Going Old School: Can Technology Make Operators Less Proficient?

Technology in treatment is great. But is there a point where too much dependence on digital magic begins to dull operators’ senses and make them less proficient?

You could call Jim Stover a throwback. As wastewater treatment superintendent in Amarillo, Texas, he expects his teams to function with minimal reliance on technology.

We might easily question his approach: Technology is proven to enhance process control and help deliver high-quality effluent. But Stover believes that the more operators perform work manually, the better they understand the process.

And just maybe he’s on to something: Both of Amarillo’s clean-water plants (see the feature story in this issue) have won NACWA Platinum Awards for perfect permit compliance for several years in a row.

It’s worth asking the question: At what point does technology become a crutch? At what point does excessive reliance on it hinder operators’ effectiveness?

Using the senses

I’m reminded of a conversation with a 60-year-old industrial engine mechanic who told me his best diagnostic tools included his eyes, ears and nose. On walking into an engine room, he would notice right away if something didn’t look, sound or smell quite right. Might his perceptions have been more valuable at times than the digital readouts on the control panel?

I also look to my own experience with photography. I came up in the newspaper business using a single-lens reflex camera with manual focus and manual adjustments for film speed, shutter speed and lens aperture. Now I have a digital camera that is fully automatic — just point and hit the button.

Yet I know I was a better photographer (though not a professional) with the old camera. Why? Because the need to make adjustments shot by shot forced me to be fully aware of and adjust for the light conditions. And I could use tricks, like choosing the right combination of aperture and shutter speed to bring more or less of the subject matter into sharp focus, to decide what to emphasize in the image.

Of course, I can use the automatic camera in the manual mode and exert just as much control as with my 40-year-old Nikkormat. But automation is the default, so I have to consult the user guide to relearn the manual settings. Most of the time I’m too lazy to do so — and anyway, I usually get good-enough shots in the automatic mode.

And there’s the key word: “usually.” Sometimes, as with a dark background or strong backlighting, the conditions fool the electronics, and the results are dreadful.

Art and science

Are there parallels in the world of wastewater treatment? I’m certainly not a professional where that field is concerned, though I imagine most operators would agree when I say the profession is a blend of art and science.

Influent varies, in some plants more than others. There are differences in dry and wet weather. There are differences from one part of the day or week to another. Industries can release slug loads. Sometimes materials get into the system that are toxic to the treatment microorganisms.

Any number of factors can upset the process. Doesn’t it take more to keep it under control than in-line sensors and feedback loops? Is there added value in the experienced operator with deep and nuanced knowledge of the process? Someone with keen eyes and a sensitive nose? Someone who knows the way around a microscope and the instruments and chemical reagents in the lab?

I would be interested in your experiences with technology. What are its benefits and limitations? In solving a treatment problem, where does technology end and the hard-earned skill of an operator begin?

You are welcome to share your comments and your stories. Send a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will share selected stories in a future issue of TPO. 


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