There’s a lot of discussion these days about innovation in the water industry and how to incorporate new ideas and technologies to work better, faster, and cheaper. And there’s no shortage of shiny new products and gadgets on the market to do just that, but the key to solving your utility’s pain points could be a lot closer to home.
“Innovation is really a key component of our company,” said Keith Tyson, engineering and environmental services division leader for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). His utility was founded a hundred years ago and has always promoted innovation as part of its company fabric, Tyson told me. “And what we’ve found is that the best ideas come from our employees out in the field.”
Take, for example, the WSSC engineer whose research into zinc-coated ductile iron pipe had far-reaching impact. That kind of pipe wasn’t new, Tyson recalled. It had been around some 50 years, but hadn’t really been adopted in the U.S. “We did a case study that showed that if we adopted zinc-coated ductile iron pipe with V-Bio polywrap, we could double the life of our pipes in the ground.” Instead of a 50-75-year life cycle, WSSC found they could get 100-140 years out of these “new” pipes. “And it was not really very costly,” he added, “because if you take out that extra replacement cycle, you’re saving $2 million per mile of pipe. So, it pays for itself very quickly.”
Another WSSC innovation idea had to do with enhanced biological phosphorus removal and came from one of its plants. “By changing our treatment process slightly and extending the time that we have for fermentation, we are actually reducing our alum usage by over 40 percent,” Tyson noted. “And that’s just in the pilot!” The utility is currently working on building it up to a full-scale development.
Yet another great idea came from WSSC’s meter testing group. “One of our meter-testing people developed a whole new way to put the meters together in order to test them,” said Tyson. “So we can now test like 20 meters at a time, where before they had to do them individually.” It has made meter testing much more productive and has been a huge time-saver, he said. “It was a really innovative way to change the way that we were doing business.”
In fact, so many great ideas have come from the field that WSSC has actually developed a centralized process to better support and facilitate innovation at the utility. It puts “more of a framework around it,” Tyson said, and provides “a way to engage and develop those ideas into even more exciting innovations in the future.” The utility has even developed an innovation tool to allow people to submit ideas online.
Ideas are great, but having buy-in from the staff is key for turning concepts into reality. One way WSSC is able to garner support from its employees is through workshops at each of its facilities. “We’re doing a brainstorm session and some ice-breakers,” Tyson explained, “and we take three or four ideas that they’re struggling with right now and we all sit around and brainstorm on those.” They come up with as many ways as possible to solve that problem and then boil them down to a few main solutions. “Then we give it back to the facility to let them vote on which ones they want to work on,” he said. Once those are identified, a team of experts from engineering and from the user community at the facility is assembled to take the idea to the next level.
For WSSC, it’s a very grassroots approach that supports its impressive legacy of homegrown innovation. WW