Invented Here

Public agencies should be proud of the ingenious people who use their experience to invent tools that help make systems better

Each year the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo is filled with new products and technologies that can help cities and utilities do a better job maintaining and repairing their infrastructure.

Many of these innovations come from major manufacturers and software developers who show up with large booths and a dozen or more exhibit staff. Others come from startup companies in the basic 10-by-10 booth along a back wall.

Just where do all these ideas originate? Fairly often, they start in the mind of a water or wastewater employee who sees a problem in the field and just can’t rest until it is solved. Of course, once they solve it, they may have an idea for a commercially viable product. And that is where the real challenge begins.


Dangerous gaps

Ask Jerry Taylor, a supervisor with the Cincinnati Department of Public Works. He was concerned when thieves began taking storm sewer grates — of all things! — to sell for scrap. Imagine the hazard created by a large rectangular opening in a street. Just picture a car going down the right lane of a street in traffic and having its front wheel drop into a chasm. Instant calamity, serious injury, maybe a big lawsuit.

Taylor saw the danger and looked around for a remedy. Perhaps not surprisingly — given that such thefts had not been terribly common — he found none. So he invented his own. You can read about it in our Brainstorms feature in this issue of MSW.

Now that he has an idea, a prototype and a few production units, how does he get to the next level — the point where he can actually market, mass-produce and sell his storm sewer grate lock? It’s not easy. And how many good ideas never become real simply because the inventors couldn’t make the long journey from concept to market?


Simple yet great

Look around the industry and you’ll likely see a few inventions offered by tiny companies involving maybe not much more than one person. I’ve seen them over the years. They don’t need to be elaborate or high-tech to have merit.

I’ve seen various iterations of manhole cover lifters, designed to take the strain off workers’ backs. I’ve seen inflow prevention pans that drop into manholes and just sit below the cover, stopping stormwater from running down into the pipe. A personal favorite is the guard that slips into an open manhole and creates a barrier to keep workers from stepping into the hole.

It’s a favorite because once, during a demonstration of a pipe cleaning and inspection technology, I almost stepped back into an open manhole. I remember feeling an instant’s vertigo as my foot hovered over the abyss. Maybe sewer workers in time develop a kind of “radar,” or instinct, that keeps them from such accidents. All I know is that if I ran sewer crews, every service truck would carry one or more of those guards.

I also suspect that the manhole guard exists because some astute sewer worker had an experience like mine, or actually saw someone fall into a hole, and decided there must be a way to keep that from happening.


Fostering innovation

So when you’re cruising the aisles at the Expo or any trade show you attend, be attentive for these often less-than-sensational but extremely worthwhile offerings, and consider how they might help your department.

And better still, try to, in the words of an old railroad company slogan, “give a green light to innovators.” Listen closely for your team members’ suggestions and even try to draw them out in regular meetings or brainstorming sessions. You never know when a member of your team may come up with an invention that can end up saving money, time or lives across the water and wastewater industry. F

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