the exams:
In addition, this website provides all the required material to apply and prepare you to become a Certified Operator. Exams for Treatment and Distribution are each offered two times a year approximately six (6) months apart. The Treatment Exams are offered in May and November of each year with their respective filing dates March 1st and September 1st of each year. The Distribution Exams are offered in March and September of each year with their respective filing dates January 2nd and July 1st of each year. Although these are the exam schedules at the time this text was being written, the DDW website should always be visited for any updates.
The Treatment exams consist of multiple choice questions covering topics of Source Water, Water Treatment Processes, Operation and Maintenance of Treatment Facilities, Laboratory Procedures, Safety, Regulations, and Administrative Duties. Below is a summary breakdown of each category:
- Wells and Groundwater
- Surface Water and Reservoirs
- Raw Water Storage
- Clear Well Storage
Water Treatment Processes
- Corrosion Control
- Iron and Manganese
- Water Softening
- Best Available Technology
Operation and Maintenance
- Chemical Feeders
- Pumps and Motors
- Blowers and Compressors
- Water Meters
- Pressure Gauges
- Electrical Generators
- General Laboratory Practices
- Disinfectant Analysis
- Alkalinity Analysis
- Specific Conductance
- Color Analysis
- Taste and Odor
- Dissolved Oxygen
- Algae Count
- Bacteriological Analysis
- Administrative Duties
In addition to all the above knowledge you must have, there are always a series of math related questions on each exam. There are typically fifteen math related questions and are usually worth two (2) points each compared to one (1) point for the general knowledge questions. The math questions range from a variety of topics and include some simple addition type computations on the lower grade exams to complex algebraic and geometric computations. Below is a brief outline of what one can expect on an exam.
Math Related Computations
- Chemical Dosage
This list is not complete and there are various topics within each of the above but it does provide you an insight into some areas of waterworks mathematics.
The Distribution exams consist of multiple choice questions covering topics of Disinfection, Distribution System Design, Hydraulics, Equipment Operation, Maintenance, Inspections, Drinking Water Regulations, Management, Safety, Water Mains, Piping, Water Quality, and Sources of Supply. Similarly to the Treatment Exams, there are a series of math related questions as well. In addition, there is some overlap between the information on both the Treatment and Distribution exams. Below is a summary breakdown of each category covered on the Distribution exams:
- Water Main, Well, Storage Reservoir Disinfection
- Disinfection By-Products
- Chloramination and Various Types of Disinfectants
- Chlorine Curve Chemistry
Distribution System Design and Hydraulics
- System Layout
- Storage Facilities
- Cross Connection Control and Backflow Devices
- Service Connections
- System Maps
- Flow Rates and Velocity
- Pressure and Head Loss
- Water Hammer
Drinking Water Regulations
- Disinfection By-Products (DBP) and Lead and Copper Rules
- Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL)
- Monitoring and Sampling
- Total Coliform Rule (TCR)
- Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
- Emergency Response
- Conservation Planning
- Water Rates
Equipment Operation, Maintenance, and Inspections
- Chemical Feed
- Water Mains
- Repair and Installation
Water Mains and Piping
- Joints and Fittings
- Leak Detection
- Material Selection
Water Quality and Sources of Supply
- Coliform Group
- Heterotrophic Bacteria
- Organic and Inorganic Compounds
- Surface Water
- Sanitary Surveys
This is not a complete list of all the topics covered on the Distribution Certification Exams but it is a good overview of the topics and areas that are covered. In addition, the mathematical computations you are expected to know are similar to the math questions found on the Treatment exams.
Drinking Water Distribution and Treatment were both governed by California Department of Public Health (CDPH). However, in 2014 the Division of Drinking Water Programs within CDPH was moved under the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and is now referred to as Division of Drinking Water (DDW.) SWRCB also governs wastewater and the certification program for wastewater operators. In addition, the California Water Environment Association has a wastewater certification program that SWRCB recognizes. Certified Wastewater Operators can apply for an examination waiver with SWRCB if they meet certain requirements.
The following information is a review of the areas of expertise and topics covered on Wastewater Certification exams:
- Collection System Maintenance – This vocation deals with sewer maintenance and repair. The collection system is the from the customer’s property to the treatment plant.
- Laboratory Analyst – Wastewater needs to be analyzed in a laboratory. The Laboratory Analyst has the responsibility of testing the water in the laboratory.
- Environmental Compliance Inspector – Wastewater treatment facilities have a number of regulations that they must follow. The Environmental Compliance Inspector is in charge of inspecting and monitoring the wastewater that empties into the sewer system. This is also known as “Source Control,” “Industrial Pretreatment Inspection,” “IPP,” and “Industrial Waste Inspection.”
- Plant Maintenance – This vocation deals with the maintenance and repair of wastewater treatment plants. Electrical/Instrumentation (EIT) and Mechanical Technology (MT) are the two specialties within this career. The EIT deals with the maintenance and repair of wastewater treatment plant electrical and instrumentation systems while the MT focuses on mechanical systems such as pumps and motors.
- Industrial Waste Treatment Plant Operator – This type of operator works at wastewater treatment plants in private industrial facilities.
- Biosolids Land Application Management – Biosolids are the inert biological materials (sludge) resulting from the wastewater treatment process. This vocation focuses on the management of these wastes.
Most of the careers within the water and wastewater industries will require some type of certification. However, there are other specialty areas such as engineering and accounting that may require a specific degree. Throughout this course and program you will be exposed to a variety of career choices. Find the one(s) that you are interested in and pursue that discipline.