HARNESSING INSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE TO IMPROVE PLANT OPERATIONS

Earlier this year, Alexandria Light and Power (ALP) faced an all-too common problem for utilities across the nation. A long-time employee with decades of experience running the 4.3 million gallon per day (mgd) system was retiring. The loss of so much institutional knowledge would have a huge impact, so ALP started taking steps to prepare.

“I have worked with ALP for almost 15 years and they reached out to ask us if we could help,” Richard Wagner, Assistant Operations Manager for AE2S’ Moorhead and Fargo offices explained.

Wagner coordinated a Water Treatment Plant (WTP) visit with Dr. Delvin DeBoer, AE2S Senior Consultant. Dr. DeBoer toured the WTP and listened to employees. “The most important question I ask is, ‘Why do you do the things you do?’” Dr. DeBoer said.

After a few days with the WTP staff, and a handful of days preparing reports, Dr. DeBoer was able to offer ALP something they needed – documented WTP operations based on institutional knowledge and a more comprehensive understanding of how the WTP performs and responds to changing parameters or conditions. “It’s just building on what the operators already know,” Dr. DeBoer said. “This type of facility analysis expands what an operator already knows and can help them feel more confident about their operational decisions and approaches. It also enables operators to feel permitted to explore optimization opportunities.”

Now, after the retirement cake has been eaten and speeches given, the WTP is still operating at peak performance, and the new operator continues to expand his knowledge.

“I just heard from him the other day that he is doing some filter breakthrough tests to get a feel for how the plant is running and how the filters perform. He is acquiring intimate knowledge of the water treatment plant so he can take ownership in its operation,” Wagner explained.

Dr. DeBoer said his work for ALP focused on helping the community make the transition. This included the often-overlooked task of transferring knowledge of day-to-day procedures to new operators. “Even though they were backup operators, they didn’t really have a feel for what really happens in the plant. Part of the review was helping them understand the processes behind the scenes,” he explained.

The review included three main areas:

  • Understanding the basics of the plant
  • Helping operators know those processes and understanding the control systems that guide those processes
  • Ensuring the new operators could collect and interpret process monitoring and water quality data required for compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

High-quality water is the main goal, but helping operators of every age, ability, and background take ownership and pride in providing the highest-quality water possible is the reason Dr. DeBoer loves doing this type of analysis.

“I love the teaching aspect of this work and helping operators understand more of their systems,” said the retired South Dakota State University Environmental Engineering Professor. “The ultimate goal is to provide high-quality drinking water, and if the operators are equipped with the ability to do that with a high level of confidence, that’s really great. I love seeing them grow in their careers and having the capability and confidence to do what they do.”

Dr. DeBoer has done this type of work with other utilities across the upper Midwest. He’s traveled across state lines to help municipalities and rural water systems review their WTP operation and find efficiencies to save money, or to help operators understand their pretreatment systems and the chemistry within the facility. In one instance, Dr. DeBoer explained, he reviewed a facility to see if there was any way to improve efficiency and optimization with the treatment processes.

“We found that they could save almost $4,000 a month by changing their backwashing procedures,” he said. “AE2S can help operators find more efficient ways of operating a plant, by helping the operators understand the process better. The learning process also helps operators feel empowered to explore potential changes to current operations that may save additional time and money.”

Wagner said the facility reviews have been an excellent tool for many of his clients to ensure their facilities are operating as efficiently as possible. “The operator who was retiring commented that he wished we would have done this 10 years ago, because the review provided a different perspective, insight and knowledge that he didn’t have,” Wagner said.

For more information about facility reviews, contact Wagner at Richard.Wagner@ae2s.com or Dr. DeBoer at Delvin.DeBoer@ae2s.com.

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