Virtual Reality

A flight simulator for wastewater treatment plants gives users a hands-on approach to troubleshooting or making changes to the treatment train.
Virtual Reality
Operators at the Belleville (Ontario) Water Control Plant work on a troubleshooting scenario during a Sewage Simulator Solutions course taught by Sylvia Murcia-Jones, compliance training consultant with the Ontario Clean Water Agency.

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As a trainer for the Ministry of the Environment’s mandatory certification renewal courses, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) in Toronto developed curriculum for municipal and First Nations’ community wastewater treatment operators.

In 2012, OCWA worked with Hydromantis Environmental Software Solutions to configure SimuWorks, a hands-on approach to training and troubleshooting, to fit the agency’s specific requirements. “Operators are accustomed to sitting in front of computer monitors to change treatment processes,” says compliance training consultant Sylvia Murcia-Jones. “The software simulates that environment, making the transition from classroom to real-life scenarios easy.”

The Sewage Simulator Solutions course targets operators with one year of experience. Since the agency incorporated it, plant managers have returned only positive reports on how much their operators enjoyed the program and the learning experience.

Building the foundation

Hydromantis programmers can configure the basic simulator to replicate any wastewater treatment plant’s SCADA and human-machine interface (HMI) systems. It lets users review and test various inputs/outputs, equipment status, chemical dosage rates, aeration settings and other components against normal operation, equipment failures and wet-weather events. The tool helps operators and managers identify and validate plant optimization and cost-saving strategies, analyze projects and operational risks, and forecast plant capacity and maintenance needs.

Before loading licensed copies of the basic simulation program, the agency deleted all the games, Internet connection and other software on 10 laptop computers. “This is an educational environment, not a course where participants ignore the instructor and play solitaire,” says Murcia-Jones. “We prefer one student per laptop, but we encourage them to work as a team to duplicate interactions with people at their facilities.”

Murcia-Jones is a Class 2 water treatment and distribution operator and an operator-in-training for wastewater treatment and collection. “Instructors with practical experience in the industry understand students’ questions better and use the simulator properly,” she says.

Before taking the six-hour, three-module course, the agency asks participants to think about problems at or questions about their facilities. The first module then recaps the conventional activated sludge process to make sure everyone understands the terminology and treatment train. That takes 1 1/2 to two hours, depending on the students’ levels of understanding.

The second module introduces the simulator’s various screens, components and capabilities. Then Murcia-Jones takes students through subtle process simulations. “I show them how to simulate coarse-bubble diffusion versus fine-bubble diffusion, step-feed versus tapered aeration, and increases in coagulant dosages and their effect,” she says.

At the end of the second module, Murcia-Jones summarizes alternative treatments, such as extended aeration, complete mix, contact stabilization, sequential batch reactors and biological nutrient removal. “No matter the method, students learn that the treatment process is essentially the same,” she says. The second module also takes 1 1/2 to two hours.


The third module introduces troubleshooting techniques. “We talk about young and old sludge and whether it has poor settling capabilities, a high food-to-microorganism ratio, or low sludge volume index,” says Murcia-Jones. “To help students connect the dots between theory and practical application, we ask them to think about how these conditions would look. What type of foam would it create? What would be the color and density? What would it look like during settling tests?”

Five scenarios follow the introduction, allowing participants to manipulate the simulator’s different components. Murcia-Jones gives them operational parameters, then shows how to set up scenarios simulating certain types of wastewater entering the headworks. The attendees’ goal is to ensure that effluent meets the province’s certificate of approval limits.

“Some students become very excited and want to begin fixing the problem right away,” says Murcia-Jones. “However, they must be patient and learn the step-by-step setup procedures first.” At the end of each scenario, she allows the students to work in pairs or by themselves, following an outline of the steps projected on a screen.

After they set up the scenario, Murcia-Jones asks the group what operational changes they would make to remain compliant. She writes their suggestions on a flipchart, after which they discuss different options and their results. “It’s a wonderful activity because people begin working together and brainstorming,” she says.

In a few instances, students become finger-happy and click the mouse so rapidly that the program can’t catch up and occasionally freezes. “That really upsets them,” says Murcia-Jones. “The lesson is to click one parameter at a time, make subtle changes and wait for the reaction.”

Books closed

A 10-question multiple choice quiz with books closed follows each module. The final test consists of five multiple choice troubleshooting questions and five more questions on how students solved the problem. The final mark is their cumulative score. The Ministry of the Environment rated the course for 0.6 continuing education units (CEUs).

While the class is basically for junior operators, senior operators sometimes take it out of curiosity or for training hours. When this occurs, Murcia-Jones pairs senior with junior operators. “The dynamic between them is wonderful, because here is where we see the transfer of knowledge,” she says.

Participants receive a digital copy of the manual or presentation on their jump drives or have the items sent to them as email attachments. The agency mails print manuals upon request.


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