Opportunity Knocks

March 5, 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).

Born in 1948, I would be considered a “baby boomer.” Those in my generation are beginning to retire and will do so, in increasing numbers, for some time. As new operators step up to take our places, I suggest that municipalities not only introduce more stringent hiring qualifications but also incorporate more sophisticated and utility-relevant academic training.

In the informative September 2010 Water Environment &Technology (WE&T) article, “Rebuilding through recruiting,” author Margie Anderson indicates that part of a recruitment drive plan to replace wastewater operators in the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) “includes systematically employing high school student interns and college apprentices to work side by side with established professionals.” At MSD students get this opportunity through the “earn-and-learn” program, The Student Intern Academy. This brings potential operators to the work-site just as their careers are about to begin. They not only learn the basics of treatment but also, in my opinion, are exposed to the realities of treatment including the feeling of pride for first-class operation of a water resource recovery facility (WRRF). This type of program allows negative myths of working in the field to be dispelled and students who seek careers in the field to pursue academic courses that fit their needs.

Often municipal wastewater treatment personnel are hired for entry-level positions without understanding, either academically or practically, the fundamentals of the job. They are trained to complete the mechanics of the work without gaining an appreciation of how changes affect the process across any number of parameters, such as food-to-microorganism (F/M) ratio, dissolved oxygen levels, or settling rates. Operator superiors most likely will not demonstrate the mathematical basis needed to identify and suggest changes to clarify a facility’s process parameters or to identify the location for adjustments. New operators learn only such basic mechanical knowledge as which valve to turn, and this knowledge is fed top-down as required.

In a training course I conducted, two young operators from the same facility in southwestern Ontario explained that they strictly followed directions communicated to them from an absentee manager on what mechanical changes were required on a daily basis. Neither understood how those changes affected plant operational criteria such as F/M ratio or chemical feed rates for phosphorus removal.

When presenting another wastewater treatment course with approximately 20 attendees that included senior operators, I learned that only one had used a microscope while operating a treatment system and that had been more than two decades prior. During yet another training course, operators explained that supervisors would ask them to provide operational process information such as dissolved oxygen, solids levels, operating temperatures, and flow rates. The supervisors then would enter this data into a computer program to generate a plant operational profile based on an algorithm representing the facility’s process. The “messengers” were not privy to the program’s results. From my understanding, while the results were not withheld from these operators, they also were not voluntarily shared with or used to explain any process changes that might be indicated to these operators.

This approach is akin to an apprentice brewer learning how to produce beer without a fundamental knowledge of yeast or microorganisms. A master brewer who keeps apprentices turning valves without addressing the yeast doing the work shortchanges both the apprentice and product. Similar to brewing, WRRFs depend on microorganisms. The core of most conventional facilities is the aerobic and anaerobic microbiologically driven process. Aeration and digestion systems function based on the care and feeding of microorganisms and much of the WRRF is operated around the principles of keeping these organisms alive and kicking.

It is time for a new operating paradigm in wastewater treatment. Operators must become true process experts. In addition to preventive maintenance programs and health and safety procedures, the tasks of turning valves, adjusting the flow balance between parallel process streams, and adjusting chemical feed rates for nutrient removal are the tools to ensure WRRF microbiological factories are optimized, clarifiers are efficient, and disinfection systems are effective.

Through comprehensive, recorded, facility process optimization, operators will become the best source of understanding basis of design data for the WRRF. Basis of design values will be comprehensive, covering everything from clarifier detention times and aeration system operating criteria to influent and final effluent characteristics. By becoming proficient with basis of design criteria, operators will fundamentally understand a facility’s capabilities in relation to its design.

As a system’s operating parameters are approached hydraulically and/or organically, technologist-operators will be the ones to provide a facility superintendent and design engineers with real-world data needed by these talented personnel to confidently design any required expansion. Technologist-operators will enter a new collaborative, mutually respectful relationship with managers and engineers.

These goals only can be achieved by hiring personnel who seek work as an operator and train at post-secondary institutions and who graduate with a diploma or degree that credibly reflects the academic needs of the field. Combined with the practical experience in the workplace, we must hire operators into our facilities who truly know how to operate WRRFs.

John Seldon, WEF Member

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

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