How Smart Technology Can Educate Utility Customers

A Maine sewer district leverages smart and interactive technology to educate residents about treatment and build understanding for rate increases.
How Smart Technology Can Educate Utility Customers
An interactive poster used in the district’s public education program.

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With one swipe of a smartphone, customers at the Brunswick (Maine) Sewer District can enter the world of wastewater and learn about an expensive upgrade project.

It’s part of a proactive public education approach that started as the brainchild of a tech-savvy employee. But let’s start at the beginning.

The Brunswick district is preparing for a $22 million upgrade to a wastewater treatment plant built in the late 1960s and last upgraded in 1991. Funds have been secured from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, but the district needs to repay it over 20 years. That means rates will go up by as much as 40 percent over the next four years.

Need for knowledge

“We have a huge need to let people know what we’re doing,” says Leonard Blanchette, general manager. “If rates stay consistent, people are indifferent. But if they go up, they start asking questions. Knowing this upgrade was on the horizon, we took steps to head that off.”

A 13-minute video produced by district staff illustrates the journey of household wastewater as it travels through the water treatment cycle. The video highlights each step of the process, from clean water entering a home, to wastewater leaving through the collections system to the district’s 3.85 mgd trickling filter treatment plant, and finally as effluent discharged to the Androscoggin River.

On a related poster, each treatment step is accompanied by a QR code that residents can scan with a smartphone. The scan directs viewers to the corresponding segment of the video. The poster has been placed at new kiosks on the Androscoggin River bike path and at the entrance to the district’s pumping facility at Mill Creek.

Making the case

“I guess you can consider it our attempt to not surprise people with rate increases,” Blanchette says. “If we educate people, it helps justify those taxes and fees going up. If we don’t, it will mean dealing with negativity and fallout later on.” The district hopes to distribute the poster to schools and municipal buildings.

“The days of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ don’t apply,” Blanchette says. “We’re a key component of the town. We want town ratepayers and the community to know what we’re doing and what we’re all about, and the impact and importance we have. It’s ratepayers’ money, and we’re just the stewards.” Rates went up 14 percent last year, and annual increases will continue.

Goal oriented

Robert Pontau Jr., assistant general manager, conceived the education project as part of an employee goals program. He managed the project, giving staff the tools, equipment and software to plan it, script the message, film the episodes, and edit and narrate the video. The creativity of the staff soon became apparent.

“Robert is a young man, and he catered this program toward people of his generation,” says Blanchette. “Using the smart technology gets the message out to the public in a quick and effective way. He made the technology that’s out there work for us.”

Blanchette says the incentive-based employee goals program is a way to encourage employees to create and accomplish three annual goals. The far-reaching objective is to increase workplace pride. “Employees who meet their goals receive a bonus check of 1 percent of salary for each goal met,” he says. “Some of the goals were personal in nature while some were department goals, such as Robert’s kiosks and video. I feel that if the employees have set goals, we see more buy-in on their part.”

Quality team

The kiosk and video project earned the full support of the district’s board of trustees as part of ongoing public education, especially important as the district prepares for the 2016 upgrade. According to Blanchette, the project also showcases the quality of district staff and the daily work they do to operate and maintain the system.

“It really gave us the opportunity to highlight the great people we have working here,” he says. “I was actually surprised by how easy the project went once they got going on it. Robert took people with no background in video production or marketing and empowered them to create something brand-new.”

The project also highlights the industry’s shift into 21st-century technology, which will only continue as more young professionals join the wastewater workforce. “I really believe that 25 years from now treatment will be completely automated and plants will be able to be run from anywhere via the cloud,” Blanchette says.

“That’s what’s so exciting about outreach projects like Robert’s. It empowers our people to think outside their comfort zones, and it highlights the important roles they play in the community.”


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