Plant Operators Are a Clever and Inventive Lot. Here Are Some Cases in Point.

For the operations community, the WEF Operator Ingenuity Awards are as important a part of the WEFTEC landscape as the Operations Challenge.

One problem treatment plant operators rarely, if ever, face is surplus money to deal with the everyday issues they face.

Therefore, perhaps by necessity, operators have become adept at solving problems on their own, at minimal expense, with simple tools and tricks. We hear the stories often: An engineering firm proposed a $100,000 fix; the operations team resolved it for one-tenth as much, or less.

The Water Environment Federation’s annual Operator Ingenuity Awards recognize that brand of inventiveness. They’re presented each year during WEFTEC — this year, that’s Sept. 21-25 in Chicago. If you plan to attend, be sure to take in the ceremony — it will be listed in the conference program.

Earned recognition

The contest recognizes measures that water professionals take to make their work easier and safer and to make their plants run better and more efficiently. The judges consider solution safety, resourcefulness and transferability — how easily other plants could replicate the solution. The competition is open to clever ideas related to any aspect of the operation, from equipment maintenance to emergency response to process optimization.

I’ve attended the awards presentation a couple of times, and I must say that the WEF team makes it fun. There are no prosaic names for awards like Best in Safety or Laboratory Excellence. No, the award names are clever, and winning operators get to show pictures and talk about their innovations. Here are a few of the awards given during the first seven years of the event:

Trough Toaster Award. Aaron Dressel, Chris Wize, Kelly Wolfe and Dan Danhauer from York, Nebraska, won this honor for inventing a way to keep the scum trough on a sludge thickener from freezing to the skimmer arm. To do this, they affixed a heat lamp above the trough and shielded it from the weather with a hood fixture they designed. It worked: They got through the winter without a single freeze-up.

Vacuum Virtuoso Award. Andy Loudermilk of the Bigfork (Montana) Water & Sewer District took this honor home for inventing a scum sucker. He reconfigured an old rotary lobe positive displacement blower into a vacuum to clear scum from atop the plant’s membrane bioreactor tanks. The device sends the material straight to the facility’s solids holding pit.

Chemical Capture Chief Award. On the safety front, Mark Cataldo from SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions and the Killingly Water Pollution Control Plant in Danielson, Connecticut, installed a trough to capture spills during deliveries of sodium hypochlorite disinfectant. 

Beaker Peeker Award. Gregory Williams from Good Harbour Laboratories in Mississauga, Ontario, decided to use the graduations on a plain old lab beaker to measure scum depth from the top of an open tank: “He simply dons gloves and lowers a large beaker (2-liter size) into the scum. The markings on the beaker can be recorded and the distance between them measured later to give a relatively accurate thickness.”

Ice Breaker Award. James Spielvogel from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, crafted a method for easily and safely lifting a clarifier skimmer in the winter to keep it from freezing to the grease box. “Using this invention, one operator can stand on a clarifier bridge with a hooking pole and lift the skimmer onto an arched hook,” a WEF report says.

Explainer in Chief Award. Walton J. Summers II of Jacksonville, Arkansas, created “a Christmas parade float that shows the wastewater treatment process and a tabletop display that shows the consequences of misusing sewers as trash cans.”

The Operator Ingenuity Awards are open ideas related to treatment processes, maintenance, safety, collection systems, lab practices, stormwater, administration, human resources and anything associated with the water sector. To date, the contest has recognized nearly 40 ingenious fixes.

Watch for information about this year’s winners, and plan to enter next year. You can get details at   


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.