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WaterOperator.org Blog

Maintaining Customer Satisfaction

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Maintaining customer satisfaction can go overlooked when operators are busy tending to the daily needs of their facility, however good customer relationships are an important component to any well run utility. Community trust improves cooperation under emergencies and helps customers to do their part in caring for their system. When changes to the utility are made such as a new infrastructure project or a long awaited rate adjustments, customers will more easily hop on board. Not to mention, an unhappy customer can lead to unnecessary public relations (PR) challenges.

In Hartsville, South Carolina one business owner watched for a month as a sinkhole slowly took over her car lot. The owner first called her Water and Sewer Authority in September reaching out about her growing concerns. She made five additional calls into October until finally contacting her local news channel for help. Swiftly after the news channel reached out to the Authority, workers were sent to fix the sinkhole.

In Darlington, South Carolina a pair of homeowners brought their sewer system into the public eye under equally pressing conditions. The city received unprecedented rainstorms in October leading to excess stormwater runoff. Under these conditions, many homeowners experienced sewage backups. Despite the city's ongoing efforts to manage overflows, the backups brought the system into an unwanted spot light. A Sanitary Sewer Overflow Response Plan can help for incidents such as these.

While we can do our best to avoid these incidents, accidents happen. When they do, good communication and listening skills can make a difficult situation much easier. How to Keep Customers Happy in Solution H2O encourages utilities to establish a good public presence prior to these events. When services are disrupted, the article encourages utility leaders to step forward and reassure customers that their complaints are being addressed. We also recommend the supervisor follow up with impacted customers after the issue has been resolved. Many of the negative articles we see published in local news can be avoided by following the tips suggested in the American Water Works Association's publication Trending in an Instant

Operator Educates Millions on TikTok

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This wastewater treatment plant operator has gained millions of views on TikTok after posting numerous informational videos on various wastewater topics. His most viewed video on where toilet water goes when you flush gained 12.2 million views. In some of his other videos, he shows behind the scenes at a wastewater treatment plant and what the inside of a manhole actually looks like

This operator is doing a good job at educating the public and specifically young people about wastewater. Wastewater operations make everyday life possible and it's great that more people are interested in what's going on behind the scenes. You can check out this operator on TikTok @waterbearops.

Do you know of any other TikTok accounts from operators? Let us know! 

Featured Video: Disinfection Byproducts in Tap Water: 5 Things To Know

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The challenge of disinfection byproduct (DBP) control in drinking water lies in balancing the varying health risks of over 600 known DBPs with the benefits of microbial waterborne illnesses prevented via disinfection. While DBPs can originate from industrial sources, they generally form in water treatment systems when natural organic matter reacts with a disinfectant, usually chlorine-based. Ongoing studies have suggested that the toxicity for any given DBP can range from having no known health effects to exhibiting links between exposure and cancer, birth defects, or reproductive disorders. Disinfectant type and dose, residual chlorine, inorganic and organic precursor concentrations, pH, temperature, and water age can impact DBP formation.

The management of DBPs in drinking water is enforced through the Stage 1 and Stage 2 Disinfection Byproduct Rule (DBPR). Collectively, the rules set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for total trihalomethanes (TTHM), 5 haloacetic acids (HAA5), bromate, chlorite, chlorine/chloramines, chlorine dioxide, and DBP precursors.

According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Stage 2 DBPR invoked the largest number of community water system violations between 2017 and 2018, accounting for approximately 30% of all drinking water violations. Consecutive water systems, those with surface water sources, and systems serving populations of 501 to 10,000 people experienced violations more frequently. A greater compliance challenge is experienced by consecutive systems because they have little control over the water that they receive. While treated water may have achieved compliance at the system’s interconnection, DBP concentrations can rise through the receiving distribution system.

Non-consecutive utilities experiencing compliance challenges for the Stage 1 or 2 DBPR can start by troubleshooting the system using our previous blog post on The Disinfection By-Product Challenge. Consecutive systems should coordinate with their wholesale system following the approaches suggested in the 2019 report discussed above. The preferable methods of control often lie in prevention and optimization. As your system troubleshoots the cause of high DBP concentrations, keep the community informed on your efforts as well as some basic information on the health effects and sources of DBPs. Operators can find a general overview on DBP challenges in this week’s featured video. We recommend using this video to provide customers with answers to the following questions:

  • What are disinfection byproducts?
  • How are DBPs regulated?
  • How do I know if my water has high levels of DBPs?
  • How are people exposed to DBPs?
  • How do I remove DBPs from my home’s water?

Featured Video: Flushable Wipe's Effects on Our Sewer System

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Many collection systems struggle to prevent the costly and time consuming repairs associated with flushable wipes. Despite the label these wipes remain intact in sewer systems. They often clump into large blockages held together by grease. When the blockage becomes too large, sewers experience sanitary backups and pricey pump damage. 

This week’s featured video reviews the management options for flushable wipes as explained by Great Lakes Water Authority. One common solution for wipe buildup requires the installation of sewer grates and filter screens. Though operators will be required to regularly clear away wipe accumulation, systems can plan for the added maintenance expenses while preventing unexpected downtime. Other systems may choose to break down wipes with chopper pumps or grinder pumps, however this can lead to reweaving later in the collection system.

The video ultimately demonstrates that there is no single and efficient method to avoid wipe backups other than consumer education. With the final costs of wipe maintenance funded by the rate-payer, collection systems should be vocal in educating their customers about the products that can and cannot be flushed down the toilet. For more information on flushable products, check out our blog post Will it Flush.

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

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Interested in a new way to tell your water system stories? Do you want to reach out to a diverse audience using maps and data in order to help them visualize and more completely understand the issues? Then a Story Map might be just the ticket.

In the past year or so, we at WaterOperator.org have collected examples of how ESRI's Story Maps are being used by water utilities, agencies, states and local governments. Here are few of our favorites:

This Story Map from Cobb County, GA answers the age-old question, "Where do we get our drinking water from?"

And this one from Clarkstown, NY uses all sorts of graphics, 3-D visualizations and maps to illustrate how it maintains its vast MS4 stormwater system. 

The USEPA has also been using this new tool to collect case studies and utility stories for its Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities

The state of California Division of Drinking Water is using Story Maps to present lead sampling results for its public schools, updated monthly to reflect additional samples they receive. 

And here is an example of a tribal Story Map that shows how the Samish Indian Nation is building resilience for the future impact of climate change in Washington State. 

For even more inspiring examples, Esri hosts a website of contest-winning Story Maps and a Gallery of Story Maps using creative approaches and best practices in a wide range of subjects and industries. 

Story Maps are a great way to combine maps with text, images, videos and more to create impactful stories to leverage support for your water system and to communicate effectively with your audience. Story Maps are part of ArcGIS Online, Esri's cloud-based mapping and GIS platform, and you can register for a free ArcGIS public account here.

Ready to get started? The Learn ArcGIS website has this series of three 30-60 minute lessons, and/or you can watch the video below, and/or read this recent blog post on How to Make a Story Map. 

Featured Video: A Day in the Life of a Water Treatment Plant Operator

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A career in water can provide a great opportunity to earn a good living and make a difference in your community. But what is a water operator job really like? Watch this video from Carmichael Water District in California to find out! Note: This video is shot from a first person POV, and may cause motion sickness.

 

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues

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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.

Need a Roadtrip Idea? Check Out These Waterworks Museums

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 Are you fascinated by old steam-powered pumps and engines, or the stories that inspired ingenuity and invention in the water industry? Do you like cool old buildings? If the answer is "yes," then pack up your family and/or friends and take a road trip to one (or more) of the following waterworks museums! 

  • The Waterworks Museum, Boston, MA: This museum interprets unique stories of one of the country's first metropolitan water systems through exhibitions and educational programs on engineering, architecture, social history and public health. The centerpiece of the museum is its collection of original 3-story high coal-powered, steam-driven water pumps. Admission is free (donations accepted). 
  • The WaterWorks Museum, Louisville, KY: Located inside the west wing of Louisville Water Company's original Pumping Station No. 1, the WaterWorks Museum highlights Louisville Water’ Company's archive of historic photographs, films and memorabilia, some of which date back to 1860. Discover the company’s contributions to safe drinking water through its innovations in science and engineering. 
  • The Shreveport Water Works Museum, Shreveport, LA: This museum, a national historic landmark, is the last known steam-powered municipal water treatment plant in the US. It was also among the earliest facilities to use chlorine in the treatment process. Today, the entire physical plant (pumps, filters and other machinery) remains in place after more than 100 years of service and is a rare example of an intact steam water works. Best of all, admission is free!
  • Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia, PA: The Fairmount Water Works is a National Historic Landmark, a Civil Engineering Landmark, and a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and was designed and constructed to provide safe, clean drinking water to a city on the cusp of remarkable growth. This museum educates citizens regarding the interconnections between their community and environment, particularly the public’s essential role in protecting and stewarding our water and natural land resources. Cost: Free.
  • In the mood for overseas exploration? You might want to check out the Museum of Sewerage Science in Osaka, Japan (the third floor is dedicated entirely to advanced wastewater treatment technology), or this active steam-powered waterworks museum in Hereford, UK or these sewer museums in London, Paris, and Brussels!  

The Importance of Customer Outreach

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The more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with community and water leaders, a new study finds. In fact, constituents who received water‐related information from utility mailings or served on committees and boards had perceptions that were more aligned with leaders' concerns. This is why cutting outreach could be a big mistake for utilities of all sizes. 

Another study finding is that there is a real disconnect between the concerns of customers and that of water providers. Residents showed most concern about potential water shortages and high water bills, while their leaders were most concerned about deteriorating local water infrastructure. This was the case no matter where cities were located or what their water source was. 

From their end, residents have a good reason to be concerned about their water rates. The labor department has released findings that show water rates have increased 5.5% on average each year over the past decade, three times faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, water utilities are feeling the squeeze while trying to provide high quality water with aging or inadequate infrastructure. 

This disconnect is why it is crucial for utilities to talk to, and listen to, their ratepayers. Giving the public a voice in major decisions and communicating critical issues results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable. And that is good news for everyone. 

Interested in outreach resources? Type in "outreach" in our document database on WaterOperator.org or you can check out this recent listing.

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

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There's a new hero in town: Utilities United Against Scams. In the past year, this national organization made up of more than 100 electric, gas, and water utilities, has successfully worked to disconnect more than four dozen 1-800 numbers tracked to scam artists and swindlers who pose as utility representatives threatening to shut off a customer's service unless bills are paid. The organization has also partnered with law enforcement and created materials and resources for utilities to use to warn their customers.

Why are these warnings so valuable?  A recent report published by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) found that people are particularly susceptible to utility scams. This, combined with a median financial loss of $500 — quite a sum for many customers of small systems — means that there is no incentive for this type of activity to decrease. In fact, according to a study by Hiya, utility scams rose 109 percent in 2016 alone. 

While only a handful of mostly larger water utilities are on the roster at this time, the AWWA is encouraging additional water utilities to sign up for a free membership in Utilities United Against Scams in order to pool resources with other systems to fight this growing problem and amplify public outreach. The organization also hopes to create a centralized database for fraud committed against utility customers that could prove useful to water systems of all sizes. 

To be sure, it is important for organizations such as UUAS to address concerns specific to water utilities, concerns that are different from the typical payment scams common to other utilities: mainly, imposters trying to gain access to homes and businesses with the intent to rob by claiming the need to check meters, test water or check pipes. The Middlesex Water Company advises customers to ask for a photo ID before allowing anyone into their home and Fraud.org suggests customers take these steps to protect themselves: always call the utility directly, never pay by wire transfer or prepaid cards and never give out personal information. 

In attempt to raise awareness of these pressing issues, UUAS has created the Consumer Guide to Imposter Utility Scams to educate leaders and consumers about the types of scams that are occurring across the country (phone, in-person and internet) as well as provide tips to share with community members to avoid scams and contact information for assistance in case a customer becomes a victim. 

Are you interested in finding out more about the utility scams that are showing up in your community? Check out this interactive Scam Tracker map from the Better Business Bureau. And customers aren't the only ones who can fall prey to crafty scammers: according to this article from Idaho Rural Water, there was an outbreak of scammers in 2012 tricking rural water operators into receiving "free samples" of water treatment products that they were later charged for!