Cleaning House

By standardizing cleaning procedures, training and equipment, San Diego wastewater officials cut sewer overflows and expenses while boosting efficiency

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Spurred by the threat of privatization and a federal government mandate to drastically reduce sewage overflows, San Diego wastewater officials decided to clean more than just the sewer lines.

They also cleaned house by addressing a jumble of inconsistent cleaning processes and a mish-mash of inferior equipment, both of which contributed directly to the overflows. The results are dramatic: Through across-the-board standardization of employee training, cleaning techniques and equipment, sewer overflows dropped to 41 in 2010 from a peak of 365 in 2002, says Mike Rosenberg, principal water utility supervisor in the Wastewater Collection Division of the Public Utilities Department.

“Only 10 of those overflows were maintenance-related,” says Rosenberg. The rest were caused by contractors installing new pipes, main breaks, or vandalism. In addition, the department reduced its budget by 34 percent, to $42 million, from a high of $64.5 million in 2007, largely through reduced labor costs and less overtime for emergency responses to sewer spills.

It also boosted sewer cleaning production by about 27 percent, to 2,600 feet per day from 1,900 feet in 2008. That increased efficiency then led to a 23 percent staff reduction, to 93 full-time employees from 121. (Fewer than five people lost their jobs; the department achieved most of the reductions by not filling vacant jobs or moving employees to other departments.)


Competition on the horizon

“We were living in the Stone Age in terms of how we did business,” Rosenberg says. “We started to approach things like a real business does, becoming more efficient, holding people accountable and dedicating ourselves to continuous improvement. Overall, it wasn’t all that difficult. We just had to get everyone on the same page — basically go into survival mode.”

While that may sound like hyperbole, it wasn’t. Several years ago, San Diego residents approved a managed competition agreement that required all city departments to compete with the private sector to provide services. The policy took effect until 2010, when city officials reached an implementation agreement with two major unions.

Under the agreement, city departments must submit sealed annual budget bids and compete with private firms. If a private firm’s bid to provide the same services comes in at least 10 percent lower, that firm wins a five-year contract to provide the services.

Also in 2006, the city entered an agreement with the U.S. EPA to achieve zero overflows — no small feat for a system that once saw 44 in a month. Motivated by those factors, the division first hired temporary staff to help thoroughly clean the city’s 3,000 miles of sewer lines in two years.

“Our goal was to touch every pipe and catalog them all, then put them on a regular maintenance schedule based on how dirty each pipe was,” Rosenberg says.

Then the division looked at equipment. Crews were using a wide array of nozzles and hoses, as well as inferior equipment, and training was just as inconsistent.

In some instances, crews were using 35-degree fixed nozzles to clean sewers instead of 365-degree rotating nozzles. “They were just getting to the top of the pipe and leaving most of the debris still on the bottom,” Rosenberg says.


Training overhaul

Then employee training came under scrutiny. There were no uniform cleaning standards, so results were inconsistent. “Everyone had a different way of doing things, and it may not have been the best way to do them,” Rosenberg says. “Then they’d train another guy how to do things, and continue the bad habits.

“If you use inferior equipment without standardized, effective processes, you’re not achieving anything. This directly contributed to overflows. Sometimes we’d have spills right after pipes were cleaned. That’s no way to do business.”

Rosenberg hired a consultant, Steve Tilson from Connecticut-based Tilson & Associates, to develop standardized training and operating procedures. Now, all crews attend an annual Operator Academy to receive training certification. Each employee must sign a document attesting that they completed the training and agree to follow standard operating procedures.

“We wanted remedial training every year, not so much because there’s so much new equipment acquired annually, but just to make sure everyone is always on the same page,” Rosenberg says.


Pockets of resistance

The changes didn’t come easily. There was pushback from employees and the union that represented them, and morale suffered. On a personal level, operators were upset when they learned the way they had been doing things for years suddenly wasn’t good enough. On a larger level, the union filed grievances because, for instance, it wanted input into the kind of equipment that division officials selected.

“We said no, that we’d selected proven technology and felt comfortable that it was the best, and we wanted everyone to use the same equipment to get the same result,” Rosenberg says. “Hose repair was a big issue, too. We were paying big money for a vendor to repair hoses, and we wanted to do it in-house. The union was concerned about the safety of doing that — they didn’t want hoses blowing up in workers’ faces.”

To work through the differences, the division formed a flushing and rodding committee that gave the union the means to provide feedback about equipment and make suggestions for other operating improvements. The division also developed a tool to determine if pipes were actually being properly cleaned.

The “proofing tool” is a flexible skid sled that is pushed by pressurized water through the bottom of the main. It works in conjunction with the cleaning nozzle. The goal is to get the sled to pass through a pipe from one manhole to the next one upstream three times without bringing back any debris. If that doesn’t work, then crews inspect the line with a video camera.

In the end, workers slowly came around when they realized their jobs were in jeopardy. Rosenberg says many came to him later and said they were relieved to finally know a pipe was truly clean when they finished a job.


Lean and mean

Rosenberg says employees knew there was a risk that improved efficiency would reduce staffing. But they also realized an even larger risk loomed: everyone losing their job to a private company. “It’s a tough culture to change,” he says. “We have a lot of long-time employees, and the standard was you came in to do a job and went home. There was no urgency to compete and do better.

“A few years ago, we were fat and ripe for the picking. Now we’re setting the standard. I feel very confident that it would be difficult for anyone to come in and compete on cost by providing the same level of service.”


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