February 2013, Vol. 25, No.2

Operator Essentials

What every operator should know about SOPs

Max Hildebrand

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a written document or set of instructions detailing all relevant steps and activities of a process or procedure. An SOP provides employees with a reference to common business practices, activities, or tasks. Every well-run system has good SOPs that provide a clear, consistent objective to field staff in performing various operational duties. 

SOPs typically include numerous steps that may help an operator understand the task, why it is necessary, and the ramifications of other plant processes on that particular task. SOPs can include procedures for cleaning, isolation, draining, calibrating, and other activities that require step-by-step instructions. 

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A practical consideration  

SOP name  

The SOP should have a unique name that includes the type of activity and the specific piece of equipment or process to which the activity refers.  

Consistency in the use of activity terminology builds familiarity with the main purpose of the SOP. For example, SOPs that involve taking a process tank off-line should consistently use a term such as “shutdown” or “isolation” in the title. The name of the process tank in the title serves to differentiate one isolation or shutdown SOP from another.  


The description/purpose should state what is to be done, as well as describe the reason(s) for performing the SOP.  

For example: 

The headworks accumulates debris (grit, plastics, other debris) that may have to be removed. By removing the debris, the plant operator is helping to protect downstream equipment, as well as increasing the overall effectiveness of the headwork’s unit.  

Operational goals  

The goals should be stated concisely. Operational goals seek to achieve a specific action or set of actions.  

For example: 

The primary clarifier must be thoroughly cleaned. Once it has been cleaned, maintenance staff can gain access for inspection purposes.  

Safety issues/hazardous activities  

A listing of the hazardous activities associated with performing this SOP must be included. This helps protect the operator and equipment.  

For example: 

Reference the existing lockout/tagout and confined-space procedures when performing this procedure.  

Resources and tools required  

List the required tools or resources needed for the task. This will help the operator to be more efficient when doing the task.  

For example: 

Locks, tags, hoses, nozzles, ladders, attachment mechanisms, and safety harnesses are all needed for this activity.  


Describing how frequent (and when) this procedure should be performed will help the operations staff develop a routine.  

For example: 

This procedure should be performed once per year, preferably in the summer when flows are at their lowest.  

Photographs and drawings  

Photographs and drawings can enhance SOP use by helping the user find locations of specific features (e.g., valves, gates, etc.) needed to perform the SOP effectively.  

Photographs and drawings can be incorporated into the SOP or linked electronically if the SOPs are available in an electronic format.  


All SOPs should be kept up to date. They should be written by someone who is very familiar with the activity.  

In addition, there should be in place a process for reviewing and approving the SOP. Also, version control is important to maintain.  

Master list  

Treatment facilities should keep a master list of all SOPs. The list should be accessible to all personnel.  

This helps operations staff members know what SOPs have been developed. As procedures, change, it is imperative to keep close track of which version is being used.  

Step-by-step instructions  

SOPs should describe a complete and logical sequence of events.  

In addition to the step-by-step instructions, specific information the user might need or encounter when performing a particular step can be included to benefit first-time or infrequent users of the SOP. This information can include special notes, the effect(s) of the step, or more-detailed aspects of the step.  


Max Hildebrand is a senior operations specialist with Carollo Engineers (Walnut Creek, Calif.) and Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) House of Delegates member located in Alsea, Ore.