Water Utility Rx

How many operators does it take to run your facility? A look at the trends

In the 1990s, the U.S. water industry took a long, hard look at itself and drastically reduced operating staffs in response to a nationwide push toward privatization. As a result, millions of dollars in labor were saved simply by reducing operating crews to minimum levels.

Before this operational shift, facility staffs resembled those of the 1970s, when American water and wastewater plants had little to no automation, or SCADA systems.

So why talk about operating staffing today? Problem solved, right?

Not so fast.

The staffing reductions of the ‘90s relied on an old staffing model to trim head count— i.e., picking the low-hanging fruit. We now operate in an age during which instrumentation and control is more advanced, and it’s possible to re-engineer the staffing tree.

So the question becomes not how many operators we need, but rather does the old definition of an "operator” still hold true.

Can we go unattended?

Some utilities have continued to use technology to further reduce their operating staff. Although saving money is certainly a driver, other reasons include fewer people who want to do shift work or competitive forces that create a scarcity of certified operators.

Today, wastewater treatment plants are handling 30 to 40 mgd flow rates with just a single operator on shift. Likewise, a 20 mgd advanced treatment facility can largely operate unattended, except during peak times, such as weekdays. In general, this move to one or no operators on a shift was predicated on the need to operate solids dewatering processes. New technology, internet-based cameras and SCADA systems have made it possible for even dewatering to start up remotely.

In some cases, a state’s environmental rules about the responsibility of operators can get in the way of reducing staff. If a state requires that a certain class of operator must be in charge of the plant at all times, this sets the mark at where staff reduction efforts stop.

Surprisingly, there are some accounts of rules interpretation in which a certain class of operator is required if the facility is staffed, but the facility is not required to be staffed 100 percent of the time. This leads to a scenario where by not staffing the plant, there is no need for an on-site certified operator — clearly not the intent of the original rule.

So if we can go unattended, why don’t more facilities consider doing it? The primary reasons include risk of non-compliance, poor reliability of equipment, and protecting an expensive asset.

In short, it boils down to risk. Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should do it. The level of reliability and automation required to go unattended is an important consideration.

Not only is an unattended operation adding some measure of risk (particularly if it’s not maintained), it also adds costs in installing and maintaining the automation necessary to make it work. You don’t get to go unattended for free. The care and feeding of automation cannot be ignored.

Do we need a different operator?

Large water facilities have embraced the concept of dedicated operations staff for decades. But that is not the model everywhere. Across the country, numerous smaller facilities are operated by dedicated operators that share a common characteristic: multi-skilled individuals who operate and maintain their facilities.

Let’s face it: The majority of the time that an operating staff spends at work is uneventful. We tend to focus on the times when things are stressed to the limit, but usually the facility is not under peak loading, equipment is operating appropriately and much of the mundane work has been engineered out of the operator’s job. When we think about reducing the number of operators on shift, it’s also time to rethink their role in the overall success of the facility.

Routine maintenance activities, instrument calibrations and preventive maintenance tasks are all necessary activities in today’s water facilities. Often, these tasks fall prey to the day-to-day events that disrupt the facility’s maintenance staff. These types of tasks do not have to be completed like clockwork, but rather have to be done within a given period of time.

As facilities get their asset management houses in order, condition assessment is an area that requires periodic attention. Although some condition assessment involves specialized skill and equipment, most of these activities are done through the traditional senses of sight, sound and feel. There are no reasons that properly trained operators cannot assist an overtaxed maintenance staff by doing these tasks during their shift. After all, who has a more vested interest in things running smoothly than the operators?

How to reason through operator staffing

  1. Understand the labor cost of operations, including overtime. This is essential to deciding if the risk of reduced staffing is worth the reward.
  2. Break out of the old paradigm. Even relatively large facilities can operate successfully with unattended or small operating staffs.
  3. One size doesn’t fit all. The crew size and whether to fill a shift vacancy has a lot to do with the operating situation in the plant. If you are not dewatering solids on the night shift, do you need a full crew? If a vacancy occurs on a quiet shift, do you need to fill the slot with overtime?
  4. Add new assignments. Rather than stretch out on the ragged edge of your risk tolerance, keep operators in place but consider new, important work to be done on shift. Use work orders to ensure that the work is completed and properly documented. Don’t forget that this requires a training investment — don’t short-change this important area.
  5. Consider alternative shifts. Creativity in shift scheduling can allow for some unattended or reduced attendance operations.
  6. Work with your unions. As your operating staff turns over and becomes younger, you will see different attitudes about shift work, overtime, weekends, etc. You may find that they are more receptive to the idea of changes than in the past. 

Introducing these concepts to your facility staff will take time and patience. Your staff may have been doing things the same way for their entire careers. Maintenance will have to become comfortable with turning over some of their work, too. Operations may have new accountabilities requiring more education as well.

It may be necessary to get outside assistance in challenging the staff’s thinking and opening up possibilities. You will need to make allowances for missteps and errors as things change. In the long run, though, an optimized operating staff can save money and reduce risk.

The bonus: You won’t find yourself monitoring the plant on your laptop during Thanksgiving dinner because you transitioned to unattended operations.


About the experts
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Jeff Theerman is Vice President and Senior Utility Consultant for Brown and Caldwell. Before joining BC, Theerman served as Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s Executive Director and led one of the largest wastewater and stormwater management utilities in the country. A member of NACWA's board of directors since 2004, Theerman served as the organization's president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
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