Archive, Innovation

Innovation in 3 Easy Steps – Part III – Examples from Everywhere all the Time!


As promised, I am writing a final innovation post about various examples of innovation underway or already in place at DC Water. It’s often thought that water utilities are risk adverse and lacking in innovation. DC Water is challenging this notion and is a prime example of how the water utility sector is moving faster than ever before in taking calculated risks to achieve and provide cheaper, faster and more effective services. Why? For the benefit of our ratepayers. Ultimately every decision we make is in the interest of providing affordable and high quality services 24/7/365.

In my previous posts, I’ve highlighted a few very specific examples and now it’s time to explore how innovation is the core of our business. I’m sure that many utilities could conduct a similar inventory of their current work and realize that innovation is already integrated into most of what we do!  The various short stories and examples I share below demonstrate how DC Water is innovative in all aspects of our business.

Innovation in Financing Research

This first example relates to my previous post on DC Water’s biosolids program. While DC Water is currently executing a significant effort to produce Class A Biosolids, we were already thinking innovatively ten years ago when we saw an opportunity and changed the paradigm under which we contract for the recycling of our biosolids (a valuable carbon and nutrient asset). What did we do? We started requiring contracted biosolids haulers to provide DC Water a nutrient rebate to leverage resources for biosolids research. Originally, the rebate was $1/ton, which DC Water was contractually required to spend on research. Since then, the nutrient rebate has increased to $2/ton, generating $500,000 per year for research, which DC Water uses to fund dozens of projects at several partner universities (including the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Bucknell, and others).

One of the many success stories resulting from this rebate program is research conducted in partnership with Virginia Tech that investigated the benefits of using biosolids as fertilizer. It was previously observed and reported anecdotally that biosolids-fertilized crops were more drought-resistant and produced higher yield than crops fertilized with inorganic chemical products. DC Water partnered with Virginia Tech using research funds from the nutrient rebate program to discover that biosolids have high levels of vital, naturally occurring plant hormones that are crucial for resisting stress. Further research determined that the naturally occurring hormones are produced as byproducts by the microbes at DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant during nitrogen removal. In short, the research was able to pinpoint why biosolids help crops resist drought more than other fertilizers. In addition to the contribution to scientific knowledge, this result will increase the value of DC Water’s biosolids production. Through the research, DC Water was able to add value to its product, help farmers grow healthy crops, and advance the base of scientific knowledge related to drought resistance.
Innovation in Restoring an Aging Infrastructure

DC Water spends about $10 million each year replacing damaged or old sewer laterals to minimize leaks. Sewer laterals carry sewage from a house to the main sewer line. They’re a vital part of the system and one of the most important for individual homeowners, because when there’s a problem with your lateral, you know it.

Replacing a sewer lateral is a relatively small repair for us, but a big deal for the homeowner and neighboring homes. Over several days, a crew typically will dig an entire trench, including a hole in the street and sidewalk and through the yard, removing dirt, plants, and sometimes even walls and stairs. Then, the pipe is replaced and everything must be restored. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process.

To save time and money, we now use a trenchless technology called cured-in-place pipe for sewer lateral replacement. Cured-in-place pipe is a soft fabric liner that can be inserted into an old or leaky pipe. The old pipe is cleaned first and the liner is soaked with resin and inserted into the old pipe through an access hole. Then, the resin is heated, causing the liner to harden, essentially forming a new pipe inside the old one. No trench necessary!
The entire repair is faster, cheaper, and less disruptive. So far, we’ve been testing this technology and only a small portion of our lateral repairs have been trenchless, but even that small proportion has saved DC Water over $1 million during the last two years. We’re using that money to replace more laterals faster, preventing potential sewage leaks. And soon, we’ll be expanding the trenchless program, switching two of our traditional crews from the traditional method to trenchless replacement.
Innovation in Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater treatment involves the removal of both carbon and nitrogen. Carbon is mainly associated with organic compounds in the sewage.  Sewage is treated in aerated basins where microorganisms break down these compounds using oxygen, microorganism that also consume carbon for cell growth. Nitrogen is removed in a similar process downstream of the carbon removal stage. The microorganisms that remove nitrogen also require organic carbon as food, but the upstream process is so efficient that there is not enough carbon remaining to feed the nitrogen-removing microbes. So at Blue Plains, as elsewhere, methanol must be added to the nitrogen removal tanks.

To improve this process, our wastewater research staff has developed a process modification that allows continuous pumping of nitrogen removing microorganisms into the carbon-removal tanks. This allows removal of a portion of the nitrogen load without the addition of carbon, taking advantage of carbon already present in the plant flow. As a result, less methanol is needed in the nitrogen removal process – so much less, in fact, that DC Water is saving $1 million per year on buying methanol.

DC Water was awarded a patent for the development of this technology. Initially, the proof of concept was developed at essentially no cost, and installing a dedicated pipe sending sludge from the nitrogen removal stage to the carbon removal stage was constructed at a cost of approximately $200,000 – given the massive savings on methanol, the project paid for itself in less than a year. Innovative solutions that can give that return on investment are what DC Water is all about!

Innovation in Information Technology and Customer Response Time
DC Water tracks significant amounts of valuable information, including maps of our equipment and assets, lists of work orders for our crews, the locations of our vehicles, and problems reported by our customers. While we had several systems to store and view this information, they were unable to communicate with each other. To resolve this challenge, DC Water conceived and developed a single system, called the Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution, which brings all of these different pieces together in one place.
Map showing reported problem and current repair vehicle locations

The new system allows staff in our Command Center to see everything on a single map: vehicle locations, reported problems, and where our equipment is, all in real-time. That means when a customer reports a problem via DC Water’s website (dcwater.com) or on a smartphone, a dispatcher will see the problem immediately appear on a map. The Command Center can view work crews that are nearby and coordinate a response with other groups within DC Water. Work orders can be issued or assigned directly from the map system, saving travel time, improving efficiency, and resolving problems faster.

This view shows a hydrant replacement job and crews assigned

Efficiency gains have already been achieved. Even better, as onboard laptops are deployed, field crews will be able to instantly access this information, no longer needing to contact the Command Center – a 20-minute wait reduced to seconds. In the future, analysis of patterns within the data is expected to allow us to do an even better job predicting and responding to problems. The Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution is just one more way DC Water is working to connect different parts of our business to solve problems and complete repairs even faster.

Innovation in Engineering Solutions

In 2009, DC Water was confronted with a significant problem when a leak developed on the slope of a hill emanating from a 78” transmission water main – that’s a big pipe! The main was critical to continue supplying water to our customers, so it couldn’t be shut off for long. When we inspected the pipe to find the source of the leak, things got even worse: we found some defects in the structure of the pipe itself. Repairing a pipe this size would be a big job no matter what, especially on a hill, but in this case another major water main lies on top of the leaky one. A traditional, open-cut excavation job would have been extremely difficult and incredibly disruptive, not to mention long and expensive.

Because of the critical nature of this water main and the complicated terrain issues coupled with our concern that we could not keep the main out-of-service for an extended period of time, we needed to look beyond the conventional repair methods. At this time, we found carbon fiber technology as a possible solution for repair of this critical main.  Carbon fiber wrap is a trenchless technology that has its roots in bridge seismic rehabilitation and repair primarily on the west coast since the 1990’s. Here’s how it works. A high-technology fabric made of carbon fibers is bonded to the existing concrete. The high tensile strength of the fabric reinforces the structure and holds the pipe together, repairing the defects and preventing further deterioration.

The use of carbon fiber wrap turned out to be the perfect solution for our leaking 78” water main..  We were able to complete this repair in less than three weeks, saving a substantial amount of time and money over the conventional method and greatly reducing the risk to the other pipe on the same hill.  With the success of this project, we added carbon fiber wrap to our toolbox for complicated repairs that require structural reinforcement in difficult to access and environmentally sensitive locations.

Innovation in Local Hiring

DC Water has arguably the largest capital program in the District of Columbia with multiple large scale infrastructure projects currently underway at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant and other sites across the city. More major projects are planned over the next 10 years. These projects are largely funded by our ratepayers, and for that reason we’ve launched the DC Water Works! initiative – a multi-pronged effort to boost local hiring on DC Water projects and manage the employment requirements of contractors.

The majority of workers on DC Water’s construction projects are hired and employed by construction contractors and their subcontractors, and there are many opportunities in a variety of trades. DC Water Works! is a targeted campaign initiative to advertise DC Water jobs to local District residents, collaborate with District job training and apprenticeship programs and coordinate an incentive-based program to encourage DC Water contractors to interview and hire District residents.

DC Water Works involves a multi-faceted approach targeting both local residents and contractors. First, we established three satellite job centers created to advertise job vacancies of contractors and provide space for interviews. Second, we began providing a financial incentive of 5 – 10 percent of DC payroll for contractors when local employment goals are met. We’re also placing paid trainees on crews to increase the knowledge and skill base of our local residents. All of these efforts incentivize a process that supports our local economy while providing job training and skills to local residents.

Innovation in Communications

At DC Water, we prioritize our customers as #1 and as a result we’ve invested in building a powerhouse External Affairs Team that is responsible for marketing our brand and communicating about our work. Unlike many utilities, this 13-person team includes a production team with in-house designers and videographers, social media experts, a media manager and a community outreach team. Throughout the year, this group is continually launching impressive District-wide campaigns and outreach events that would otherwise require third-party marketing and communication firms, resulting in significant savings and stellar branding throughout our service area.

The DC Water Outreach Team is particularly innovative in communications. On any given day, this team is tracking dozens of construction projects that are underway in the District and ensuring our customers are informed and satisfied with our work. Part of this outreach includes traditional attendance at community meetings and snail mail notification of upcoming projects. However, DC Water’s construction outreach has moved beyond traditional communications and is taking advantage of social media to connect with our customers, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr.

In addition to social media, we’ve also implemented an automated workzone notification system in which customers can receive text or email alerts about construction in their neighborhood, including scheduled and emergency work. These alerts are also distributed using Twitter in which DC Water currently has more than 7,000 followers! Every day, our External Affairs Team is on the streets, at public events and on social media communicating with our customers and highlighting the importance and necessity of our work!

And the list goes on …

There are dozens of stories to share about innovation at DC Water and I hope this provides a brief glimpse into how we are working towards becoming a world-class water utility. I am grateful to have a workforce that is eager and willing to think innovatively when challenges arise and find ways we can do our work better, faster and cheaper. It’s becoming what we do best!

And we have only just begun!

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