Simulators can help less experienced wastewater treatment plant operators


By Beth Weir

The Regional Municipality of York faces one of the biggest challenges in today’s wastewater industry: fostering a culture of community and knowledge transfer between experienced and newer operators in an era of automation, rapid technological advancement and increased retirements.

The Region provides drinking and wastewater services to more than 1.2 million residents across nine cities and towns, in an area of 1,762 km². It is a wholesale provider of water supply and wastewater collection and treatment services, managing over 333 million litres of water per day through more than $6.4 billion of water and wastewater infrastructure.

Challenges, innovation, and regulatory compliance

Wastewater in the northern communities is treated at six water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs), formerly called wastewater treatment plants. Larger urban centres in the south are serviced by the York Durham Sewage System, which collects and conveys wastewater to the Regions of Peel and Durham for treatment.

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York Region’s operations, maintenance and monitoring staff ensure that the six Regional WRRFs discharge fully treated effluent to tributaries flowing into Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario. Over the years, environmental stewardship to protect these bodies of water has led to stringent acts and regulations, such as the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, Ontario Water Resources Act and Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Reduction Strategy.

As such, municipalities must have a proactive strategy to manage the wastewater process to ensure compliance at every step. Whether staff need to assess the potential implications of a maintenance activity, practice how to respond to a facility emergency, or explore a new idea for improving efficiency, the compliance consequences of making a mistake can be severe.

The training gap

Certified operators in Ontario must obtain training credits to maintain and upgrade their licenses. There are a number of good drinking water training courses available in Ontario. However, wastewater-specific training is not as readily available, particularly “hands-on” courses relevant to individual facilities.

Regardless of whether operators and maintenance staff are experienced or recent graduates, they need to be trained on the ins and outs of operating a facility. Operators need a safe environment to learn about the various pieces of equipment and materials that flow through them. Recognizing this, York Region looked for an in-house solution.

From dreams, to concept, to reality

In exploring technologies to optimize facility operations, the Region’s wastewater team envisioned a tool that could support operators in: making evidence-based process changes during maintenance activities; maintaining compliance during plant upsets; and, satisfying training needs. Once the concept was decided on, consultants were retained and enhanced modelling software was created to enable the Region to predict the outcome of process changes.

Whether responding to a sewer-use by-law violation or a plant upset, taking a treatment cell offline for maintenance, or for plant-specific training, the new technology gave the Region the ability to test and explore various facility options in a safe, virtual environment.

The pilot

Before using the simulated treatment plant technology in routine operations, a pilot study was needed to ensure it performed accurately. To test the technology, the Region used its Nobleton WRRF as a pilot facility.

Baseline operating data was boosted with additional laboratory and online monitoring data to ensure the simulated model plant performed like the real plant. Good data provided concise calibration of the model. Equally important to the success of the project was the team’s ability to leverage experience across the organization when building the simulator. Process engineers and operations staff shared their first-hand knowledge and facility-specific insight, ensuring the best possible accuracy.

York Region operators manipulated parameters in the simulated plant software and viewed the predicted effluent results. The technology proved to be very helpful when plant upsets occurred. The operator simply changed the influent parameters or made process adjustments and ran the simulator. This allowed operators to theoretically test their possible solution to see if the desired outcome would be achieved.

In the pilot, staff had the ability to assess the impacts of isolating or bringing online a clarifier or aeration tank by simply clicking through the screen to change online process units. Based on user inputs, they were able to run the simulator and observe the predicted effluent. If the desired outcome was still not reached, staff could make further adjustments to chemical dosing, send more to waste, or other changes, and re-run the simulator without upsetting the actual plant.

Realized benefits

Operations become more sustainable and better decisions are made when more data is available, appropriate staff training is provided and evidence-based decisions are made. For York Region, simulated treatment plant technology did exactly that.

Overall, the pilot was successful and the tool is currently being used by York Region operators. From a user perspective, staff found the technology gave them a safe environment to explore options before committing to them in real life. From an employer perspective, the technology equipped staff with a powerful tool to experiment with process controls and predict how the facility would react.

After the pilot study, 10 practice scenarios were developed in the simulator software, and on-the-job training credits were obtained for completing them.

Lessons learned and next steps

From the pilot study, the Region learned that using in-house lab data for modelling software strengthens the simulator, which is continuously improved and calibrated. Also, that getting the right data and the right tools into the hands of operators leads to a sustainable and cost-effective wastewater system. It was also determined that while the simulator is a powerful tool, it supports, but can never replace, the skills of an operator. The key is to ensure operators use the data and familiarize themselves with the technology through the training modules.

In York Region’s experience, once staff see the value of the software, it becomes an enjoyable and useful tool instead of a task. Supervisors agree the simulator is a valuable learning opportunity for less experienced operators to better understand the process. Ultimately, when staff make good data-driven, evidence-based decisions, process efficiency is improved, operating costs are minimized, compliance is maintained, and staff job satisfaction is greater.

In a time when public utilities are challenged by a rapidly aging and retiring workforce and increasing environmental protection rules, innovative technology helps develop staff skills to meet industry demands.

Beth Weir is Manager, Operations, Maintenance and Monitoring (Wastewater) Environmental Services Department, The Regional Municipality of York. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s December 2019 issue.


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