Innovation is about more than technology

Todd Danielson of Avon Lake Regional Water is a champion of change, leading the way in his efforts to embrace innovation across his organization — not just with technology but policy as well.

For many, the picture of innovation resembles a trendy gadget, a flashy piece of equipment with that new-treatment-plant smell. But for others, like Avon Lake Regional Water’s Todd Danielson, it’s about so much more.

Avon Lake considers itself a progressive utility and its most recent success story illustrates that innovation indeed goes beyond technology. “We’re in a combined sewer area and we have to separate our sewers,” he told me during a recent interview. “About five years into our 15-year plan, we realized that we were not going to get out all the water that we needed to get out. So, we implemented a regulation requiring our customers to separate the water on their property.”

To help customers pay for the separation, Avon Lake designed and implemented a Lateral Loan Program. “This program works with our state revolving loan fund. They’re providing money to us and then we’ve made our own revolving loan fund providing money to our customers.”

Avon Lake customers then repay the loan over ten years as part of their utility bill.

According to the EPA, some 300 Avon Lake customers applied for loans in the first two years of the program, resulting in more than $1 million in assistance.

The program was nominated for an award in EPA’s 2018 Performance and Innovation in the SRF Creating Environmental Success (PISCES) program and received an honorable mention.

“Innovation is just about anything that helps make your life better or helps make your customers’ lives better,” he noted. “It could be something that’s financial, it could be something that’s human resources, it could be any number of things.”

Whatever “it” might be, it will probably mean change — and that requires strong support from within. “All levels of the organization have to embrace change,” said Danielson. “It’s got to be embraced at the top, the mid-level, and the front lines.”

Sometimes, he said, the front lines have the ability to implement things that can improve their work. “But they need the support of the levels above.” And, he added, if funding is required, the levels above need to embrace the idea and be able to communicate the benefits of the investment to the customers.

Engaging with customers can be another form of innovation. “Customer expectations are continually increasing, so as an organization we need to continually increase just to maintain the status quo — and we have to do much more than that if we want to do anything better.”

Social media is a good example, he said. “Many utilities are slow to jump onto social media but that’s where our customers are.”

Through social media, utilities have a unique opportunity to engage with the public. “We can either significantly help ourselves if we’re out in social media... or we could really hurt ourselves if we’re not responding to complaints or concerns.”

Editor’s Note: The full interview with Todd Danielson is available in the WaterWorld TV gallery at under “The Drop.”WW

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