An Operator’s Mindset Leads to Better Treatment System Design

When I was a young engineer, fresh out of school and just starting my career, I had what I believe was an excellent learning opportunity. At the time, I mostly did it for the extra money, but as my career has progressed, I have come to recognize the real value of this experience. It wasn’t a research project or a training course. It wasn’t even an especially influential mentor. It was the time I spent studying for my Grade 5 operator’s license in Massachusetts and later as the weekend operator at a small wastewater treatment plant.

The plant wasn’t a typical municipal treatment facility. It was on a college campus and was one of the most unusual plants we operated, and it gave me exposure to all aspects of wastewater treatment. More importantly, it gave me a direct understanding of what it’s actually like to operate the kind of facility I was designing from Monday to Friday. I saw firsthand how important “operability” is and that it’s not just an abstract idea. The decisions I was making about how to lay out a treatment process, the position of critical equipment, and how each pipe, pump, and valve was positioned had a huge impact on the people who worked in the plant every day. What seemed like small decisions in front of the computer might make what could be an easy task for an operator into a frustrating and time-consuming job. 

The lessons I learned on those weekends early in my career have informed every single design I have worked on since then. And now, as someone charged with leading a group of engineers who are working with communities across the country to tackle essential water reclamation challenges, passing these lessons on has become one of my key goals. I believe that engineers with hands-on experience operating a treatment plant make better design decisions that save our clients time, effort, and money in the long run.

To that end, we have initiatives in our community of practice to encourage young engineers to pursue their operator’s licenses and to put them in plants as operators early in their careers. And I’ve watched people who have taken this opportunity, learned the treatment plant operations profession, and become some of the most creative and effective designers I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

One of the things that I am most proud of, is the emphasis that Woodard & Curran puts on delivering short- and long-term value for our clients. Training our engineers to think like operators is one important way we do that, but it’s far from the only way. In a future post, I’ll detail other ways that we leverage one of our most important advantages: the hundreds of water and wastewater treatment plant operators and operations experts in our O&M group.


Susan Guswa Innovation Leader Water

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