We help new employees learn – and they help take care of everyone’s sewer system

wastewater engineers walk through the West Point Treatment Plant

Wastewater Engineers Semhar Abraha, Samayyah Williams and Sammy Wood (not pictured) help track the equipment at our West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle. The information and photos they collected goes into our database which helps us know what needs to be maintained and when.

 

Everyone has “stuff” to take care of.

You might have a house, a car – or an iPhone. With a smartphone, you have to charge the battery, restart it every once in a while, download apps – and sometimes simply find it (am I right?). When you drive a car, you need to fill it with gas, check the wiper fluid, get oil changes, go to the car wash, and go to a mechanic for repairs. To take care of your house, you might take out the trash, paint a room, mow the lawn, fix the clogged garbage disposal, change lightbulbs when they burn out, repair the dishwasher, or save money to replace the roof because it lasts for 20 years and you’ve already pushed it to 21.

Taking care of our stuff gets more complex the more we have and the bigger those things are. It gets harder to keep track of it – and cost more to fix or replace.

 

We’ve got a lot of stuff that’s big and complex. How do we take care of it all?

Our sewer system is HUGE. Everything we have, we use to clean the region’s wastewater – which is important for protecting everyone’s health, the economy and the Puget Sound.

To give you an idea of how big our system is – we have five treatment plants, 72 pump and regulator stations, seven combined sewer overflow treatment and storage facilities, and 391 miles of large pipes.

These are all large, industrial buildings and complexes, spread out over 424 square miles. If we were to rebuild our system today, it would cost over $20 billion.

So naturally, we put a high priority on taking care of all those buildings, engines, motors, pipes and the land around them. We call it “asset management” – and it’s doing things like:

  • tracking what we have;
  • inspecting the condition of our equipment and buildings;
  • regular maintenance like cleaning, fluid changes, painting or putting in new parts;
  • fighting the wear and tear that naturally happens in our pipes – such as putting new linings in them;
  • repairing equipment; and
  • replacing equipment that is past its life.

We do all this because it’s smarter to prevent things from breaking. Failures of equipment can mean overflows of sewage or costly emergency repairs. This is like taking your car to the mechanic to have fluids and belts checked so you don’t have engine troubles later – which would probably cost a lot more and be an inconvenient headache.

 

We also have a lot of new employees – and we have to teach them about all our stuff.

Like many other companies, we have a lot of new employees coming onboard as others retire. Even though we’re working on virtual-reality to help us teach the next generation of employees – real-time, on the ground experience is still the best way to learn the ropes.

 

Solution: a two-fer!

Recently, we created a win-win when three new engineers learned about our system while they helped take care of it. Wastewater Engineers Samayyah Williams, Semhar Abraha, and Sammy Wood’s first project with our agency was to help track equipment and enter things into our database of over 85,000 assets.

“Our system is ever-evolving,” explains Samayyah. “We’re going through and seeing what’s been changed and updating the engineering drawings.”

Starting with complex technical diagrams, they went into the field to see what it looked like in reality – which was both eye-opening and enlightening. Samayyah admits it was an adjustment. “Things can be more spread out or simpler than the drawings give the impression of.” Semhar liked the real-time experience. “I don’t have to struggle imagining [what things look like in the drawings]. I can go in the field and see them.”

As Samayyah, Semhar and Sammy were getting on-the-ground experience, they were also helping us with an important part of managing everything in our system. The information and photos they collected went into our database which helps us know what needs to be maintained and when.

“What we do is ‘put pieces together’ to get a bigger picture of what we have,” explains Semhar. “That gives engineers and managers critical information that helps extend the life of all our assets.”

“The computer shows us trends on a specific piece of equipment. Then our reliability engineers and maintenance teams use that to schedule maintenance, repairs and replacement,” adds Todd Smith, wastewater construction manager.

In other words, the data helps us put energy and money into the places it’s needed the most.

“It seems like what we’re doing is small – logging serial numbers, taking pictures,” says Samayyah. “But those things translate into something bigger.”

Sammy notes it’s “planning for the future. All the data helps us see ahead and start planning now.”

Semhar, Sammy and Samayyah also note another benefit of this project: getting to know their co-workers and learning from them. “I’ve never worked with anyone as passionate as this team,” says Sammy. “They’re really great to work with.”

“WTD has a very welcoming and warm atmosphere where they encourage you to take time to stop, breathe and talk to people,” says Samayyah. “Everyone has been super helpful. I go to the operators with all sorts of questions and they take the time to explain. That’s just a wonderful thing.”

Engineers walking through West Point treatment plant

“Everyone has been super helpful. I go to the operators with all sorts of questions and they take the time to explain. That’s just a wonderful thing.”