The People Factor: How to Survive a Plant Upgrade

Plant upgrades mean mixing operators, engineers, contractors and construction workers. Here's how to help everyone get along.
The People Factor: How to Survive a Plant Upgrade

At the beginning of my career, I witnessed a $24 million upgrade. I enjoyed seeing everything go in place, and it gave me a better understanding of the flow process. We interacted with the construction crew, and it appeared everyone enjoyed doing his or her part to help the upgrade go smoothly. I was a rookie operator trying to learn a new business, and here was this company coming in and making us bigger and better. Life was good!

Fast forward 23 years, and I’m still at the same plant, but now I’m the plant supervisor. For the past seven years, we’ve been undergoing constant upgrades. We have not gotten any bigger, but due to permit regulations, we have become an advanced tertiary plant. During these seven years, I’ve worked with the construction company and the on-site engineer, and I’ve learned a lot about construction and engineering. I’ve also learned that not all upgrades go as smoothly as those I’ve overseen.

I did a little Q&A session with the engineers, construction workers and supervisors to get the inside scoop on the work environment during a plant upgrade. Here’s what I discovered:

1. The construction worker/operator relationship.

First, I talked to construction workers about how they think the operators perceive them. The most common comment was that treatment plant employees don’t like having their normal routines disrupted. Next, was that treatment plant employees don’t want to learn a new process. According to construction workers, plant employees who had been around for 20 years or more typically didn’t want to learn how to run a new process or equipment — especially computers.

The construction workers also said that municipal workers don’t always see the big picture. Instead, operators tend to focus on the initial disruption of construction. And last but not least, are plain old personality conflicts. People can rub people the wrong way, and some never get over that, which makes for a very long upgrade time frame for everyone.

2. The contractor/engineer relationship.

Another phase of the whole upgrade process is how engineers and contractors work together. After interviewing several of each, this is what they had to say:

Contractors sometimes think engineers look down on them and treat them as “installers” of equipment, with nothing else to offer. On the flip side, the engineers mentioned that many contractors have invaluable experience in the field because they might have already installed a particular style of equipment. Some engineers also mentioned that they don’t get to work in the field and see the installation of what they designed. Many felt that field experience would help with future design jobs. 

Some engineers were leery of contractors because they felt contractors look for ways to use lower-grade equipment or to cut corners on design construction. The engineers realize the contractors are trying to make a profit, and if they are not careful with the oversight of the upgrade, the municipality could end up with shoddy work and a poorly performing plant.

The bottom line is this: Engineers know how to design, but not necessarily how to build. Contractors know how to build, but not necessarily how to design. If you have a good contractor and an open-minded engineer, the finer details can be worked out pretty easily. A healthy working dialogue between the treatment plant, engineer and the contractor will make for the best overall product. It’s a win, win, win situation for everyone if we all work together. 

About the author
Jeff Kalmes is a Grade 7 operator and plant supervisor at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the 2008 NEWEA Public Educator Award, the 2011 WEF National Public Educator Award and the 2015 NEWEA Operator of the Year Award. You can reach him at


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