Sep 09, 2021

The Modern Electronic Operations Manual System

Understanding modern systems through the Manatee County Utilities O&M Information Portal

operations & maintenance

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Effective Utility Management: A Primer for Water and Wastewater Utilities” identifies knowledge management as one of five keys to management success and a critical component to ensuring reliable utility operations. Still, many water and wastewater utilities across the nation rely on hard-copy libraries, loosely organized files scattered across multiple computers, and word-of-mouth to handle and maintain information that is critical to sustaining operations.

Needless to say, such outdated modes of operations and maintenance (O&M) information management are inefficient and frustrating on an everyday basis: Staff members must spend hours looking through archaic information systems only to find, if anything, obsolete information with large gaps, which creates risk when performing tasks through non-standard practices. This process only becomes more confounding as treatment facilities are updated with new technology and protocols or become subject to new regulatory demands.

But, perhaps more critically, outdated systems increase a utility’s risk of squandering invaluable organizational, operational and industry knowledge every time they lose key personnel. That is, experienced O&M staff members possess institutional knowledge, which serves as an organization’s intelligence. As shown in Figure 1, this type of knowledge encompasses facts collected and lessons learned through facilities operations.

Unstructured data management relies heavily on personnel to pass institutional knowledge on to their colleagues and successors. However, Figure 2 in page 13 shows that worker turnover is significant in both employees eligible and ineligible for pensions. In any case, the O&M of utility systems is by far the longest phase of an asset life cycle and typically accounts for the largest cohort of staff and budgets, so finding a staff member who remains at a single utility throughout the life cycle of a treatment facility, let alone a whole system, is highly rare. Without modernized systems, personnel who step away from their roles or retire have few means of documenting and communicating their expertise to the next generation of staff.

Today, the most cost-effective, long-term solution to storing and sharing O&M information is to employ an electronic operation manual (EOM) system. This tool is more than just a collection of manuals in a PDF format: It not only possesses capabilities to combine tools and processes that capture and manage staff knowledge but also allow resources, such as equipment manuals, facility drawings and standard procedure documents, to be shared between generations of staff. And, because they are built in anticipation of collaboration and growth, EOMs are living documents that, unlike hard copies, can frequently be revised and expanded without the need for multiple versions.

operations & maintenance
Figure 2. Changing workforce demographics.

These continual “works in progress” are also supported by and, in turn, support multiple disciplines across a single organization. EOM systems are developed with the understanding that EOMs are handled by various users throughout the lifespan of a facility, beginning with its planning and design and moving onto construction, installation and commissioning, after which equipment and processes are continuously operated and maintained for maximum efficiency. This is why well-designed EOM systems facilitate integration with other utility information systems, including computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), geographical information systems (GIS), laboratory information systems (LMS), enterprise document management systems, and external websites.

Figure 3 shows just one way an EOM can serve as a shared information resource.

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Maintaining a Living EOM

Manatee County Utilities in Florida operates and maintains water and wastewater services across more than 740 square miles of unincorporated portions of the county as well as bulk water and wastewater treatment services to some neighboring municipalities. Experiencing rapid growth and increased demand, the county is currently observing role advancements in their veteran utilities staff as well as many new hires beyond the turnover rate normally seen in utility operations.

To keep up with these changes while maintaining the quality of their operations, Manatee County needed to better manage its O&M information and make it more accessible to staff as their roles and assignments evolve.

Thus, in 2016, the county initiated a project to replace its traditional paper O&M manuals with a sustainable, web-based solution that can be expanded and scaled with future needs. They employed Carollo Engineer’s EOM design using SharePoint Online, a cloud system for collaborative content and document management. Carollo standardized the use of SharePoint for EOMs for its ease of use and flexible configuration as well as for the long-term support it offers utilities through a large community of users, extensibility and the full backing of Microsoft.

EOMs, however, are not designed and implemented through one-size-fits-all applications. Instead, they are developed in collaboration with utility staff, incorporating functional, facility-specific features that can be used even by users with only basic computer skills.

electronic operation manual system
Figure 3. EOM is a shared information resource.

In fact, one best practice to reflect a facility’s current status in an EOM is to openly solicit reviews and feedback from all available users. To facilitate this process, EOM systems are built-in with the ability to distribute revision tasks across multiple staff, thereby allowing more responsive updates and avoiding bottlenecks. It also allows process subject-matter experts the opportunity to tailor content to what information staff finds most valuable and relevant to their work.

Carollo hosted multiple design workshops with county staff and stakeholders to clearly establish needs and priorities for its new EOM system. The county clarified that it would require a system capable of housing thousands of documents in variable formats and is customized with familiar metadata attributes that help staff pinpoint the information needed as efficiently as possible.

To this end, the county’s initial design requested the EOM:

  • Be easy to access and navigate to find information quickly;
  • Have full text search across all content including equipment manuals, record drawings, photographs, process flow diagrams, and standard operating procedures (SOPs);
  • Include version control with audit log and restoring of previous versions;
  • Offer ease of content revision and document uploading;
  • Have flexible data viewing that allows sorting and filtering;
  • Include multi-factor security with low IT overhead;
  • Offer mobile and tablet compatibility;
  • Have no coded content management.
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With these key points in mind, Carollo developed EOM templates, which were continually reviewed by the county and revised according to feedback. These templates were essential for the EOM system’s consistent expansion, providing a framework to replicate O&M information across each process area within a facility as well as a baseline structure for the incorporation of future facilities.

Once templates were established, Carollo and the county exercised the SharePoint platform’s flexibility to maximize the EOM system’s integration features and develop a holistic and interdisciplinary information management plan. Most recently, the county implemented the Lucity CMMS for all of its utilities’ divisions and integrated relevant links to the EOM system’s equipment data forms, thus giving multiple O&M groups equal access to a vast archive of equipment-specific information.

Today, the county boasts a searchable, expandable and scalable information portal that has been integrated into several business workflows and features an intuitive tabular-graphical interface that allows for quick and efficient data entry, retrieval and updates.

As shown in the top green ribbon of Figure 5, the county has, thus far, integrated detailed data on its biosolids drying facility, master reuse system, and three wastewater treatment facilities into the EOM system and has plans to also add the Lake Manatee Water Treatment Plant in a future project. Because the system now maintains the latest versions of all O&M documents, staff has access to only the most current procedures, controls and equipment descriptions without worrying about disseminating outdated information.

Modern EOMs must be as unique as the utility facilities and staff they serve. They must flexibly organize information while adhering to baseline standards that aid consistency across all facilities. With features tailored specifically to their facilities and staff, Manatee County’s EOM system exemplifies a consistent, well-managed living body of O&M information that not only honors the organization’s history and the experience of those who came before but also supports the work of those who will carry the torch into the next generation.

About the author

Stephen T. Snell is O&M Information Systems Supervisor for Carollo Engineers Inc. Snell can be reached at [email protected].    

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