Why Cultivating an Optimization Mindset Is Vital to Treatment Success

The operators in Cary, North Carolina, can't say enough good things about the Partnership for Clean Water Program, which provides insight into the industry while promoting a mindset in employees to pursue innovative treatment

Why Cultivating an Optimization Mindset Is Vital to Treatment Success

The North Cary Water Reclamation Facility. (Photos By Jay Anderson)

When the wastewater treatment plant crew in North Cary, North Carolina, set its sights on the Partnership for Clean Water Director’s Award, it didn’t start by gathering a high-level leadership team. It started with the operators — the ground-floor workers who knew the ins and outs of the treatment plant.

And they know what they’re doing. For more than a decade, the team at the North Cary Water Reclamation Facility has consistently won similar awards for its water utility optimization efforts.

“We have been Partnership for Safe Water Director’s Award winners with our water utility for about 15 consecutive years,” says Jamie Revels, utilities director. “We’re really big believers in the program, and we were very excited to see the Partnership for Clean Water opportunity offered through the American Water Works Association.”

This is the first year for the new wastewater recognition program, which follows the model of its water utility predecessor.

“The Partnership for Clean Water is kind of a sister program to Partnership for Safe Water, but it focuses on the wastewater side,” says Jonathan Bulla, facility operations supervisor for the North Cary plant. “The idea here is to perform optimization, to ensure that you are running your facility appropriately and achieving your goals for nutrient removal to help protect the environment.”

Cary was the first utility in the nation to be granted the director’s award for wastewater treatment plant optimization, and it was a simple but rigorous commitment to improvement that set them on the path.

“We have a very tenacious staff, and once we made up our mind that we wanted to do this, there was no halfway. We wanted to go all-in, so we made it happen,” Revels says. “Just make the effort to get started with it. Even if you don’t complete everything, your operation is going to be so much better for all the conversations that you’re having with your staff.”

Promoting good stewardship

The Partnership for Clean Water functions as a charter program — utilities can become charter members by subscribing to the program, but achieving the director’s award requires an extra level of effort.

A base charter subscription requires that the utility pay a fee and complete three out of four phases. The four phases are:

  • Phase I – Commitment
  • Phase II – Baseline/Annual data submission
  • Phase III – Self-assessment report completion
  • Phase IV – Demonstrated optimization

While at its core it is a self-assessment program, the last phase is where Cary has separated itself from the pack. Participating utilities can submit their optimization plans for review by a committee of industry peers.

Alongside the potential for recognition, Bulla and Revels say the communal knowledge-sharing aspect of the program is one of its most valuable facets.

“We get a third-party review, so we send our whole plan in to AWWA and we get their feedback in terms of how we’re doing and how we stack up compared to other utilities,” Revels says. “That makes me feel really good about our program, because it’s demonstrating a commitment to self-assessment. And hopefully with the third-party review we can get some ideas from other utilities and bring them back to our operation as well.”

An overview of the North Cary Water Reclamation Facility.
An overview of the North Cary Water Reclamation Facility.

AWWA provides a comprehensive guide for utilities to follow in starting the conversation about optimization and for developing an action plan. There are many steps in the process, but on a basic level, you will create a team to gather ideas, set short- and long-term goals, and schedule benchmark dates for completing those goals, as well as decide who will be contributing to each milestone.

“It’s not only about getting the self-assessment done and moving on, having two or three people complete it. It’s actually the process of teaching people to start thinking ‘where can we be better?’” Bulla says. “It is a paradigm shift, and it changes your mindset — that’s what’s good about this team. 

All about teamwork

Though there are a lot of important steps and considerations to make in the process, the success of Partnership optimization ultimately falls on building the right team and ensuring its members’ commitment.

“It’s very important to have the buy-in from all of the staff in order to make this type of optimization effort successful,” Revels says. “Our staff has been operating at what I would consider a high level of excellence for a number of years, but that’s not good enough for them. They want to go in and look at how we can operate better in the future — how can we better optimize, save money, be more energy-efficient, even do a better job removing nitrogen, which we’re already excellent at.”

Cary also solicits some feedback from consultants and engineers they work with on other projects. The outside perspective can often be as beneficial as that of an operator who has worked there for many years.

“Basically what you do is you put together a team, and you want to assess every portion of your operation — from personnel, to training, maintenance, finance, energy efficiency, capital projects, processes,” Bulla says. “What I would recommend if somebody was asking me to reproduce what we did is that the first thing is, as a utility, you’re going to make a decision that you want to do this, and then you put together a team representing each of those areas.

“You get together on whatever basis you can, to get all these people in one room, and you literally will go through every process of your facility, starting from the headworks, all the way through whatever your particular treatment is,” Bulla says. “You are assessing every aspect of it, from energy, to sampling, analysis, equipment, maintenance programs — everything.”

Benefits

It may seem like a lot of effort to go through for a little PR boost, but there are a number of less-obvious advantages of the program and of optimization in general.

At the end of the day, every utility answers to its ratepayers, and not only does the commitment to improvement look good in the eyes of the public, it’s an assurance that those in charge of sanitation are taking care of customers’ money.

“First and foremost, the goal of this program is to find improvements at little to no cost,” Bulla says. “So if some people are worried that this is going to result in capital improvements or anything like that, that’s not the goal of this program.

“As we assessed, we learned that we could actually save money if we made a few minor changes to our operation,” Bulla says. “One of the things we learned is when we made a couple changes to our wasting process in two aerated holding tanks, if we managed it well enough, we could actually put biosolids in one tank and take our second tank offline. I think it was like $80,000 a year in energy. So not only are you saving money, you’ve saved energy as well.”

It’s not just changes to existing infrastructure either. Cultivating the optimization mindset benefits utilities as they upgrade and advance.

“One of the benefits of having an optimization approach is that we’ve identified areas that we want to improve upon,” Revels says. “When we’re looking at adding a new aeration system, for instance, we know that we want to be more energy-efficient, so we make that an emphasis of how we approach the engineering design.”

With the challenging state of wastewater treatment in general, including increasing regulations and pressure to embrace alternative treatment methods, it’s important for utilities of all sizes to push the envelope on what their facilities are capable of. Staying on top of the latest trends and methods is more important than ever, and being a part of the Partnership provides insight into the industry while promoting a mindset in employees to pursue innovative treatment.

Studies have shown time and time again that worker performance increases when they have input and feel that their job is making a difference. Giving them the opportunity and encouraging constructive feedback improves job satisfaction, and staff buy-in is ultimately the best way to ensure that a utility is operating at its best to protect the environment.

Far-reaching impact

On the water utility side, AWWA’s Partnership program has encouraged innovative optimization for 20 years, and promoting that mindset has been an important part of industry advancement. With the development of the new wastewater Partnership, Cary’s treatment team is hopeful that it will be a similar force for innovation in the wastewater industry.

“It seems like there’s been very little recognition for wastewater treatment facilities over the years, at least in our area, so this was a really great opportunity to leverage all the lessons learned in the water utility Partnership over the years,” Revels says. “It’s a great opportunity for information exchange among the utilities who want to participate in this, and for using best practices to bring the whole industry up to a higher level.”



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