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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

On a typical day at the plant, water and wastewater system personnel are challenged to do a lot with a little in the service of protecting and producing water for their community. Certainly one way staff members are demonstrating this resourcefulness has been in their adoption of energy efficient strategies and programs. 

Why is this important? Simply stated, saving energy can help small systems put their scarce resources towards what really matters: safe drinking water and clean wastewater discharge.  

According to Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Best Practices Guide for the Water and Wastewater Industry, additional benefits to water systems include improved control and treatment as well as shorter paybacks compared to other industries on capital costs for energy efficiency improvements. Of course, the amount of energy savings will vary depending on the type of system in use, the age and condition of the equipment/infrastructure and the capital available to implement major changes, if necessary. 

But even if you have little to no capital available to make improvements, energy savings are still very much possible! This resource from the U.S. Department of Energy, and this list from ORACWA, for example, list the many low or no-cost measures plants can take to save energy, and therefore, money. 

But before you start an energy savings programs, the EPA recommends that you conduct an energy audit or assessment of your system. Free tools for doing this can be found on the EPA's Energy Efficiency for Small Drinking Water Systems webpage, or you can view this webinar recording. In addition, the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP) staff across the United States are able to carry out energy audits for drinking water and wastewater facilities. Find the contact information your RCAP region at https://rcap.org/contact/.

The next step is to identify the easy targets. RCAP has an article (Five Things You Can Do To Save On Energy in Your Utility) and a video to help you do this. In addition, the EPA has a step-by-step presentation on energy self-sufficiency and the role new technologies can play to help you achieve this. 

Other resources include: 

Finally, here are some energy facts that might just surprise you! 

  • Over 90 percent of energy consumed in producing and delivering drinking water is used for pumping. (Check out this WRF resource on strategies to save $ during the pumping process)
  • 30 to 60 percent of a municipality’s energy budget is spent on the treatment of water and wastewater
  • According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, energy audits typically identify potential savings to the user of 10 to 40 percent, with 20 percent being the average.

Featured Video: What Does it Take to be an Operator?

Featured Video: What Does it Take to be an Operator?
Water and wastewater operators provide critical services to their communities, and yet the work they do often flies under the public's radar. This lack of visibility can make it challenging to attract new talent to the field. At the same time, a shortage of certified operators is expected as older operators retire. 

This workforce shortage can hit rural areas and small systems particularly hard, as they often can't keep up with pay rates offered by larger, urban systems. Recruitment strategies include apprenticeship programs, partnerships with community organizations, programs for veterans, and more, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to attract the right kind of people to the field in the first place.  

This video includes interviews with two operators who talk about how they got into the field and what skills they use in their jobs. This video can be shown to encourage people to enter the field, including high school, college and community college or trade school students. 

If you are interested in learning more, check out this new workforce report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings (funded by the Water Research Foundation) describing the range of water jobs available regionally, the potential pools of labor to fill these jobs, and development strategies to equip workers with needed skills.


Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants

Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants
Last week, a large explosion at a water reclamation facility in Calumet, IL served as a somber reminder of the importance of following safe practices when dealing with methane gas or any flammable material at treatment plants. While no one was killed, there were injuries and some of these were severe.

With this in mind, there is no better time than now to review safety procedures and training practices for working around potentially explosive materials like methane. 

An important first safety step, according to this Spring 2018 article in Missouri WEA's Current Magazine, is to check your facility for gas leaks and accumulations. When doing this, it is better to use a combustible gas meter than to rely on your sense of smell, because an individual's nose can become desensitized to the tell-tale rotten-egg smell over time. In addition, it is essential that workers know how to use monitors properly, and test them regularly.

Other recommendations include the installation of an automatic fan/ventilation system and a permanent gas detection system. 

Finally, as this safety presentation from Suez points out, never perform hot work unless explosion risks have been identified and eliminated. If you need a visual reminder about why this is so important, this video from the US Chemical Society & Hazard Investigation Board (USCSB) lays out the events leading up to a fatal Florida wastewater plant explosion in 2006. 

Gas and chemical hazards are an invisible but unavoidable fact in the operations of a wastewater treatment plant. Get a step ahead of the game by reviewing these tips and following the correct protocol - it's the best way to ensure that you return home safely each workday.

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face considerable management and operational challenges. This week's featured video highlights the benefits of attending a "Workshop in a Box: Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Systems" training to help manage these challenges. The video features people who who attended this training: small system managers, technical assistance providers, workshop participants, and a small town decision-maker. 

Interested in attending this training? An in-person session is scheduled for later this month (9/28) in Logan, West Virginia and will cover, among other things, how to use the Rural and Small Systems Guidebook to Sustainable Utility Management to make system improvements. This material will be also be covered in an USEPA webinar this coming Thursday (9/13) at 2 pm Eastern Time.

Help your utilities provide affordable and dependable water by attending this workshop and make your water systems a community priority.

New Video Series: Compliance Conversations for Small Water Systems

New Video Series: Compliance Conversations for Small Water Systems

Every time we hop on a call or head to a conference, we hear from experts with a wealth of knowledge. From "Why didn't I think of that?" tips to fascinating case studies, we're bringing the juiciest tidbits to you with a new video series.

Compliance Conversations offers insights on operating and managing a small public water system from a range of contributors. Each episode will feature an interview with a water industry professional so you can learn from the comfort of your computer or favorite device.

The first four episodes feature Jeff Oxenford, of Oxenford Consulting and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. In these episodes, Jeff breaks down the most common drinking water compliance issues:

We're already working on a new batch of episodes, so make sure to subscribe to the WaterOperator.org YouTube channel so you will be the first to know when new videos are uploaded!

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project
Water and wastewater systems can be some of a community's largest investments, so it is really important to get it right—decisions made in the early stages of infrastructure planning can impact a community for generations to come.

Community leaders are often tempted to let an outside consultant completely handle the project because they are worried they don't have the expertise to make the right decisions. However, it is important to stay actively involved so that the community’s voice is not lost and the project is appropriate, affordable, and supported by the public.

Certainly one of the most critical early-stage decisions in this process is who to hire as your engineer, the person who will be involved in nearly every aspect of the project from evaluating financing options, completing designs, obtaining permits, bidding the project, and the actual construction. And make no mistake, this hiring process can be a challenging task. Luckily, WaterOperator.org has a collection of resources to help you through. 

For example, this RCAP guide explains the steps that communities can take to gain control of the project-development process. It is a very detailed how-to and includes many pitfalls to avoid. It discusses securing funding, how to stay organized, and, how to hire an engineer. RCAP recommends following a QBS (qualification-based selection) process in order to choose an engineer whose strengths, experience and skills match your system's needs.

For more information regarding the QBS process, you can read this manual from Ohio Qualification Based Selection Coalition (while some of the information may be specific to Ohio, much of the process is similar regardless of the state). In addition, RCAP has a handy list of 10 tips to help communities hire an engineer.  

Other helpful resources in our library include Washington State DOH's guide for small public water systems on how to hire an engineer. Included in this guide are considerations regarding how to determine costs of services provided. Idaho's DEQ also has an engineer hiring guide that includes questions to ask during the interview. And this MAP guide emphasizes the importance of having a survey or analysis of the condition of your present system, as well as the problems a new project will address. This "Scope of Work", according to MAP, is perhaps the most important part of your Request for Proposals when searching for an engineer. 

A final, but valuable, piece of advice, repeated throughout these resources, is that selection should be based on demonstrated competence and qualifications and not on price for services rendered. In this way, you can ensure that the project will be a valued community asset for years to come. 

Featured Video: Surviving the Quake

Featured Video: Surviving the Quake

Did you know that almost half of all Americans live in areas prone to earthquakes? Water and wastewater utilities serving this population are extremely vulnerable to damage because of their vast network of underground pipes as well as their pumps, tanks, reservoirs and treatment facilities (not to mention their dependency on electricity!). This week's featured video introduces small and medium-sized water and wastewater utilities to earthquake resilience and introduces EPA tools including the Earthquake Resilience Guide and Earthquake Interactive Maps (soon to be released).  


After watching this video, read about the experiences of actual water utilities that have successfully implemented mitigation measures to address this threat in the EPA's new Earthquake Resilience Guide. And if you wondering if your utility is in an earthquake hazard area, you will soon be able to use a map such as this one from the California Geological Survey to find out.  

When an earthquake strikes, it can cause breaks in pipelines, cracks in storage and process tanks and even the collapse of an entire plant. When this happens, a community can experience loss of pressure, contamination and drinking water service disruption. The first step in protecting your community is to be prepared because the faster a water or wastewater utility recovers from an earthquake, the faster the community it serves can recover. 

Featured Videos: RCAP's Technical Assistance Providers on What's Really Important About Their Jobs

Featured Videos: RCAP's Technical Assistance Providers on What's Really Important About Their Jobs
These brief videos introduce RCAP technical assistance providers and how they work to improve small water and wastewater systems across the country. These videos demonstrate that while every system and community experiences different challenges, the importance of building trusting relationships with stakeholders to address these challenges is a constant. 

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues
While some water systems host open houses or group tours periodically, citizen academies offer a more intensive learning experience for residents. This experience can leverage a deeper understanding, and support, from the local community for the important and often underappreciated work operators do to protect public health. Residents, in turn, get a rare behind-the-scenes opportunity to learn about water and wastewater issues first-hand and experience how a water utility operates in real-time as it overcomes today's challenges.

Citizen academies come in all sizes and shapes. Spartanburg Water in South Carolina hosts a 6-week interactive series at the public library with sessions on source water, water quality and asset management as well as field trips to local plants. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a 5-week course takes participants inside the water facility to view demonstrations of daily operations, lab work and water main repairs. In Indiana, the town of Carmel organizes a Citizens Utility Academy that provides insight into the responsibilities and operations of not only water & wastewater, but also trash, recycling and hazardous waste disposal. 

The benefits to water systems are numerous. Citizen academies offer utilities the opportunity to connect with their residents in such a way that these residents become informal ambassadors for the utility. In a sense, this connection creates trust between the utility and citizens. In addition, these academies can inspire residents to volunteer to serve on advisory boards or utility committees, or otherwise serve as a liaison between the public and the utility.

Interested in exploring the possibility of a citizen's academy for your water system? This website from the University of North Carolina School of Government includes a "how-to" program component guide as well as case studies and other resources. 

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

The Small Communities Environmental Infrastructure Group assists small Ohio communities in finding resources to help solve their infrastructure and funding problems. These two videos feature water and sewer district officials and staff discussing the benefits of participating in SCEIG regional partnerships in order to better serve their communities. 

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