Time was in the wastewater treatment business, we laid the pipes, ran the pumps, fixed what was broke, and replaced what we couldn’t fix.
Maybe a pump was down because an electric motor stopped working. We’d call an electrician, fix the motor, and put the pump back in service with little thought about how that work affected other components of our organization.
Preventative maintenance, of course, was designed to keep everything running smoothly. Equipment might come with a manual with a preventative maintenance schedule. We might even enter that schedule in a computer.
Perhaps the routine maintenance was performed; perhaps not. A variety of factors ranging from limited staff to major breakdowns that required more attention might mean maintenance steps were overlooked or ignored due to other, more pressing priorities.
Even the most pragmatic manager would have to concede that’s not the best way to run a wastewater treatment system. Multiply our pump example by the hundreds and even thousands of moving parts required to treat wastewater properly and return it cleanly to the environment, and it’s clear that a better way to think about such things is not only desirable, but necessary.
Today, a different approach, driven by a demand for more accountability, reliability, and financial responsibility has changed all that. That approach, which we have implemented at KC Water, is called asset management. It’s not a new concept, but it is one that continues to gain in importance.
Brent Herring, Wastewater Utility Manager, KC Water
At the municipal level in the United States, the discipline of asset management took off after guidance published in 1999 by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), an independent, private-sector organization. In Statement No. 34, the board established financial reporting requirements designed to “give government officials a new and more comprehensive way to demonstrate their stewardship in the long term, in addition to the way they currently demonstrate their stewardship in the short term and through the budgetary process.”
In a nutshell, citizens wanted local governments to be as financially responsible as private businesses whose stocks are publicly traded. GASB 34 required that governments value all capital assets, including infrastructure assets, and report depreciation expenses in their statement of activities. This had a great impact on government-owned and managed wastewater utilities, which are inherently capital intensive.
Other external conditions also drive the need to identify the wastewater assets we must value and thus manage, including:
• Undervalued service—People hardly ever question the need to replace a pothole-infested, crumbling street. The same people are less likely to understand a higher wastewater bill caused by the need to replace pipes or pumps that transport wastewater from drains and toilets. Unlike bridges, sewerpipes are invisible and rarely named after politicians, but they are just as important.
• More prescriptive regulations—A need to meet stringent state and federal regulations requires attention to systems that directly or indirectly enable us to comply. The EPA has mandated our community and many others nationwide to fix generations-old combined sewer systems, adding billions of dollars in costs that must be borne by customers.
• Aging infrastructure—”We need to bring the conversation about water infrastructure above ground,” the American Water Works Association proclaimed. “Deferring needed investments today will only result in greater expenses tomorrow and pass on a greater burden to our children and grandchildren.”
The discipline of asset management is helping us address the need to be financially responsible, to respond to external forces, and to determine what to value and how to value it. The process we are following at KC Water seeks primarily to realign our assets based on their value while also applying a more systemic and analytical approach.
For example, we revamped how we identified assets and their features. We are more carefully defining what an asset is, which has led to a reduction of asset categories from 351 to 18, ranging from Pumps and Blowers to Lagoons and Disinfection. We made calculated, evidence-based decisions on how to treat smaller assets and their components.
KPIs remain an important metric, but these, too, are being reevaluated and reconsidered. There is nothing worse than an indicator that has no meaning, and this decision has led to the deletion of some data and inclusion of value-added asset data that we can actually use.
Perhaps the most important factor of our asset management program has been integrating our efforts with finance, data management, and human resources staff. Through this approach, the hardened silos that often characterize municipal government are being broken, maximizing the value of each. For example, finance staff helped decide that small, non-critical motors and sump pumps could be replaced after they had run to failure; freeing maintenance attention and budgets for higher-value assets.
Our approach to data management not only is generating more actionable data, but it is also enabling process automation and better leveraging of our computerized maintenance management system. As we go forward, the tools of data management will continue to empower, sustain, and build a productive workforce; help assure worker satisfaction, and, ultimately, preserve institutional knowledge. This is particularly important when resources are limited. Currently, we process more wastewater with the same number of associates as we did 20 years ago.
Finally, value-based asset management allows for better use of external resources. This approach causes us to more deeply think about and then clearly state—how we do what we do. This is of great benefit to our partner consultants, vendors, and contractors as they design, verify, build, and help maintain what we own.
The business of treating wastewater is and will always be the same at some level. How we go about processing wastewater will always require continuous improvement. Innovation and creativity happen in our industry, like they do any other. Taking a value-driven, asset management approach to implementing improvements is the best way to serve customers and protect the environment for future generations.