Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Blog on Vlogs!

A colleague and I are thinking of doing a video blog on poop engineering. For those in the know the technical term is a "vlog." Now you know!  So, in preparation for setting up a vlog, I thought I should check out the competition and see what's out there already!  Here is a sample of my favourites...


In terms of water/wastewater news and professional interviews, Angela Godwin at Water World does a great job.  She goes to the major conferences like WEFTEC and ACE in addition to doing a regular video segment for their website.  In fact here are a couple of interviews of a couple of my colleagues:
My boss, Cindy Wallis-Lage, being interviewed at the recent ACE conference this year...

James Barnard being interviewed about the beginnings of BNR...

Water Sifu

OK this is a water vlog, not poop treatment, but I love this for Ty Whitman's style and it is worth watching for the theme music alone!  Very cool.  Here's a vlog on breakpoint chlorination (hey, that's relevant for wastewater treatment!)

The Rural Community Assistance Partnership

This You Tube channel has a bunch of useful educational-type videos on various aspects of water and wastewater treatment (other things too, maybe???).  I'm not sure it's strictly speaking a "vlog" but I like their informal style so it's close enough! Here's one on energy efficiency at a poop plant...

WEF Webcasts

Hmmm, now I'm really stretching it by claiming that a webcast, webinar or webinamathingy (what is the proper name?) is some kind of vlog, but hey, WEF has some cool information in their webcasts.  OK it's not a vlog, but here is one I was involved in on modeling. oh wait, it seems you have to be a WEF member now to view it.  Ah well.  OK so here are some other WEF videos, mostly of things from the annual conference WEFTEC but there are some other interesting videos too:


OK, now I may be stretching it to say WERF has vlogs but they do have some neat videos on various topics.  I like this recent one on their LIFT program (along with WEF), focused on Mango Materials.  It feels like a vlog even if it isn't one!

So, there are some pretty neat videos out there but no a whole lot of poop-focused vlogs, per se.  So maybe there is room for the Poop Engineer to try moving pictures!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Journey Into Sustainability

A Personal Journey into Sustainability

A few days ago I was asked to speak at a local APWA luncheon on the topic of Envision. I usually do pretty technical talks but on this occasion I thought I'd try something different and make it a little more personal by describing my own journey into sustainability as a lead-in to giving an update on Envision itself. The Prezi below shows the gist of the talk - so go ahead and click through it - but without my narrative it's not really informative, so I thought I'd add some notes below that map out my journey!


I did my bachelor's degree at Loughborough University of Technology (if you need help pronouncing it click here: Loughborough !). At the time I was an idealist who wanted to change the world to make it a better place.  I decided to do chemical engineering because I was good at maths, chemistry and physics, but I selected a degree with the long title of "Chemical Engineering with Environmental Protection" because I thought I would be able to somehow stop all those nasty chemical factories from hurting the environment!  As it happened, I ended up doing a year's internship with Severn Trent Water running pilot poop plants for their R&D group and so my glorious love for poop plants and wastewater engineering began!

Western Australia

Fast forward 15 years and I was by then working for Black & Veatch, based in our Kansas City office. (Actually we were stuck in the basement of our Overland Park HQ at the time, but that's another story!) Then I got the opportunity to move to Perth, Western Australia for 18 months working on their 3 largest wastewater treatment plants. It was an excellent experience all round but in particular I got to experience 3 things: wonderful espresso coffee (I know! who'd have thought?), awesome food (but generally crappy service!), and... sustainability.  The last one was taught to me by Susanne Cooper, who is a senior manager for Sustainability at SKM, the firm we teamed with on the program in Perth.  She has such a passion for sustainability that it's infectious and it really resonated with me.  I'm still very thankful for the way she opened my eyes and passed on that passion to me.

Back in the USA

When I left the US for Australia in 2006, the topic of sustainability was barely on the radar.  When I returned in 2008 it was EVERYWHERE! There was a real buzz about sustainability wherever you looked.  When Costco has Sustainability on the front of its magazine, you know it's going mainstream! So, that was the good. The not-so-good was the confusion and misinformation about what sustainability actually means. I heard a couple of examples of "greenwashing" where unscrupulous folks just tagged their project with the word "sustainable" to somehow magically make it so when in fact it was a very un-sustainable project on several counts!

So, what is a sustainable design?  Is it low energy? Is it recycling of resources? Is it neighbor-friendly design?  It can be some or all of these.  The "Triple Bottom Line" concept is a useful approach to figuring this out. Gauging how sustainable a project is can be a no brainer in many cases using common sense (e.g. reuse something instead of throwing it out or reducing waste materials), but in other cases taking a very narrow view of something you think is sustainable can actually cause environmental damage if you take a broader perspective.  Some recent articles talking about fracking actually show it may be having a positive impact on water resources, for example.  That is counter-intuitive, but shows how we need to take a broader perspective.  In one of my early blogs I talked about how LCA is a useful tool in this regard.


And so, recognizing that it's tricky to come up with a simple way to measure sustainability, the clever folks at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure came up with a great assessment tool called Envision.  What is Envision? Check out this factsheet. Why use Envision?  Here's my list of reasons:

  • It's a real "standard" endorsed by three major national organizations: APWA, ASCE and ACEC.
  • If everyone uses the same approach it facilitates clarity in communication.  Some requests for proposals (RFP) that I've seen for infrastructure projects have been vague on their requirements for sustainability or prescribe you use their specific approach which others may not know.  Picking a standard tool like Envision makes it easier to specify and respond to sustainability requirements in proposals.
  • It's open and transparent.  The guidelines are well written and honest.  There's also a genuine openness at ISI for feedback to make this a system that will work. The ultimate goal of ISI is truly to drive sustainability into our designs.  I give credit for this to Bill Bertera, who's doing an excellent job guiding ISI.
  • Its web-based, so it's easy to access
  • The tools are user-friendly
  • And finally, for all Apple product users... it's cool (or great!) So use it!

To wrap up my APWA talk, I gave some recent news and stats for the adoption of Envision. It's still relatively new, but I feel we're starting to build up steam. Denise Nelson at ISI kindly provided the following info:

·         We have over 3,400 credentialed users and another 1,000 enrolled.
·         We also have 54 trainers who have provide 25 in-person training workshops that trained over 400 people. There are several more scheduled. 
·         As far as projects go, we have 6 awarded projects, 11 additional projects registered for verification, and several more on path for registration. One project just completed the verification process, so any day now we’ll announce the 7th award!
·         The updates in June were big news:
-          new online training
-          revised guidance manual
-          revised exam
·         We recently posted a new fact sheet focused on public sector use of Envision. 
·         We recently started an ISI Envision monthly email newsletter
·         There were also two great magazine articles recently:  
-          Rubin, Debra.  “Envision Tool Moves Project Sustainability Beyond Buildings,” ENR (June 2015).
-          Nelson, Denise.  “Advancing Sustainable Infrastructure with Envision®,” CE News (June 2015).

There are several exciting things coming up soon:
·         more magazine articles, including one in Mexico
·         conference presentations and sessions
·         posting a revised Checklist
·         an ISI YouTube channel
·         restarting the committees
·         outreach at 5 upcoming public sector conferences

So, at the end of my presentation I can honestly say that 20 years on the idealistic young engineer from Loughborough University who wanted to change the world is more optimistic than ever that maybe we can change the world for the better and Envision is a great tool to help us do that. Will you do the same?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge? (Reflecting on Innovation)

Over the next few weeks I'll be working on an article focused on innovation in wastewater treatment. It really is an exciting time to be a poop engineer as there are several potentially game-changing processes and technologies emerging on the scene: anammox, granular activated sludge, primary DAF, thermal hydrolysis, struvite recovery, to name but a few. Add to this initiatives like LIFT and Isle Utilities TAGs that are pushing these new ideas to the fore. Finally there is Envision that enables us to evaluate the sustainability of these new ideas. As I said, it is an exciting time to be a poop engineer, indeed!

But that's not the focus of this blog; well not exactly. A few years ago I was involved in evaluating, piloting and designing what was then a pretty innovative process called the "integrated fixed-film activated sludge" or IFAS. At that time one of my colleagues said something that has stuck with me ever since:

"we want to be leading edge, but not bleeding edge" (I wish I could remember who said it first so I can give them credit, but I've heard several of my colleagues use it since and I overuse it!).

What is meant by that expression is reasonably self-event. We want to be using new ideas and pushing the envelope of improvement, but not just for the sake of doing new stuff. We want to be innovating but not just for the sake of innovation. Some ideas are ready for implementation but some need the kinks working out still and yet others may be cool but really don't offer tangible benefits over established technologies.

Another thought I want to bring to the discussion in this blog (hoping to make it a conversation!) is the "S-curve of technology implementation." This curve has been discussed widely of late amongst wastewater professionals and indeed I'll probably include it in my journal article. The discussion has mostly been focused on how can we accelerate technology adoption up the curve and/or help folks to jump across the "chasm of risk" between the pilot and full-scale. Getting the first installation of a technology or process idea is key in this. That's the main focus of LIFT and a noble one too. Let's go for it! Woo-hoo!

But... wait a minute. Take a breath. In our exhuberance for new technology I want to discuss another curve for just a moment. The technology hype cycle. I think it's a relatively new concept and is applicable to the drive to push new technologies to sell to consumers - think Video2000, think Bluetooth, think 3D TV, think the internet of everything (oooh, risky) - there are all sorts of technolgical ideas that are pushed out and hyped up that in the end don't amount to what was originally promised.


In our enthusiasm to advance innovation, are we in danger of just innovating for the sake of innovating? Are we pushing for bleeding edge and shifting from the S-curve to a hype curve? What do you think? I'm purposely putting this in a blog for open discussion so I can be accused of being a luddite or worse in the relatively quiet and safe setting of blogger (really, does anyone actually read my blogs?!). If we can discuss it here, then I'm hoping to bring some of those thoughts to the journal article in a less provocative way!

The last thing I want to do is stifle enthusiam for innovation, but equally I've seen a couple of ideas in wastewater treatment "oversold" in the past few years and then die on the vine. There was a sludge reduction technology called "Cannibal" that seemed promising and almost too good to be true. Turns out it was too good to be true for many applications, but still it's a good fit if the wastewater characteristics are right and the plant constraints dictate. Unfortunately the hype killed the idea for a lot of people... but, look at the hype curve, after the hype bump there's a drop and then a steady improvement in technology. I see a similar thing as a result of Cannibal. It certainly didn't live up to the hype, but now people are looking more closely at the cellulose material in wastewater and thinking about how we handle it (think toilet paper!). Some good came out of the hype as it drove further investigations and discussion. That's great for the industry, but maybe not so good for those bleeding out because of the hype.

My concern is that we may be doing similar things with other great ideas. Mainstream deammonification is a great concept, but in many instances it doesn't make sense. Granular AS is very cool, but again it probably won't fit all situations. I'm an advocate for struvite recovery, but it doesn't fit all faciities. Let's not hype these ideas, but let's evaluate where they fit best to play to their strengths...

Alternatively, maybe we do push on to the hype curve, bleed a little and then learn something for the next technological advancement?

What do you think?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reflecting on SIWW2014 and Nepal2014

This summer I went to my first Singapore International Water Week (SIWW for those in the know). It was an excellent experience and thought I'd reflect on what I'd seen.

If I had to sum up what SIWW is all about, I'd say it was a truly global center for water professionals to network. I've been to other international conferences that do a decent job of connecting utilities, and/or consultants; others do a great job of connecting researchers and academics; still others connect regulators and policy makers... now SIWW somehow manages to bring all of them together. That's quite an acheivement. I'm a process engineer, which means I appreciate technologies and how we apply them to solve water issues. Until recently I've not really appreciated the value of networking with diverse water experts from around the world, but more and more I understand the axiom "it's who you know, not what you know." Of course it's nice to know a bit too and by rubbing shoulders with smart international experts you get to add to your own knowledge.

Fast forward to October 2014 and I'm about to head off to the IWA Specialist Conference "Sustainable Wastewater Treatment and Resource Recovery" in Nepal. I'm intrigued to see the diversity of water professionals at this conference in comparison to SIWW. In addition to diversity across the various roles in the water industry, I'll be interested to see a greater diversity across geopolitical boundaries which will help us to see the differences and commonalities across our profession. I've only worked in already-developed nations and seen wastewater treatment through the narrow lense of technologically intensive and centralized approaches. It will be good to take a step back and out to see how different nations are tackling wastewater treatment. There's a distinct possibility that other nations, still developing their infrastructure, can by-pass some of the mistakes we've taken in the West and jump ahead to more sustainable solutions directly. That's what I'm hoping for in the discussion segments of a workshop I'm helping to lead: "Workshop D: Leapfrogging to off- the- grid biological nutrient removal (October 27, 2014)". We'll see. Should be interesting...


Friday, April 4, 2014

WWTmod2014 - The Process Design and Optimization Seminar

I'm sitting in Brussels airport the day after the last day of the latest in a series of seminars focused on process modeling under the moniker "wwtmod" for "waste-water treatment modeling." The previous 3 biannual wwtmod's were held at Mont-Sainte-Anne, just outside Quebec City in Canada, but the latest in the series - WWTmod2014 - was held in the lovely European town of Spa, Belgium. In this blog I'd like to summarise a few of the many highlights of WWTmod2014, but first I'd like to digress a little to ponder the name and the focus of this seminar series.

WWTmod2008 was first concieved to be a follow-up to a series of modeling-focused seminars called "Kolle-kolle" which I'm told were an excellent set of seminars in the 1990's to discuss wastewater treatment models, from which the IWA's "ASM" activated sludge models were developed. Process models have come a long way since the 1990's, shifting from the realm of academia to mainstream design and operations also. Any consultancy worth it's salt will use process models to develop or refine their designs. In fact, it's all but impossible to design a good nutrient removal facility doing nitrogen and phosphorus removal without the use of models. A few stalwart old-scholers might argue differently but they're a fading voice. This has meant that the WWTmod seminars, from the very start, have pulled together academia and practitioners to discuss process models and these models are now at the heart of process design. Despite the name including "mod" in the title, the seminars very quickly shifted into discussions about the mechanisms and processes that go into the models and so I'd argue that it is now the premiere seminar for process designers and those wanting optimize their waste water plant operations (maybe using models to help!) I can't think of another conference that draws together the top researchers from universities with experts from practice, the way that it's done at WWTmod. If you're a university researcher wanting to understand the challenges of practice, come to a WWTmod seminar. If you're a practitioner wanting to discover the latest tools and techniques to overcome your challenges, come to a WWTmod seminar!

So, what were the highlights of the latest, WWTmod2014? The program covered a broad range of topics in wastewater treatment, from screenings and grit to model extensions for trace organics; the latest in nitrogen reaction pathways and current thinking on phosphorus removal; primary settler and secondary settler performance; integrated modeling and LCA. At the closing session, the chairman of the scientific committee, Ingmar Nopens, had a slide with a few "Useful Quotes and Concepts", so maybe I'll focus on those:

"Wipers versus Washers" - there's nothing like the topic of bum wiping to get a partly humorous and partly serious discussion going on wastewater treatment. It's not pleasant to discuss the fate of toilet paper but there are serious considerations when it comes to understanding the biodegradability of the material when it gets to the treatment plant. If it's not biodegradable, it uses up treatment capacity and increases the mass of residuals that have to be handled. If it is biodegradable, it's a valuable source of material for biogas generation. Ultimately there wasn't a consensus on its biodegradability, but on the whole it was thought that it wasn't too degradable within the wastewater treatment plant (despite what it says on roll!)

The "Drinker-Barman Concept" - trying to be a little radical, I suggested that the Monod equation, near and dear to the hearts of all who model biological processes, may be past its sell-by date and that consideration of diffusion may be key to shifting to simpler kinetics where the "intrinsic" half-saturation coefficient can be ignored. I'm already getting too much into the details here but needless to say I had to use a nice analogy involving beer to make my point and hopefully make it more palitable!

"Communism/socialism versus capitalism in biological processes" - Dr Zhiguo Yuan discussed how the models we use assume that substrate is shared evenly amongst the different organisms that use it (like socialism shares out everything) but in fact there is competition for the substrate that is akin to biological capitalism.

"Being within the law is not always the good thing" - Dr George Ekama has produced many of the most memorable quotes at these seminars. A few years back he said (I'll get it wrong, but hopefully close enough): "The main problem is to keep the main problem the main problem" and he's also the source of the wipers quote above. His latest quote may sound revolutionary but it's really meant to highlight that some of regulations that govern treatment standards don't always result in the best overall environmental solution. In particular we discussed the focus on carbon emissions at wastewater treatment facilities and legislation pushing them to reduce energy use and carbon footprint when in fact the carbon emissions per person served by a treatment plant is peanuts - maybe less than 1% of their overall emissions - and they'd be better driving less or using less hot water.

Beyond these highlights another fun part of the conference was the use of twitter to post comments. I confess I was a twittering fool but it was fun! Check out the hashtag #wwtmod2014 to see!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Trends for 2014 and Beyond...

It's the turn of the year and the TV is full of "specials" recounting the events of 2013 - new births, famous people passing away, sports triumphs and tragedies, conflicts, other newsworthy events - and then there will be folks pondering what 2014 might hold for us all that's different from 2013. If we're honest, nobody can predict what 2014 will be like. Perhaps it will be a quiet and uneventful year, or perhaps there will be some major new conflict or natural disaster that will throw us all for a loop. Maybe aliens will contact us. OK, I'd better stop now as I'm stretching the speculation a little too far! Probably because I've watched one sci-fi movie too many.

I thought it would be interesting to ponder some possible trends in wastewater in North America for 2014. I'll likely be way off on some of these but hopefully one or two will hit the mark, so here goes with my predictions for 2014 and beyond!

1. Increased use of Envision for truly sustainable design

Released last year, the Envision evaluation scheme from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), has the potential to radically shift the way we look at wastewater treatment design. In the same way that LEED caught the imagination of the building industry, I can see this really taking off over the next few years. I might be a bit biased because I'm helping to keep track of the roll out of Envision within Black & Veatch, but I really do think it will take off and most folks who know anything about it seem to hold a similar opinion.

2. Nutrient Removal becomes the norm for everyone

A couple of years ago there was a push by an environmental group to have nutrient removal included as part of the definition for "secondary treatment." Within our industry there was a strong push back and it never got anywhere. At the time I remember thinking that the main reason it failed is that they were advocating for extremely low nutrient limits near the limit of technology (like 0.1 mg/L phosphorus and 3 mg/L nitrogen or something like that - I forget the exact numbers). If, however, they'd proposed a more reasonable set of limits for basic nutrient removal, say 2 mg/L of phosphorus and 15 mg/L nitrogen, then they may have had more traction within wastewater treatment professionals in general. In 2013, WEF and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) started discussions on a Nutrient Roadmap, which may start to pave the way for more folks doing nutrient removal and maybe one day everyone doing it? Until then, there are plenty of regulations that will push utilities into doing it anyway, so nutrient removal will become the norm rather than the exception.

3. Increased focus on EDCs,PPPs, ECs, MCs, AC/DCs (whatever you want to call them!)

When I started work in the wastewater industry back in the early 1990's, the new hot topic was endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC). Fast forward 20 years and the new hot topic is still EDCs, though they've added some other trace organic compounds to the list and the name keeps changing! (Micro-pollutants this week maybe?). But recent pilot trials at Swiss wastewater treatment plants to put in advanced equipment to remove these nasties makes me think the focus and action on these trace contaminants will only increase.

4. Life-Cycle Thinking comes of age

I've written on life cycle assessments (LCA) in a previous blog, so I probably shouldn't keep banging on about it, but I do think that we'll see more and more use of Life-cycle thinking in our business. In fact the Envision method I mentioned already advocates LCA for assessing potential environmental benefits.

5. More resources online

Where do I start? Wefcom, WaterWiki, Waterworld, Engineers Toolbox... there's so much information on the internet focused on water and wastewater, I hardly know where to start. Maybe that's a good topic for a future blog? But for sure we'll see more and more useful information online and in electronic format.

OK, so those are my predictions for 2014. What are your predictions for 2014? How about other parts of the world?


Saturday, November 2, 2013

WEFTEC 2013 Debrief (aka the post-WEFTEC blues!)

Opening Sessions

WEFTEC 2013 came and went several weeks ago, busting all sorts of records over previous years, so I'm a little tardy in giving my impression of this year's event, but here goes anyway...

Innovation Showcase

The Good

So, what were some of the highlights for me? Here in no particular order are the things that impressed me this year:

  1. The Venue: the layout of the bookstore and global meeting center right outside the entrance; the exhibition floor right underneath the rooms for the technical sessions; posters right outside the session rooms and electronic versions showing on flat-screen TVs... even a screen for tweets! The conference center was very-nicely laid out.
  2. People: I love being able to catch up with colleagues I've not seen for some time. Though I'm a technologist at heart, as I get older (cue cheezy violin music) I appreciate reconnecting with colleagues I've not seen for a while and getting to know new colleagues. You can transfer knowledge and ideas via web-based seminars, conference calls and the like, but nothing beats meeting people face to face.
  3. Innovation Showcase: One of the few sessions I did get to attend was held at the Innovation Showcase where Yaniv Scherson presented on his CANDO process and several others presented some great and innovative ideas. There was also a session here to discuss the development of a Nutrient Roadmap, which should be pretty interesting.
  4. Workshops: I have to say I really enjoy the interactive nature of workshops versus the somewhat formal and stuffy format of technical session presentations. This year I somehow managed to help out with 3 different workshops over 2 days - sustainability, modeling and energy. I don't recommend that to anyone, but I do recommend anyone to attend workshops in the future. You learn a heck of a lot more than just watching a paper presentation.
  5. Opening sessions: I used to skip the opening sessions because I presumed they were too high level or not relevant for the kinds of things I focus on, but a couple of years back a good friend and colleague, Sudhir Murthy, encouraged me to attend an opening session and I have to say I was pretty impressed. This year's opening session and the following session by water leaders from around the world were pretty inspirational and very well done (photo at the top was the Water Leaders session).
  6. The Inaugural Bookshop Quiz! And not just because my colleagues from B&V and our client from St Cloud were the winners (see photo below). This was a bit of an experiment for WEF and by my reckoning it was an outstanding success and hope we do it again next year.
Bookshop Quiz 2014 Winners

The Not-so-good (PC term for Bad, I guess?!)

Overall WEFTEC in Chicago surpassed itself this year (are you listening New Orleans?!). So I only have a couple of nit-picky negatives that you can skip right over if you're a glass half-full kind of person (I think I'm a glass at 50% capacity person myself - figure that one out!). Here they are:

  1. Location: OK the venue is awesome, but it's too bloody far from the awesome hotels, restaurants and other delights of downtown Chicago. I hear rumours that the City has plans to build up the area around the conference center which would be great. Maybe they can add a light rail link or tram too? We stayed at the Sheraton on the north side of downtown and it was pretty cool to take the shuttle bus down some secret road under the city and down to the convention center, but I'm guessing others didn't have quite the same fun with their long queues and rush-hour bus rides back into the city.
  2. Too much to see: Maybe it's just because I'm a "Yes Man" and involved in too many things, but this year, with all the committee activities and what-not (including doing a mid-term exam - don't ask) I barely saw a handful of presentations. At some point I need to go through the proceedings and see what I missed.
  3. The submission process: This is probably a contentious one and may come across stronger than I intend, but I have issues with both the workshop submission process and the abstract submission process. The workshop submission process starts too soon (less than a month after WEFTEC), has too many steps and is contrained by an inflexible rubric that has only one format in mind. The paper abstract submission format and process used to be OK i.e. develop a 3 page Word document and a few figures. Now it's a nasty process of developing some text of indeterminate length with figures kept separate in pure graphical form, then you use some weird coding to get your figures and tables (haven't figured out a tidy way to handle tables) into the text, hopefully in the right spot. A little knowledge of html coding is helpful. Maybe this is a little unfair as it's not quite as bad as I make out as long as you know the process ahead of time. And I've never been asked to review any papers for WEFTEC so I'm hoping that maybe the new system makes the review process easier somehow.

OK, so WEFTEC 2013 is over and I'd say it was probably the best one yet. The bar is pretty high for New Orleans and WEFTEC 2014!