Basis of Design: A Wastewater Operator’s Working Paradigm

May 21, 2014


John Seldon, WEF Member and founder of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.

John Seldon, a Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) member since 1980, is founder and president of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc. (Port Burwell, Ontario) and a principal of Envir-O-Site Inc. (Sarnia, Ontario). During his career, Seldon has focused on optimizing municipal and industrial solids collection and dewatering systems.Since entering the wastewater field in 1973, Seldon has

  • developed and taught courses for water resource recovery facility operators;
  • published articles and research reports on various topics, such as biosolids, regulations, and operations;
  • presented research at many wastewater industry events;
  • worked as a technical support superintendent, in wastewater equipment sales, and as a project manager;
  • joined the Canadian Institute of Planners (Ottawa, Ontario), Ontario Professional Planners Institute (Toronto), and Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (Etobicoke);
  • become a certified engineering technologist and registered professional planner;
  • obtained certification in environmental assessment; and
  • earned a master’s degree in regional planning and resource development from the University of Waterloo (Ontario).

Along with appropriate training and certification, I believe the position of wastewater operator as a distinct career designation needs to be defined more clearly.

I work as an independent contractor. A private-sector firm looking to design a new water resource recovery facility (WRRF) to capture solids from its potato-washing system hired me to gather related basis-of-design data. Although the firm had individuals responsible for the basic fluming/settling process and arranged for solids removal through the private sector, no operational data was collected from the ongoing operation. The firm hired me to gain insight into the efficiency of the solids collection system and to collect basis-of-design information.

This type of work, found frequently in the private sector, exemplifies a need to understand treatment-process parameters by sampling and measuring the process stream characteristics. Much of the information gathered is reduced to arithmetic values that engineers need for process design work. So, the person gathering the information needs to know how to quantify process characteristics and should have a fundamental understanding of the values. If presented with a particular value for a process step, this person should know if that value makes sense or is an anomaly.

Basic arithmetic, modest math, and an ability to summarize information on a simple statistical level is crucial to understanding any wastewater treatment process. Operators should have expertise in analyzing and presenting this data.

WRRF design — informed by microbiology, chemistry, hydraulics, instrumentation, surveying, and receiving stream assimilative capacity — is an engineer’s world. Often engineers obtain specialized knowledge from experts on specific topics, such as microbiology or stream ecology. These topics may not be their core areas of academic study or practical field experience, but can explain the engineering required to best design a WRRF.

I urge that operator certification include math and statistical understanding of process operation at a WRRF. Each core topic required for certification most likely addresses its own area of arithmetic. I suggest that a separate core-study area cover all wastewater process steps, provide clear explanation of how the steps link together arithmetically, and discuss the sophisticated means of calculation that incorporate all phases of the process. This verges on process modeling, which can be found in “black box” commercial packages, but unless an operator understands how values are calculated, the black box just removes the operator another step from truly understanding processes.

Because WRRF basis-of-design values are tied intrinsically to arithmetic, they could be used as the structure to build a “whole facility” math course. Without this knowledge, and how to obtain it, an operator is in the dark as far as his or her understanding of the process for which he or she is responsible. In my experience, this appears to be the area of greatest weakness for operators, although chemistry and microbiology are not far behind.

Operators of today’s facilities also need another area of knowledge and expertise: the ability to write a technology report on WRRF process streams, addressing both individual components and the facility as whole. Many journals have printed articles written by operators. This needs to become the norm rather than the exception, derived from regular reporting of any single facility’s operation. Report writing also should be a core course requirement for a WRRFoperator to become certified as a technologist.

Operators hired now will define the future operational quality of our increasingly complex WRRFs. Those who understand there is a need to understand the math, know how to do the math, and who are curious about the math, will be more productive and better serve their facilities. The same curiosity, interest, and drive to understand chemistry, microbiology, and hydraulics also are needed to best run a WRRF. The level of knowledge operators need is very high.

Increasing the professionalism of a wastewater technologist/operators can be accomplished by improving academic training across many disciplines, on-site experience, and regulatory licensing and certification as technologists by an accredited organization. This enables operators to build a bridge to their engineering counterparts so they will not be handmaidens to engineers, but technological peers who provide the best operation of facilities the engineers designed and who support operational knowledge with accurate data. This is not too much to ask.

I want to be greeted at a facility by an operator who insists that I review the most recent mean cell residence time data for an aeration system, augmented by a review of the aeration’s indicator organisms and how their relative abundance had changed due to loading fluctuations during a certain time-period. I want to be met by an operator who has taken aeration studies to the point of identifying the actual bacteria doing the work in his or her facility, identifying them with the facility’s influent feed characteristics. This is the type of operator who communicates this information to colleagues and other operators through technical papers presented both at conferences and published in respected journals. I want to be greeted by an operator who knows the facility’s nutrient levels so well that the chemical added for phosphorus removal is at a feed rate, at least in part, determined by the biological need for nutrients by the aeration cell’s activated sludge. And I want to meet an operator who conducts trend analyses of daily process data by date, season, and special event.

John Seldon, WEF Member

This is Seldon’s seventh column in a series exploring the future for water resource recovery facility technologist-operators. Other columns in the series include

, , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.