Its All About the Clean

Some years ago I was invited to speak before an esteemed group of Wastewater Executives who were affectionately dubbed The Magnificent Seven.  They were the Directors and managers of seven collection system agencies which managed services for approximately 20 million people, essentially half the state.  That number of citizens represents a number greater than or equal to 48 states(1) .  Imagine the combined responsibility levied upon this group?  I had been invited to share my views on the future prospects for our industry.  I was to talk about my vision for the future of technology and innovation we might expect to see.  I was pleasantly surprised to find my invitation allowed me to sit through their entire program that day.  What transpired both surprised me and provided one of those aha moments that has stayed with me ever since.

As the morning’s program continued we came to what was to be their feature presentation of the day.  It was the summary report on a study they had commissioned in an effort to identify best practices for the cleaning of sewer lines.  They had agreed to observe the operations of their group’s crews for the purpose of identifying which agency’s crews were best at the “what and how” when it came to cleaning a sewer line segment.  An independent observer (aka spy) was employed to observe crews in each district.  The crews did not know they were being observed.  Each was observed in the three phases of operations; deployment: arriving at the scene of a maintenance call, setting up for their cleaning operation including scoping out the location, positioning their vehicles, managing traffic control, and otherwise getting ready for the cleaning phase, the cleaning phase; popping the manhole, taking a quick observation of the job at hand, selecting a nozzle, setting their slipper guide and manhole roller into place, and then running the nozzle up the line and back, and finally, the mobilization phase, when everything was packed up and their vehicles ready to roll, drivers slipping their transmissions into drive and prepared to roll away, on to the next operation.

They had observed crews in all seven agencies and compiled a large amount of valuable data. They were now presented with a table showing times elapsed for each of the three phases of operation, for each of the crews observed.  As you might imagine, times varied a bit between each distinct crew, in each distinct phase of the operations.  Some agencies were faster in the deployment phase than others, and vice versa, as you might well  imagine, other agencies faster in the cleaning, or mobilization phases.  But what they now possessed was, in theory, the path to  a best practices analysis.  If they could identify the agencies whose technique was fastest (hence best) in each of the three phases, they needed only share those respective agencies techniques among their group in the hopes of improving efficiency.  It was a remarkable piece of work and I found myself wholly impressed with their vision for the project.  The reporter explained that the average time compiled by the group was roughly 55 minutes for the whole operation as I recall.  However the telling part of the observations revealed that if they took the best time for each of the three phases, a theoretical crew using the best practices employed in each of the three phases could actually complete a full operations cycle in just about 30 minutes.  Imagine, simply by sharing the most successful techniques, they might hope to achieve a remarkable 80% gain in productivity with no additional investment in equipment or crews!  This was a huge potential incremental improvement of performance.  As I sat and listened I found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed.  This was golden, and I was pleased to be in the presence of these peers at that time.

Then it happened.  To my surprise, one of their group turned abruptly to me and asked “So what do you think John?”  I was stunned awake from my blissful moment just a moment before.  Suddenly it seemed all eyes on me, beckoning for acknowledgment if not approval.  I couldn’t disappoint!  I was impressed, and so I told them so.  But in my earnest to deliver an honest and candid response it hit me, the only thing I did not hear was confirmation of the quality of the work which had been done.  “How clean were the lines?”, I asked, more out loud and to myself than actually expecting a response from the group.  The study was most certainly worthy, and the information gained was truly of very good value, but without that last data element, “How clean was each line and hence how effective was the operation?”, what we had was purely theoretical.  You could have heard a pin drop.  The group sat in a sort of stunned silence as each absorbed my observation.  I was a bit stunned myself.  In my imagination, I began to see the  light bulbs go on over the heads of the other participants, as each in their own time realized the validity of the observation.  No amount of work, no measure of efficiency, nothing we could do in operations was valid in a vacuum which did not include the verification of a job correctly and well done.

To this day that moment stays with me as one of those little pearls which we are sometimes lucky enough to collect over our years.  Indeed, it’s all about the clean.

Writer’s Prologue:

Barry Berggren, who manages the Wastewater Collections System Maintenance operations for the City of Los Angeles, a system comprised of over 6,500 miles of pipeline and which serves over 9 million people, has worked diligently throughout his career to develop a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) for his operations.  His SOP’s are highly regarded and he is often sought out by other agencies for his guidance on how they might improve their operations.  One of the techniques that Barry includes in his SOP’s is the use of a proofer tool in cleaning operations.  A proofer is a multi wired nozzle skid, designed to be about a half inch smaller in diameter than the pipe being cleaned.  In a properly designed proofer, the wires, or skids, are slightly collapsible so that the proofer may compress slightly if an offset or other intrusion into the pipe is encountered.  I’ve sometimes heard proofers referred to as deflection gages because of this feature.  However it should collapse only slightly, enough to “give a little” if necessary, but not enough that one cannot verify the integrity of the entire length of the pipe segment being cleaned.  When his operators pass a nozzle the length of a line segment using the proofer tool he knows that line segment is at least 90% open and clear of any consequential impediments.   While not perfect, this is a verification of “How clean was the pipe?”   He’s come to learn that 90% open is a good day and a job done effectively.  In the year 2000 the City of Los Angeles incurred a whopping 700 Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO’s).  Over the ensuing years, Barry and his team have reduced that number steadily, reaching 127 in 2011, their lowest record to date.  This represents less than 2.0 spills per 100 miles of collection system pipeline, a remarkable improvement in performance indeed.


(1) according to the US Census Bureau, 2009,

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John "JP" Pujol Posted by John "JP" Pujol

John "JP" Pujol is the President of Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, LLC in Torrance, California. JP sells sewer nozzles, push cameras, locators, jetter tools and rodding tools for municipal utility maintenance of above and below ground sewer water infrastructure.

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