There's Often Tension Between Operators and Engineers. Jeremy Cramer Helps Them Work in Concert.

Jeremy Cramer applies his long experience in plant operations to helping engineers and plant teams create effective designs that work in the real world.

There's Often Tension Between Operators and Engineers. Jeremy Cramer Helps Them Work in Concert.

Jeremy Cramer

On clean-water plant projects, from new construction to upgrades, there can be tension between the design engineers and plant operations teams. The complaint — and it doesn’t always hold true — is that engineers come in with great ideas but don’t consider the needs of the people who run the plant day to day.

In a Wisconsin-based operations career that spans nearly 20 years, Jeremy Cramer had many contacts with engineers, some more satisfying than others. Now, as a senior process specialist with the Donohue & Associates consulting firm in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, he works to improve communication between the design and operations sides, with the aim of making sure that plants and equipment are effective, efficient, and operator-friendly.

Cramer earned a biology degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and later an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University. After five years at small lagoon and activated sludge treatment plants in Wisconsin, he spent 11 years at the 3 mgd Stevens Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, working up to wastewater superintendent. He then served in that role with the 8 mgd Fond du Lac Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility for three years.

In between, he worked for a time as a representative for a wastewater equipment manufacturer. He joined Donohue in 2017. Cramer talked about his relatively new career in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What made you decide to make a career move to the consulting side of the clean-water profession?

Cramer: I love to learn, and I wanted to understand that side of the industry. I had worked with Donohue on projects for quite a few years. In Stevens Point, we worked together on a biogas project, a facilities master plan, and a major lift station project. In Fond du Lac, we did a modeling of the plant on the biological nutrient removal side to help decide whether to go to an anammox process.

TPO: What does your role look like day to day?

Cramer: I work at the interface between the engineers and the facility operators. Sometimes engineers have amazing ideas and great designs that just aren’t practical operationally. I get involved in the upfront design phases of projects, working right with the engineers and saying, “Yes, that makes sense,” or “No, that doesn’t make sense — maybe we should move equipment over here so the operators can work on it better.” I bring up all the things the engineers should consider from an operations perspective.

TPO: Do you also get involved in projects outside the design phase?

Cramer: Yes. I do startups at wastewater treatment plants that Donohue has designed and put together standard operating procedures and operations and maintenance manuals. Another area I work in is troubleshooting and technical assistance. It might be a facility with anaerobic digesters where the plant team wants to know how much high-strength waste they can add to increase biogas production. Or it might be a facility facing a process challenge.

TPO: From an operator’s perspective, what makes the difference between a positive and a not-so-positive interaction with engineers?

Cramer: In my career, the great experiences were the ones where the engineers really listened to the operators — where they would come in before the design, walk the plant, talk to the staff, and see firsthand what the operators see day to day. A bad experience was an engineer on a project who never even came to the plant, never asked for my input, and then when I did give input, I was pretty much ignored. 

TPO: Did you ever have differences of opinion with engineers related to technology?

Cramer: I did have an experience with an engineer who was not willing to look at cutting-edge technology. I wanted a certain piece of equipment, but this firm was not comfortable with it. They liked the tried and true and wanted to stick with that. I understand, because engineers want to make sure a project works, but there has to be a middle ground where a plant superintendent has done the research and wants something different and the newer technology makes sense.

TPO: How do you approach a plant in the design phase of a project?

Cramer: I look at things differently from most engineers. First, I want to find out what the operators’ challenges are. What do they like? What do they dislike? What kinds of problems do they think they might encounter? Is this going to affect any other areas of the plant? It’s about listening to them, walking around and talking. I’m not afraid to talk about any part of the plant because I’ve done it. I’ve fixed equipment. I’ve changed mechanical seals. I’ve pulled rags out of lift stations and cleaned float trees. I’ve done all of that, and I’m not afraid to talk about it. 

TPO: Do you also offer the operations team a longer-term perspective?

Cramer: Yes. The staff may see things one way, but I also bring up considerations for the future. What if things change a little bit — different permit limits, different loadings, different employees? I want to make sure they are set up to handle those things, or at least consider the potential changes.

TPO: In general, how do plant operations teams respond to you?

Cramer: Almost all the time it’s easy for me to talk to a wastewater treatment plant staff. I almost always feel welcome. When people at a facility realize that I’ve done what they do, they usually open right up and there is good communication.

TPO: Are there others in your firm who have roles similar to yours?

Cramer: Yes. I have a couple of colleagues who do basically the same things that I do. In addition, many of our process engineers had internships at wastewater treatment plants when they were in college, so they have hands-on experience. In fact, one of the original principals of the firm, Ken Sedmak, was not an engineer, but an operations guy who worked at treatment plants early in his career. That’s how important the operations side has been to Donohue.

TPO: How do your engineer colleagues in the firm respond to you?

Cramer: There is communication almost daily. Engineers from our various offices around the Midwest are constantly asking questions, even though I haven’t even met some of them. Will this work? What do you think about this? They pull me into different projects, wanting to know how the operations piece is going to fit in.

TPO: What advice would you give to operators who might be considering career options beyond the traditional roles in treatment plants?

Cramer: There are opportunities out there if you’re willing to take a step away from the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift, and if you’re willing to travel and see different facilities. I love that I’m able to see so many wastewater treatment plants and meet so many different people. If you’re willing to share your good and bad experiences, if you’re willing to work with engineers on a daily basis, if you like variety, then this can be an exciting career path. It’s about being able to make a difference on projects, shaping them from the operations and maintenance side.

At the same time, I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to leave a plant because there are so many good things about being in one place and working with your team. You encounter daily hardships and work through them together, and you become like a family. 

TPO: What advice would you give to your peers in treatment plants about dealing with engineers and consulting firms?

Cramer: Don’t be afraid to talk to your engineers and consultants. If you see something and you don’t like it, or if you do like it, talk to the engineer about it. Usually, the best projects are the ones that have the most open communication. Even if bad things happen, as long as you work through them as a team, usually those turn out to be great projects.

TPO: In general, what would you say to current and prospective operators about the wastewater professions?  

Cramer: Whether you call it wastewater treatment or resource recovery, this is an exciting field. There’s so much to it, and there’s so much technology at work. It’s a great feeling to be involved with keeping water clean, protecting fish and wildlife, keeping people and the environment healthy, and looking out for future generations. This is a great field, and I’m glad to be a part of it.


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