July 27, 2017 | by Joe Burns

Facing both aging infrastructure and shrinking budgets, water and wastewater plant operators are turning to asset management practices to help do more with fewer resources. Benchmarking is one useful tool to assess a plant’s efficiency, gauge relative performance, target areas for deeper analysis, and identify best practices by comparing your city’s plant to other similar facilities. Benchmarking results can also be used to improve performance by helping to establish metrics and future targets. Our recent work in Baltimore offers a good example of benchmarking benefits.

EBA Engineering, Inc. (EBA) was part of a team that performed a water and wastewater plant efficiency study for the City of Baltimore. The City owns and operates 5 major treatment facilities, which together produce 360 million gallons of drinking water and treat an average of 200 million gallons of wastewater every day. Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) also manages 4,500 miles of water distribution pipeline, 1,400 miles of collection system pipeline, 20 water pumping stations, 8 major wastewater pumping stations, and a separate storm drainage system. In all, it is a vast system that serves one of the nation’s largest urban populations.

As you can imagine, the City wanted to identify opportunities to optimize and improve their plants’ operations and lower costs, while maintaining the high level of service that customers and stakeholders require. An important part of our study involved comparing Baltimore’s operations to other plants in the industry to see what we could learn from their best practices. This benchmarking was intended to give the DPW a high-level overview of their plants’ performance compared to peer utilities.

One purpose of this particular benchmarking effort was to compare the City’s cost per million gallons to treat water and wastewater with similar-sized facilities in the region. Factors such as wages, taxes, chemicals, and energy were tabulated for comparison. The benchmarking process involved several steps:

1. Identifying several peer utilities with similar characteristics
2. Developing a customized survey to gather key operating and financial data from other plants
3. Reviewing and analyzing the submitted data
4. Modeling the results for Baltimore’s plants compared to the peer utility plants

The results generally indicated that Baltimore’s cost per million gallons to produce potable water is less on average, which was expected due to the high quality of the City’s raw water supply. However, the cost to treat wastewater is higher, in part, because of stringent requirements to discharge effluent into the Chesapeake Bay.

Benchmarking results can be used to guide evaluation efforts during an efficiency study and to develop recommendations for improvement.

Our team also made site visits and interviewed numerous staff members during the study. If possible, I suggest developing questions in advance—based on what you have learned so far—and sharing them with staff members before interviewing them. This tends to make interviews more productive and less stressful for the staff. We try to make interviews as informal as possible and to be clear about our purpose, that this information is intended to help operators and their staff resolve any issues they are experiencing.

Our site visits and interviews—combined with the study and benchmarking effort—helped the team develop 26 recommendations for the City’s consideration, including improvements to operational procedures at their facilities. The City was very enthusiastic about many of our study recommendations and is actively implementing them.

Benchmarking is an important strategy for improving overall treatment plant management, saving money, and doing more with less.

R. Joseph Burns III, PE, is an operations manager for EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 240.547.1136 or joe.burns@ebaengineering.com.