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Posted on 26 September 2017 by Alistair Marsh
Posted in FluksAqua Community, FluksAqua insights, Innovation, Spotlight, Uncategorized, Utility management, Wastewater Management, Water and wastewater community, Water plant operator, Tagged good operator, ownership, responsibility,


I’m often asked, “What makes a good operator?”, which is very difficult to pin down as there are so many good operators out there, and no two are the same. At this point, no doubt, an operator is going to send me a photograph of him and his twin brother.

The most important thing I look for is “attitude”. Not the streetwise gangsta type, but a high level of positivity. You can be a reactive operator, who is an expert at watching the SCADA system, operating the coffee machine, and criticising other people’s methods; or you can be proactive. Study your plant, understand not what works, but how and why it works.  

Really an operator needs 5 senses:

  • Sense of ownership
  • Sense of pride
  • Sense of responsibility
  • Sense of danger
  • Sense of humour


The first thing I ask any new operator to do is draw a plant schematic, to learn where each pipe goes, the sequence of operation and the function of each piece of equipment, and how it interacts with the rest of the plant. By regularly walking the plant you get to know the sounds, smells and sights of the plant when it is running well. You are far more likely to notice a change if you know what “normal” is like. As an example, I always knew when bulking was imminent on my plant when a faint, but distinctive, rotting cabbage smell came from the clarifier splitter box. This was fatty acids, which were a good food source for filamentous bacteria such as M.Parvicella. This is your plant, really get to know it.



I like to see someone proud of their job and their achievements within it. Don’t feel you must justify working there. You are protecting the public, possibly hundreds of thousands of lives, by providing clean drinking water and recreational waters. You are protecting the environment and safeguarding it for future generations by treating sewage and industrial effluents.



This ties in with ownership. A good operator understands the maths and the biology of the plant. When a plant runs well it can be the easiest job in the world. When things go wrong you need to be able to see what has changed, understand why it has changed, and how to correct it. This can be the result of observation, calculating loads and chemical dosage or, in the case of wastewater, making a microscopic investigation of the biomass. You also need to be patient. No plant will change in a hurry, in fact huge changes are to be discouraged as they usually cause even more problems. Sometimes the best thing you can do, is nothing! The plant will fix itself in cases like toxic shock. The bacteria just need time to recover once you stop the inflow of toxins. Take that responsibility, stand by your decisions if you believe them to be right.



We are in an industry with deep water, deep holes, fast moving heavy machinery, explosive and toxic gases, high voltages. You need to be aware of all the dangers these represent. Never let anyone coerce you into jeopardising safety for reason of politics, expediency or cost. Usually the pressure comes from management who don’t have experience of the dangers, or can dodge dealing with the fallout. No job is so urgent that it cannot be done safely! I appreciate that, at the time, threats of being fired can be made. I’d rather go home and explain to my partner why I got fired, than that partner must explain to my kids why daddy isn’t coming home. Ask for anything you are not happy with to be put into writing.



We work in an industry with no glamour, long hours, and unpleasant odours and chemicals. At some point, you are going to get covered in something unpleasant, and other people are going to roast you over it. Unless a serious safety breach was involved, laugh along. You are a team, and you need each other. This also applies to coming in after the previous shift clock out. All the settings are “wrong”, they’ve set the flows and dosages to “strange” levels, again! Instead of just changing things back, and them coming back and reverting to their settings; ask why they do it that way. One side or the other is going to learn something.

I also like to see a guy whose toolbox contains a can of penetrating oil. There is always that one bolt that won’t shift, and the spanner slips off, smashing your knuckles into the flange on the adjacent pipe. Torn gloves and scuffed knuckles, in an area where vermin probably have access, is a great way to contract leptospirosis. To me it shows a guy who anticipates problems and prepares for them.

In your opinion, what makes a good operator?

Share your thoughts, join the discussion!



About the author

Alistair Marsh has 24 years of experience working in the industrial wastewater sector. He started his career as a microbiologist, and now works as a Consultant, Training Provider and Sales Representative of anaerobic digestion products in the UK, Chile and the USA.