East Knoxville's Aqua-Chem Makes Water Safe to Drink Around the World

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: Industry

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this fifth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different types of industry in Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

It's a brutish, weather-torn day in early March, and East Governor John Sevier Highway is an unlovely place, even by its own standards—its riverbanks swollen with brackish waters, its gravel-strewn industrial lots overtaken by muck, its scrubby grasslands converted to fen. Even the road's strangely numerous convenience marts seem downtrodden, defeated by the inclemency, as if ready to step off their foundations and surrender to the inchoate floodwaters, never to be seen again.

There's something oddly bright, then, about Aqua-Chem at 3001 E. Gov. John Sevier, one of the highway's larger industries occupying a 13-acre tract bounded by a Pilot station on one side and a set of railroad tracks on the other. Their business is water—ironically enough on this besotted early spring day—and products that have to do with water; but mostly water purifying systems, many of which will be used to produce drinkable H2O.

The aforementioned brightness owes equally to the facility's color scheme, and to a certain outward sense of propriety. Aqua-Chem is laid out with its smaller, cinder-block office building—which looks much smarter than any cinder-block building has a right to—in front, its door overhung by a large royal blue awning, and the rest of the building schemed in pristine white with powder-blue trim. Fairly engulfing it in back is a warehouse, with a similar white-on-blue coloring. Largely absent, or at least less obvious, are the standard industrial eyesores—the gravel lots, the lines of big trucks, the clusters of heavy machinery.

Aqua-Chem has two other locations, under different names, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Houston, but its Knoxville location is its corporate headquarters. According to plant manager Tracy Gamble, most of its business is for military use of one kind or another; the company manufactures purifying units that convert seawater to potable water for naval use, for example. "I'd say about 70 percent of our business right now is military," says Gamble, a 21-year company veteran. "But that varies at different times of the year. It could change next week."

The industrial building is an impressive, sprawling compound, with space for several functions—warehousing, product testing, repair, stages of production from raw material to finished product—and set about with row upon row of shelving, pipes, fittings, tanks, all manner of heavy machinery, scarifying automatons.

In places, it is quite literally like walking through the stages of manufacturing—a stroll via time-lapse photography. In other sections, the building takes on the character of the Jurassic era of some wholly mechanized world, with giant cranes and 500-ton presses and robot arms, pulleys and chains hanging thick like vines from the ceiling.

And in still others, it is just a very large warehouse, full of parts and pipes and fittings and, in one area, shelf upon shelf of pink-tagged motors and pump assemblies, the pink tags denoting rebuild jobs for the U.S. government.

One of the largest machines in the building—a mighty aggregate of huge tanks and long and twisting silver pipes, a dumptruck-sized creation that looks stepped straight from the mind of Dr. Seuss—is actually one of Aqua-Chem's finished units, a water purifier bound for China capable of processing 6,000 gallons per hour for pharmaceutical use. Its neighbor is a smaller unit—about the size of a mini-van—that will convert seawater to drinking water on an offshore oil rig. Capacity: 700 gallons per hour.

Noting one of the materials used in its manufacture, a passing worker puts in that, "The Yankees call it cooper nickel, but Southerners call it copper nickel." Then, as he steps around a passing orange Toyota forklift that looks a bit like a bumper car with benefits, he thinks the better of it and says: "Don't tell my boss I just said that about Yankees."

The purifiers manufactured for military use are kept on the back end of the building, models like the more modestly sized osmosis units that will go aboard naval ships; Gamble says these systems are less expensive than those used aboard oil rigs, as mentioned before. Also in the vicinity are a couple of huge tanks, the early stages of the latest in water purifying technology for aircraft carriers—and Aqua-Chem's part of a TWiPS subcontract. The Tactical Water Purification System is a small unit for soldiers in the field, for which the company is sharing in the manufacturing process.

Since much of the company's work is metal-to-market-ready, the manufacturing area is filled with special rooms—the painting room, the machine shop, the sandblasting room. There's even a hose assembly room, which has any number of hoses, from anaconda-length to garter-sized, stretched out like metal snakes on rows of long tables; and a pipe room, with varied lengths of pipe clamped tight on metal horses.

But as there are still projects on which the company must subcontract, Gamble says the company is always adding to its store of equipment, and to its industrial capacities, so that fewer and fewer functions need to be outsourced when new projects arise. One recent acquisition is a giant water-jet machine that uses garnet-infused high-intensity water sprays to make extremely clean cuts in metal. The machine itself looks a bit like a huge water bed, but with no mattress, and overhung with some kind of infernal dentist's drill.

By Gamble's telling, though, Aqua-Chem would already seem to have a sure place in the world of water purification, new machinery or no. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a Navy ship that doesn't have some kind of Aqua-Chem equipment," he says.