By Operators for Operators: A New Training Toolkit to Prep for Exams

A new series of books from the Water Environment Federation gives operators a comprehensive, up-to-date and learner-friendly presentation of wastewater treatment processes.

This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of TPO magazine, published by COLE Publishing Inc., It is reprinted by permission.

There’s always demand for high-quality wastewater operator training materials. The Water Environment Federation (WEF) is answering the call with a new series of three Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals books, envisioned as “training for the operator of the future.”

The books and their online counterparts are designed to help operators prepare for certification exams and qualify for continuing education credits. The material is fully up-to-date and peer-reviewed, and it draws on the expertise of hundreds of water-quality professionals.

The first book in the series, Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals I: Liquid Treatment, was released last fall. Besides the basics of liquid treatment processes, the book covers critical aspects of biological treatment, nutrient removal, and disinfection in significant depth. It aims to help operators prepare for the first three certification levels.

The second volume, Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals II: Solids Handling and Support Systems, is scheduled for release in fall of this year. The third volume, covering advanced treatment processes such as membranes and ion exchange, will be published later.

Sidney Innerebner, Ph.D., P.E., CWP, owner of Indigo Water Group in Littleton, Colorado, is the author of the first two books. She is an experienced operator and trainer, and her company offers services that include utility planning, biological process and collections system modeling, regulatory assistance, performance evaluations, process assistance, plant optimization, and contract operations for small wastewater systems. She talked about the book series in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is the central idea behind this series of training manuals?

Innerebner: The intention is to have one-stop training for operators so they don’t have to seek out information from a bunch of different sources when studying for their certification exams. We also want to help train the operators of the future. Treatment plants keep getting more complex, and so operators need a bigger, better knowledge base, especially for nutrient removal and everything we’ve learned about activated sludge over the past 30 to 40 years.

TPO: What background do you have that prepared you for this project?

Innerebner: I started as a chemist at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado. After five years there, I took a position as a trace metals chemist with the Littleton Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is now called South Platte Water Renewal Partners. While there, I went to school at night to get my masters and Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering. I was also involved in operations, starting there and later as the operator in responsible charge at several facilities. I’ve been a trainer for almost 30 years, and I’m a past chair of the WEF Plant Operations and Maintenance Committee.

TPO: Why is this series necessary when so many other training resources are available?

Innerebner: There are other training resources out there, but what makes this series different is that it’s current and peer-reviewed. A lot of training materials have been in existence for quite a while and are pretty out-of-date, especially when it comes to biological nutrient removal and activated sludge systems. The amount of knowledge operators need for certification exams and to run their facilities has surpassed what is in the older materials.

TPO: What areas does the first volume in this series cover?

Innerebner: It has 10 chapters that cover the entire liquid side of the process. It starts with headworks and then goes through lagoons, trickling filters, rotating biological contactors, activated sludge and nutrient removal — all the basics of biological treatment. There’s a section on basic chemistry because operators need some knowledge in that area. The last chapter covers disinfection. The intent is for this book to get operators through at least their Grade 3 exam, or their B level exam, depending on the state.

TPO: How did you decide on the content for this book, given the vast scale of the subject?

Innerebner: The book is based on the need-to-know criteria defined by the Association of Boards of Certification, or ABC. They have a list of things that operators are expected to know at the different testing levels. Those criteria are updated regularly. In fact, ABC issued an updated list of need-to-know criteria while I was working on this manual. They added lift station and collections systems troubleshooting to the treatment exam because wastewater operators often handle collections system duties. That means I need to add a lift station section to the second volume.

TPO: Is this a book that a plant supervisor could give to an operator in training?

Innerebner: Yes, and the hope is that courses and certification programs at community colleges will actually use it as their textbook. I know the Ohio Water Environment Association plans to use it for developing all their training materials.

TPO: How does the peer-review process work?

Innerebner: I write a chapter, and then it goes out for comment. Depending on the chapter, the peer review could involve 15 to 30 people who are subject matter experts. They tell me what they thought I got wrong or what I could explain better. Then there are regional differences. I’m in Colorado and the technologies in our facilities aren’t necessarily the same ones that facilities on the East Coast or in Nebraska have. Peer review has been really good for making sure the book covers everybody, not just the experiences of people from one region or another. Once the comments are addressed, they go back to the reviewers so they can see how I addressed them. If everyone is happy, the chapter then goes to a secondary review committee. Then, it’s off to the editor and typesetter. 

TPO: Learning from a book can be difficult. What makes this book effective as a teaching tool?

Innerebner: The book is easy to learn from. It has short sections followed by practice questions. There are more than 1,000 practice questions in all. It’s loaded with color pictures, diagrams and infographics. Operators can learn a great deal from looking at the pictures and seeing for themselves how things operate.

Every chapter has a summary table at the end — a bullet list of everything covered in the chapter. Operators looking for a quick refresher can read that and see if they got all the main points. If they take the online course that goes with book, it’s more interactive. There are videos to watch, and at the end of each chapter there’s a final exam. WEF is seeking approval so that operators taking those exams can earn training units. 

TPO: Beyond sample questions, are there any in-depth problem-solving exercises?

Innerebner: Several of the chapters have more complicated scenarios to work through. The operators are given a paragraph of information about a realistic facility situation, and they’re asked to work through that. For example, in the activated sludge chapter there’s an exercise where they have to set the return activated sludge rate and the waste activated sludge rate and select the target sludge age.

TPO: How would you describe the writing style in this book?

Innerebner: I try to relate the concepts back to something people already understand. For example, a lot of wastewater professionals come from mechanical backgrounds. In wastewater training, bacteria are often explained by microbiologists as these magic, fuzzy things. But the way to think about a bacterium is as a little combustion engine. An engine needs two things to operate: fuel and oxygen. In our case, the fuel is BOD, or sometimes ammonia. When you burn the fuel, you get certain waste products. Those are the kinds of explanations that connect with operators. We don’t want the material to be scary or intimidating.

TPO: How did you deal with all the terminology in the industry?

Innerebner: I tried to not use a lot of jargon. Some of it is unavoidable because we are an acronym- and jargon-heavy industry. So the book has many little sidebars. Any place where I introduced a term, or where a term has a different meaning in wastewater than in common language, or where a term appears that hasn’t been mentioned since a previous chapter, the definition is in a sidebar on the page so operators don’t have to go and look things up.

TPO: Are there any resources available to help trainers make use of this book?

Innerebner: A trainer’s kit is in process and should be available very soon. All of the graphics and tables from the book will be included, along with PowerPoint presentations that highlight key concepts in the book and include definitions and quiz questions. Trainers will be able to print handouts that include the chapter summaries, reference lists, a list of acronyms, problem-solving exercises and more. We hope that will make it easier for colleges and instructors to adopt our materials. 

TPO: Once this series of books is complete, what would you recommend as an effective training package for operators seeking certifications?

Innerebner: If they’re studying for an exam, I would suggest books I and II, along with Basic Laboratory Procedures for the Operator-Analyst, which WEF released in 2012. It explains the most common lab procedures for wastewater. Those three books would comprise a really nice, complete source. Operators taking their grade IV or A level exams will also need book III — advanced treatment.

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