September 2009, Vol. 21, No.9

Small Communities

Small Communities - Taking the Guesswork Out of Treatment Plant Staffing Decisions

John Murphy and Stephen Hochbrunn

Even in good economic times, wastewater treatment plants, especially those in small communities, must run lean when it comes to personnel. (Towns tend to want their plants to employ no more staff than they absolutely need.) In a tough economy, the need to be efficient with human resources is only magnified. But that pressure can prompt a plant to run too lean and employ too few operators — the potential result being permit noncompliance and deterioration of the investment in a facility

How can a plant strike the right balance and get it right on staffing? When Elena Proakis–Ellis of the Water and Sewer Division in Concord, Mass., wanted to analyze whether her town’s 4500-m³/d (1.2-mgd) wastewater treatment plant was staffed appropriately, she took advantage of a new tool,

The Northeast Guide for Estimating Staffing at Publicly and Privately Owned Wastewater Treatment Plants, which assists plant owners and managers in determining efficient staffing levels. The guide was developed by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC; Lowell, Mass.), a not-for-profit interstate agency funded primarily by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as dues paid by its member states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

“The guide allowed us to quantify and compare the different components of treatment plant operation in order to better understand the staffing needs of our plant,” Proakis–Ellis said.

Available as a free download through NEIWPCC’s Web site, the guide features a series of charts enabling a user to calculate the number of staff hours required each year to complete tasks in such areas as basic and advanced operations and processes, maintenance, laboratory operations, solids handling, yard work, and automation. The charts generate different staffing estimates depending on a plant’s flow capacity and can be used for plants ranging from 380 to 114,000 m³/d (100,000 gal/d to 30 mgd). Because hour estimates can differ significantly based on the number of shifts at a plant, the charts are offered in three categories — 1-Shift, 1+Shift, and 24/7.

“We confirmed our impression that our plant is operated very efficiently,” Proakis–Ellis said, “and we can use the charts to easily demonstrate that efficiency to town officials and ratepayers.”

The NEIWPCC guide satisfies the need for a systematic approach to determining staffing levels. Such an approach was not without precedent. In 1973, EPA published the report

Estimated Staffing for Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facilities, which for years helped state regulatory agencies and plant managers determine staffing needs associated with treatment plant processes and activities. But changes in the wastewater industry have seriously diminished this guide’s usefulness.

In November 2008, NEIWPCC published the guide, which, in addition to the charts, contains sections on issues that have significant impacts on staffing levels but are difficult to quantify, such as the age of a plant’s work force. The charts can be filled in by hand, but they are also provided in an interactive Excel® spreadsheet format.

“This guide is going to be a valuable asset to many facilities, as well as those of us in the regulatory community,” said Craig Motasky of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Interest in the guide has led to numerous opportunities to deliver presentations about it at conferences, such as the National Sec. 104(g) Conference in Chicago and WEFTEC®.09 in Orlando, Fla.

The positive response is no surprise when you consider what is at stake. Since the passage of the original Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government has invested more than $78 billion in building more than 16,000 municipal wastewater treatment facilities nationwide. To make the most of that investment, it takes good operators, who ensure that a plant is run safely, efficiently, effectively, and in compliance with permit requirements. The NEIWPCC guide makes a tough decision — determining the exact number of operators a plant needs — a little easier. It should be particularly helpful to those in the process of planning a new facility, upgrading current operations, or reviewing different treatment plant options, such as the addition of new operations, solids handling, or a reduction of staff.

The guide takes into account the special needs of smaller plants, where wastewater plant employees tend to have a broad range of job responsibilities within, as well as outside of, the treatment plant, doing such things as collection system maintenance and road repair.

“The charts are a great tool for small communities, because we are under increased scrutiny in these challenging times,” Proakis–Ellis said. “Our plant is in the process of upgrading to tertiary treatment, and the guide helped us evaluate the different staffing scenarios that we’ll be facing in the future.”

While the guide was designed for municipal officials, plant superintendents, engineers, regulators, operators, contract operation firms, permittees, and other parties to use in estimating the staffing needs of wastewater treatment plants in the northeastern United States, it may be used as a guide for plants in other regions of the country. The development of an official national version is under consideration; NEIWPCC is petitioning EPA to fund an expanded edition that would be expressly designed for guiding staffing decisions at plants throughout the country.

To download the free guide and Excel charts, access www.neiwpcc.org/staffing-guide.asp. Print editions are available by contacting NEIWPCC at (978) 323-7929.


John Murphy is an environmental engineer at the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (Lowell, Mass.). Stephen Hochbrunn is the commission’s communications manager.

©2009 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.