Archive, Editorial

An Ounce of Maintenance is Worth a Pound of Cure

Maintenance saves the world!  Every day, all over the world, maintenance men and women are both protecting us and saving money.  In the water world we often think our efforts are unheralded, and within our unheralded world, the most unheralded work may be maintenance.  Yet there is a good case that their work is near the top in importance.How and why?  Good question.  Take a look at the following video:

What this video captures is the dedication of our maintenance staff, their drive to innovate, and the particular ways the work is changing with the times.  What the video does not capture is the vast and complex systems that must be maintained.  It only begins to hint at the financial benefits that come from pro-active maintenance. 

Reactive maintenance is the most expensive and dangerous kind.  If we wait to repair a piece of equipment until it is broken we must face whether or not we have the pieces necessary in inventory or need to purchase them at a premium price. We need to bring in the appropriately trained personnel during the day or night, frequently on overtime.  If the break is a water or sewer line in the public space, we have to manage unexpected service outages to our customers and all sorts of traffic and safety hazards.  If the problem is at Blue Plains – our mammoth treatment facility – we could face harmful discharges to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

Clearly, we want none of the potential risks to befall our customers or the environment.  So, we spend whatever is necessary to do the job.

Proactive and preventative maintenance enables us to repair and update our facilities on our schedule – before there is a break.  During regular hours, using parts ordered in advance, with traffic and safety precautions planned and implemented – we can safely prevent breakdowns at a lower cost to our ratepayers, and with less disruption to our facilities and our city.

Thus, our maintenance teams are implementing pro-active, preventative maintenance!  In contrast to its remarkable importance, this effort gets the fairly mundane description of “asset management.”

Asset management, though, does help save the world!

And when I originally wrote this post I planned to conclude with these words.  But then I realized I had not done justice to another aspect of this issue – which is the almost unbelievable complexity and diversity of systems we are seeking to maintain.  The picture is simply not complete without understanding of this angle.

Although gravity based sewers seem simple enough – flow running toward a destination by the pull of gradually descending sewers – the sewers must connect to thousands of buildings and handle flows of every imaginable character.  Gravity will not be able to direct flow for every part of the system, which requires pump systems that can push millions of gallons without being clogged with debris.

Then of course, the flow reaches a plant of remarkable complexity – which is the Blue Plains Resource Recovery Facility (or wastewater treatment, although our motto is “there is no waste water, only wasted resources”).  This facility is housed on 155 acres packed with treatment systems on a mammoth scale and has tens of thousands of individual process elements.  Blue Plains is the largest single consumer of electricity in Washington, DC – driving pumps, treatment, chemicals, aeration, screening, engines, filters – and an almost endless variety of pipes, valves and switches.  Much of these systems are monitored electronically from a central control room that looks more like NASA than anywhere else.

And at Blue Plains, we are currently putting into operation 15,000 new pieces of equipment of even greater complexity. These facilities include the largest installation of CAMBI thermal hydrolysis units that will preheat and pressurize a carefully prepared mixture of the material we are removing from the “waste” stream – to then be fed to gigantic digesters that will generate methane – which after another round of refining is fed into a huge power plant to drive turbines to then generate electricity.

That, and a huge expansion of our facilities to remove nutrients from the flow.  That, and an even more massive construction of a specialized treatment facility within the treatment facility to manage additional stormwater flow being delivered by the largest underground tunneling system being built in the District since Metro –   stormwater and sewage that currently overflows to the rivers of our city in big storms.  This is our Clean Rivers Project at a cool $2.6 billion price tag.

And so far, I have only been describing the “waste” side of the operation.  We also deliver drinking water to every dwelling and building in the District through an independent system of water mains (1,300 miles in the District), a complement of 37,000 valves, 9,350 fire hydrants, pump stations and reservoirs strategically located at various topographical elevations in the city.  And this system is pressurized – which pushed the drinking water into buildings and out of our faucets, no matter the floor or elevation.

Parallel to the size, scope and complexity of the system is the need to operate it without interruption and mistakes.  Drinking water must be delivered every minute of every day and must meet exacting standards established under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  “Waste” water must be treated and the reclaimed water discharged to the Potomac River meeting exacting standards established by the Clean Water Act.  Quite literally, every living organism in our region – or any region where an enterprise like us exists – relies on us doing our job right, every minute, every day, year around.

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