What good is having a sports car if you can’t take it out on the highway and open it up once in a while?
That’s the same mantra employees at Denver Water’s Recycling Plant had of their facility.
“The Recycling Plant is designed to process 30 MGD (million gallons per day),” said Rob Johnson, water treatment lead. “I think the most we’d done was 21 sporadically. It was just idling. We weren’t getting the best efficiency out of it.”
So, they did something about it.
By using Denver Water’s Continuous Improvement model, the team embarked upon a project they call POP, or Prospective Operational Planning.
As part of the process, the team determined that they could shut the plant down at night and on weekends and holidays, if demand is low. Then, to make up for the down time, the staff could produce more water during regular working hours.
“It was like we owned a sports car and only drove it through school zones at slow speeds,” said Tyler Johnson, water treatment lead. “With this new approach, we finally got the chance to hit the throttle. Now that we’re not riding the brakes, we see fewer problems with the equipment.”
Denver Water’s Recycling Plant takes water that’s gone through our homes and been cleaned at the Metro Wastewater plant, cleans it again to a high, but non-drinking water standard and delivering it to specific customers for purposes such as irrigation and industrial cooling.
Due to the type of customer uses for recycled water, the Recycling Plant produces less water than Denver Water’s three drinking water treatment plants, particularly during the winter when there is little to no outdoor irrigation.
Under the new process, when the plant is down, operators remotely monitor chemical and water levels on their laptops, while alarms on their mobile phones notify them if anything is wrong.
After making the initial changes to the plant’s run schedule, plant employees kept looking for more efficient ways to accomplish their work.
They found one quickly. A third shift of employees, called the flex team, was created to operate the plant into the evening, if needed.
“We didn’t utilize the flex team as much as we thought we would,” said Tyler. “With the new operating strategy, we were able to produce enough water earlier in the day than anticipated.”
He explained that this flex team is now focusing on other work, and by the end of 2018, the plant can be operated with about half the staff it took in 2016.
So what does that mean for those employees?
Russ Plakke, water treatment plant manager, now allocates only a quarter of his time to the Recycling Plant while spending the rest of his time working on higher-level projects, like investigating future treatment plant options and needs. Natural attrition reduced some staffing, and a few recycling staff members took other jobs at Denver Water.
All of these changes stand to save Denver Water nearly $600,000 annually in labor costs.
“We have always been encouraged to challenge assumptions and continuously improve,” said Shana Colcleasure, water treatment lead.
At first, some employees were concerned about missing out on overtime and differential pay, Tyler said.
“But on the flip side, there is more work-life balance,” he said. “We no longer work nights and holidays. Weekend operation only occurs during high-demand periods, and our staff is able to spend more time with their families.”
And, maybe take that sports car out for a spin more often.