Louisville Water engineer led the world in water treatment advances

An engineer in his 20s helped make Louisville the center of a revolution that led to not only cleaner water in the city, but also significant improvements in public health – a revolution that also shaped the way water is treated worldwide.

Born in Massachusetts in 1868, George Warren Fuller was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was just 16. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then studied in Berlin, Germany. After returning to the U.S., Fuller investigated water filtration at the Lawrence Experiment Station in Massachusetts.

He became Louisville Water’s chief chemist and bacteriologist in 1895. The company had begun operation in 1860 with 26 miles of cast-iron pipe, and Fuller built on the work of Louisville Water’s Chief Engineer Charles Hermany, who had been working since 1865 to figure out a way to supply filtered water to residents from the muddy Ohio River.

Hermany intensified his efforts after scientific advances proved the existence of germs and the dangers of dirty water. He experimented with existing filtration methods called slow sand filters. Water passed through a sand layer to remove particles. Then the filters had to be scraped clean by hand and rebuilt. This method worked poorly for muddy rivers like the Ohio.

Still, according to Jay Ferguson, an historian and the Museum Specialist for Louisville Water, Hermany’s work set the stage for Fuller’s experiments involving four competing filter companies. Three of them used chemical processes to coagulate water (bring particles together) and then mechanical means to clean the sand filters, a process known as rapid sand filtration. The fourth company used electric current to make water impurities more solid and then sent the treated water through filters.

Fuller tested all of the companies’ filtered water for bacteria as well as organic and inorganic matter. At the end of the first part of the experiments in 1896, The Courier-Journal reported that Louisville Water had the “honor of having led the world in one line of scientific research closely and momentously related to the bodily welfare of humanity.”

A Breakthrough, But …

Fuller found that electrolysis wouldn’t work. In fact, it released a large amount of oxygen and hydrogen that could be ignited with a match. The filtering methods the other companies developed were more effective but too costly to operate on a large scale.

In 1896 and 1897, Fuller continued testing techniques and working to reduce cost. Ultimately, he concluded that the best way to filter the Ohio River was a three-part system:

  • Sedimentation (letting particles settle), which removed most of the suspended impurities
  • Coagulation using the chemical alum to congeal the rest of the sediment
  • Filtration through sand and gravel filters to remove remaining particles

After his work in Louisville, Fuller conducted similar research in Cincinnati and then moved to New York to open a private practice. Ultimately, he worked with more than 150 cities and companies on their water supply and sewage problems and gained the nickname of “father of sanitary engineering.” Fuller’s work in Louisville was the foundation for the water treatment around the world use today. To celebrate the achievement, the Kentucky Historical Society and Louisville Water dedicated a state historical marker at the site of Fuller’s work.

Louisville’s quest for filtered and purified water fully became a reality when the Crescent Hill Water Treatment Plant began operating on July 13,1909. Just months after it opened, the Louisville Soap Company ran an ad noting that “no one can fail to be pleased with the clean, clear water now being turned out by Louisville’s new filter plant. Isn’t it in delightful contrast with the mud we used to get?”

The filters removed 99 percent of microscopic bacteria from the water. This led to a dramatic drop in the number of typhoid deaths in the city: from 71 to less than 45 per 1,000 people. The number dropped again when chlorine was added to the water supply in 1914.

Building on Fuller’s Legacy

According to Mark Campbell, a scientist in the company’s Water Quality Treatment & Research Department at Louisville Water, “The impact of Fuller’s work on the development of the rapid sand filtration process is evident today. We still utilize the processes of chemical coagulation and sedimentation prior to filtration as key barriers to chemical and microbiological contaminants.”

Campbell added that “We operate our filters according to the same principles that Fuller applied. We still use simple, large valves to adjust filtration rates and mechanical gauges to measure ‘loss-of-head’ [pressure loss] to help us maintain proper conditions. While we have made great improvements in how we monitor and control filtration performance, we certainly look to Fuller as having led the way.”

Louisville Water also has built on Fuller’s work by making significant advances in using the riverbank’s natural sand and gravel filtering processes to remove contaminants from water that is then pumped into a plant for additional treatment.

According to Kay Ball, former Louisville Water Program Manager for Advanced Treatment Technologies, “Riverbank filtration provides an additional barrier for pathogen removal, reduces risks associated with hazardous chemical spills, removes herbicides and pesticides in the water and eliminates problems caused by Zebra mussels and Asiatic clams clogging water intakes.” Ball also noted that this type of filtration provides a more stable incoming temperature, which results in fewer water main breaks.

A single riverbank filtration collector well was built at Louisville Water’s B.E. Payne Water Treatment Plant. This demonstration well, completed in 1999, became the source of extensive research. The next phase of the project included building a filtration tunnel and pump station. A 10-foot diameter tunnel extends one and a half miles adjacent to the river and 150 feet underground into bedrock. Four collector wells, capped at ground level, are connected to the tunnel by a 4-foot diameter pipe. Waters flows by gravity from the aquifer to the wells and then into the tunnel.

This project, the first of its kind, was completed in 2010, and the next year it received the Outstanding Civil Engineering Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It was the first water treatment system to earn the award, and it was competing against projects worldwide that were much larger and more expensive.

Fuller and Hermany set Louisville Water on a path for quality and innovation that continues today. Louisville Water’s two treatment plants are ranked as two of the top 18 in North America, and in 1997, Louisville Water trademarked its tap water as Louisville pure tap®. Louisville pure tap® has won numerous taste and water quality awards over the years, including being named the best-tasting tap water in America in 2008 by the American Water Works Association.