Every Water and Wastewater Treatment System Design Team Should Include an Operator

I wrote in my last blog post about how I think operating treatment plants is invaluable experience for the engineers who design water and wastewater systems. I’m absolutely convinced of the truth of that, but nothing can substitute for the practical knowledge earned by the people who work in these facilities every day. And this is where Woodard & Curran has an unfair advantage: our Operations & Management group. We have the immense responsibility of operating more than 50 treatment facilities from coast to coast, and every day, hundreds of Woodard & Curran employees are on site, monitoring SCADA systems, trouble-shooting process control issues, and getting their hands dirty keeping our communities healthy and safe. Add to this the experience of the operators working in our client communities, running the plants that we are designing upgrades and improvements to, and there is a huge wealth of knowledge and experience that we can leverage to make our designs better.

To take advantage of this, we have processes in place on every new treatment system or major upgrade we design to include operators on our project teams. By bringing their insight and voice into the design process, we put the needs and concerns of operators at the center of our designs. The key advantage of creating a team that includes designers and operators is that the combined knowledge leads to additional insights. On a typical project, there are several places where outside input can be brought in most effectively, beginning with the early stages of design.

Before we even begin a project, when we are thinking about the scope and identifying major process elements or technologies that might work for a particular client, we lean on our O&M team to help us understand the suitability and operability of different configurations. With data from the 50+ facilities we run and first-hand knowledge of dozens more, we can identify opportunities that might otherwise be missed.

Then, at the conceptual design stage, we facilitate a conversation between our designers, our O&M experts, and the client’s team to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different options. This includes data on the long-term operations costs that can be considered alongside the capital costs of a design choice. It also includes “non-cost” issues like ease of use and health and safety considerations.

Finally, at the 60% design stage, the blended team looks at the plans and performs a walkthrough of the facility to pinpoint small details that make a big difference to operators. This can be as simple as rotating a valve 90 degrees to make it easier to access or adding an actuator to a valve in an awkward position so that operators don’t have to struggle to use it. In its original position, the valve might meet the design intent, but if it’s hard to use, then it might consume unnecessary staff time. Moving it won’t compromise the design and it will definitely make operators’ lives easier.

As an example, we recently designed a $15 million upgrade at a facility in Massachusetts that is going into construction now. At the outset of the project, we included Jody St. George, a Senior O&M Specialist facility from our O&M group, in our project team. We then built in feedback opportunities as described above, leaning on Jody and the client’s operations team to help identify areas of concern for operators. 

During the 60% design review and facility walk-through, several small but important opportunities were identified. One notable example was in the polymer handling and storage area, where Jody and the operators focused in on how to safely move and store the large drums of polymer. Each needed to be delivered to the area and moved to a location with secondary containment systems in case of a spill. By identifying a safe and simple procedure using existing equipment, the team was able to eliminate unnecessary work and reduce the risk to operators handling the material. They also identified that a lack of lighting at the gravity thickener made maintenance more difficult and simply adding lights would be a big help.

Having engineers and operators working side-by-side to improve our designs is invaluable. As engineers, it allows us to listen closely and learn directly from operators. For operators, it helps build an understanding of how design decisions are made and creates a collaborative and mutually beneficial feedback loop. Working through challenges together leads to better designs.

Our goal is for every one of our designs to meet the needs of the operators from the day they walk into the plant. We want to address their concerns up front to avoid frustration and extra effort for the life of the facility. By bringing treatment facility operators into the design process and listening closely to their feedback, we gain insight into problems that might be difficult to identify on paper. By leveraging the experience of our O&M group and the community of operators, we reach better solutions for the long-term.


Tom Hazlett Business Unit Leader Municipal

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