Operator Solution Center: How to Think Outside the Pipe

Have you encountered facility design limitations? Learn how unconventional — yet creative — tricks can solve problems within your treatment facility.

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Though made of steel and concrete, your treatment facility might not be as inflexible as it seems. The designed features and processes can often be adapted to function in ways for which they were never intended. Often, it only takes a healthy measure of imagination and some practical know-how to solve operational problems or improve processes without significant expenditure.

Reuse, repurpose and reinvent
An older facility likely has mothballed or off-line pumps, pipes, tanks and mixers that can be put to new uses. For example, a pipe might have been installed to convey liquid in one direction, but that doesn't mean you can't modify things so it flows in the other direction.

Hoses with cam lock connectors can be set up to change the flow schemes of piping systems — a good, cheap way to prove the effectiveness of a new configuration before buying and installing pipes.

You can also consider add-on fixes such as suspended media for fixed-film growth, a wall to create an anoxic zone, or addition of air diffusers to a tank or channel. Often, with minor modifications, existing equipment and structures can provide the perfect solution to operational challenges

Consider these examples of how a crazy little idea solved a problem:

  1. Operators were fed-up with frequent blockages in a system of pipes and valves that conducted primary sludge from clarifiers. Unfortunately, the system was not designed so plant water could be used for flushing. Logistically, it was nearly impossible to drain the system to install fittings. One of the operators, who had worked for the water department, recalled how they tapped into a pressurized water main and installed a corporation valve using a special tool. The team called the water department, and — after agreeing to thoroughly disinfect the tapping machine — the operators soon had a flushing water source.
  2. A plant manager detected odors from the chlorine contact chamber cleaning operation. He wanted to get several hundred gallons of lime slurry out to the chamber to reduce the odor, but the facility did not have a means for pumping out to the chamber. The lab technician mentioned it might be possible to send the lime slurry to the chamber via an old sampling sink. At one time, samples from all over the plant were drawn from the sink where 1-inch PVC lines from nearly every tank met at a manifold. With a little creative valving, the lime slurry was pumped directly to the chamber, and odor complaints were avoided.
  3. Operators of a conventional activated sludge plant struggled with batching sludge for the belt filter press. When secondary wasting increased, the sludge was difficult to dewater. They tried to waste from the primary and secondary clarifiers at the same time, but it was difficult to control the mix. The chief operator knew that co-settling (sending the secondary waste sludge to the process ahead of the primary clarifiers) would probably help. Unfortunately, the plant was not designed for this operation. While hosing the floor around the secondary sludge pumps one day, the chief operator thought about how the floor drains led to a large sump in the basement that pumped to the headworks. Could it be as simple as allowing a constant, calibrated stream of secondary sludge to simply flow down the drain? He removed a pressure gauge from the secondary sludge line, replaced it with a ball valve, and piped it to a floor drain. After doing bucket tests, he established a desired rate of secondary wasting, and the wasting of secondary sludge became automatic. The co-settling scheme worked, and the belt filter press operation became a lot less stressful.

Go ahead, get creative!
Operators often complain that engineers design treatment facilities without considering routine operations. Whether or not these complaints are justifiable, the lesson is that creative solutions are possible and essential when encountering challenges.

Get your entire crew together and brainstorm. Swallow your pride and get input from the least experienced person — who is usually not locked into thinking about a process in just one way.

Remember these fixes might not always be permanent solutions, but they certainly prove operational theories that will guide future upgrades. Also remember to discuss any changes to your process with government regulators.



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