What's upstream from your wastewater plant?

Oct. 20, 2023
Amanda Kieffer from Operators Unlimited demystifies what could be upstream from your treatment plant with these best practices.

Where does wastewater begin? The answer depends on who you ask, and the answer may not be what you expect.

Approaching this question from outside a wastewater treatment plant can provide valuable perspectives. Someone who works in manfuacturing could have a unique and rich understanding of their facility’s waste stream, which is  a valuable resource.

This experience on the production side can shape how someone thinks of wastewater and can emphasize the adverse effects of the upstream-downstream informational divide prevalent across industrial settings.

This article will outline the nature of this divide and its influence on wastewater treatment in addition to several best practices designed to bridge this gap.

Upstream vs. downstream information for wastewater

Every process and waste stream is unique, but one shared element can be found across all industrial facilities no matter their size or sector: the spheres of upstream versus downstream.

These categories serve a practical purpose, separating functions and areas of operation within a facility, but this division can also foster and reinforce poor practices that disrupt downstream operations.

Instead of subscribing to this dual perception, it can help to approach wastewater and its treatment as comprehensive; encompassing both a facility’s production side and its wastewater treatment area. When one stops viewing the two as separate, it becomes clear how engineers and production personnel play a part in effective wastewater treatment.

By pinpointing process gateways, providing upstream access and prioritizing prevention, facilities can bridge the informational and operational gap separating the upstream and downstream processes from each other. While no single practice is paramount among the three outlined, they are each accessible options applicable within any industrial facility.

What are process gateways?

First, it is imperative that upstream and downstream personnel are aware of their process gateways or access points to the system, whether intended or incidental.

For example, an innocuous drain, unlabeled and easily overlooked, can become the source of an ongoing issue downstream. Consider this example, wastewater operators scrambled against a mysterious contaminant their system was not designed to handle. After a time-consuming investigation, a single drain that had become an impromptu rinse site was found to be the source of inexplicable fats, oils and grease (FOGs) within the ordinarily metals-dense stream. While this scenario may not have risked the plant’s compliance status, not every facility is similarly fortunate.

When a chemical spill went undetected in a different upstream process, wastewater operators were the ones who sounded the alarm. This awareness had come at the cost of their own treatment process, which was compromised and continued declining until the spill location was found. Not only did this result in non-compliance, but the unexpected chemical could also have had lasting effects on future treatment capabilities had it been damaging or corrosive to the equipment itself.

Increase access to upstream process information

Beyond pinpointing process gateways, providing or increasing the access that wastewater professionals have to upstream processes can prove to be highly beneficial.

As businesses evolve, so too will their production process. Wastewater professionals must be involved in decisions that could impact their ability to treat a facility’s wastewater.

In some cases, this takes the form of a simple approved chemicals list that wastewater professionals are tasked to scrutinize. In systems where such lists or similar collaborative efforts are less feasible, advance notice of process changes can allow the downstream process to better prepare.

Preparative measures may involve increased aeration or temporary adjustments in chemical feed rates. Regardless of how preparation takes shape in a facility, maintaining upstream accessibility could prevent process problems entirely.

Collaborate and prepare to prevent dysfunction

No discussion of preparation is complete without prevention. The best process breakdown is the one that never occurs, but some disruptions are virtually inevitable. Rather than reacting to those process breakdowns as they occur, collaborative action between upstream and downstream personnel can identify areas of susceptibility and anticipate issues before they can cause a compliance crisis.

Most facilities already partake in regular equipment inspections and understand the importance of system maintenance. By inviting individuals from both upstream and downstream processes to observe or partake in the inspection of their counterparts’ systems, a routine procedure transforms into an invaluable educational opportunity.

Ultimately, the further a facility moves its concept of wastewater upstream, the greater the problem-solving and preventative capacities of all. These capacities are compounded when upstream personnel approach production with wastewater in mind; doubly so when wastewater personnel have a clearer sense of the processes that precede their own.

By implementing these practices, facilities minimize their risk of crossing into noncompliance and mitigate the severity of lapses that cannot be prevented. When one reconsiders their understanding of wastewater’s origins and its effective treatment as a collaborative effort, individuals across all phases of an industrial process become contributors capable of promoting better treatment results.

About the Author

Amanda Kieffer | Wastewater Process Engineer

Amanda Kieffer is a process engineer with 10 years of experience in the industrial manufacturing and environmental compliance industries. Amanda serves as a Wastewater Process Engineer and Project Manager for Operators Unlimited.

Prior to joining Operators Unlimited, she spent the majority of her career working, on-site in industrial plants, overseeing operations in several departments. From production, process and utilities to environmental, Amanda has experience conducting chemical trials and lab tests, directing operators and wastewater staff and most importantly identifying and closing compliance gaps. At Operators Unlimited, Amanda spends her time identifying industrial wastewater needs for OU customers, conducting site visits/audits and lab testing, data analysis and implementing specialized solutions. Amanda’s attention to detail through a compliance-minded lens coupled with her engineering mindset allows her to develop successful, strategic plans for her customers.

Amanda holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from North Carolina State University.

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