Guest Column | November 1, 2019

Moneyball For Water And Wastewater Treatment

By Julie King, Tony Jones, And Ron Gerlitz

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The movie and sports term has infiltrated the business world and has important implications for the water/wastewater industry.

Running a treatment plant is like managing a baseball team — lots of different players with a variety of functions. To optimize or improve performance, you need to measure key parameters.

“You’re not solving the problem. You’re not even looking at the problem.”

This is one of many classic lines from the movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, and Jonah Hill as the analytics whiz kid from Yale, Peter Brand. By replacing the intuition of baseball scouts with statistical analysis of metrics, they achieved performance and cost efficiencies, identified unbiased strengths in talent, and harnessed a group of undervalued assets to field a playoffs-contending team with a fraction of the budget of their big-market competitors, such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The A’s succeeded to the point that the principles of Moneyball have been translated into similar results in the NHL, the English Premier (Football) League, international cricket clubs, and the NBA, including the Golden State Warriors — and the Toronto Raptors, who dethroned them in the NBA Playoffs this year.

What does this have to do with business? With treatment of water or wastewater? What are the actual problems we need to address?

Our company, Waterhound Futures, over the last year, interviewed numerous C-suite-level water company executives, innovation and global sustainability directors, operators, and engineers in EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) contracting firms, consulting engineering firms, and principals in the textile/apparel, automotive manufacturing, food and beverage, mining, and municipal water and wastewater treatment sectors. We identified key problems facing water users today in all sectors. Those challenges are:

  • How to manage assets to lower their lifecycle costs
  • The lack of consistent measurement of contaminants in input and output water
  • Available monitoring and modeling software that are process-specific or manufacturer-specific
  • That the approaches to measuring and monitoring water, energy, and consumable usage are not holistic
  • Management commitment is necessary to exercise change

How To Manage Assets To Lower The Lifecycle Costs

Companies do not want to take on more capital expenditures for critical infrastructure related to processing water or wastewater. They want to optimize performance of existing assets and lower operating costs. Of course, one cannot optimize or improve what isn’t measured. We have found that contaminants in input water are very frequently not being measured. When contaminants are quantified, there are discrepancies or inconsistencies between lab reports and results for existing technology treatment performance and samples provided of treated output water for disposal.

Lack Of Consistent Measurement Of Contaminants In Input And Output Water

Corporate management, sustainability directors, and shareholders don’t really know whether they have a problem with wastewater or not, because often contaminants in wastewater are not measured — coming in or going out. Instead, there remains a reliance on conventional chemical dosing as the method for treating wastewater, along with the subjective experience of operators as to whether or not a problem exists, and what should be done for treatment, including, “We look at the pH, and if the water looks ‘clear,’ we dump it down the drain.”

This “business as usual” approach does not allow a company to quantify operational performance, ensure regulatory compliance, or optimize assets based on reliable, objective information. The United Nations estimates that over 80 percent of freshwater extractions each year are used and disposed of back into the environment as untreated — or partially treated — wastewater. It is as high as 30 percent in North America and Europe. With both water scarcity and environmental concerns increasingly adding pressure to water resource management strategies, eliminating untreated — or partially treated — wastewater as a source of pollution for local freshwater supplies is a common interest for all water users.

Available Monitoring And Modeling Software Are Manufacturer- Or Process-Specific

According to our research, many companies have a lot of data stored, but are unsure of what to do with it. As a result, it languishes in spreadsheets, but is not converted into “actionable intelligence.” Other companies stitch together several monitoring software tools to try to understand the performance of their overall water and wastewater treatment systems. But that provides an incomplete picture.

The opportunity to carry out predictive maintenance, which helps in lowering operational expenses and reducing environmental and reputational risks, is minimized or overlooked. Scheduled maintenance can occur after the point when optimal system performance has already started to decline and reactive maintenance risks environmental accidents and consequent reputational damage for brands, as well as requiring last-minute purchase of parts and supplies at full price. A comprehensive monitoring and modeling software that is technology-agnostic is needed by the industry to supply actionable intelligence to operators, managers, and governance boards.

Management Commitment To Change

“I can do this all day long.”

When Oakland A’s Manager Art Howe refused to implement the new data-driven strategy, Billy Beane eliminated the other choices so Art could use only the players selected by the “moneyball” strategy. To realize operational performance and cost efficiencies, calculations of optimization are required. To shift from subjective decision-making to data analytics, management needs to be committed to implementing a plan of action that will inform operators of necessary steps to ensure assets are performing as engineered and that regulatory compliance is achieved.

Approach To Measuring And Monitoring Water, Energy, And Consumable Usage Is Not Holistic

Taking a holistic approach to auditing, monitoring, and managing wastewater treatment systems, processes, and facilities allows a company to make the most effective use of capital assets throughout their lifecycle and to achieve the best overall savings from processes, technology, and the use of natural resources in production.

Conclusion

Data analytics for water and wastewater treatment systems and processes is not designed to replace or “computerize” operators; it is a tool to enhance what operators can do. It also provides management with independent data that isn’t influenced by operator error or supplier bias. Data analytics help a company optimize overall operational and business performance by measurement of key parameters required to gain insight necessary to run efficient, growing concerns. By applying the tactics of Moneyball to water and wastewater treatment facilities, companies gain intelligence and make informed decisions.

After numerous interviews, challenges facing industrial and municipal wastewater treatment operators are managing assets for lifecycle benefits, ensuring that instrumentation is measuring the incoming contaminants and the water quality of the effluents is properly recorded. Process-specific and manufacturer-specific modeling software is available, but no comprehensive, technology-agnostic solution exists. The operation is reflected on the commitment of management to running efficient wastewater treatment facilities. By taking a holistic approach, significant savings can be achieved.


About The Authors

Julie King is a cofounder of Waterhound Futures Ltd. And serves as the managing director of the international company. She brings over 20 years of experience in working with small companies and startups in water technologies and international environmental organizations. King conceived of the concept of converting a proven offline set of algorithms to a web portal, cloud-based SaaS and has guided the early development.

Tony Jones, Ph.D. is a cofounder of Waterhound Futures Ltd. and initial investor. He brings over 20 years of experience in working with startups, innovation, and development of government projects, particularly in clean energy and wastewater in a marine environment.


‚ÄčRon Gerlitz is a cofounder and managing director of Waterhound Futures’ North American office in Vancouver, BC. Ron is an engineer and also brings over 20 years of experience in international project development and management in the oil and gas industry. He has worked closely with Julie King in early development, overseeing technical discussions and establishing relationships with early adopters.