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?