This is the second article in the three-part series Tips for a successful wastewater treatment plant upgrade. 

The articles in this series highlight the three key phases of a project and draw on proven lessons from a dozen of the successful wastewater treatment studies and projects that FCM's Green Municipal Fund (GMF) has funded.

In the first article in this series, we looked at best practices for project scoping and generating stakeholder engagement. In this article, we'll examine the second phase, project planning and design, and outline three suggestions for assessing options and selecting your preferred approach to your wastewater treatment plant project.

Project planning and design

It is important to take the time to get the planning stage right. Our review of GMF-funded wastewater projects revealed that insufficient investment in planning and analysis was a common and important challenge. 

Municipalities often face pressure from funders, regulators and stakeholders to move forward quickly with a wastewater project, particularly if they are not in compliance with effluent quality requirements. This can result in project design decisions that do not consider the full range of solutions available and their life cycle costs and can lead to delays and cost overruns during the construction and operation phases. 

Successful municipalities recognize that innovative and sustainable projects require an integrated approach to planning, management and decision making.

Tip 1: Use integrated teams and processes

Establish an integrated project team with representatives from each of the relevant departments in your municipality, and engage this team throughout the design process. 

Involving staff members from different departments (e.g. procurement, environment, etc.) will bring a range of new perspectives to the project and help you anticipate potential problems. The composition of this group can vary according to the size of your municipality and its structure. For example, very small municipalities may only have one operator for their treatment facility, but a larger municipality may have several layers of organization. 

Moreover, successful municipalities understand the importance of involving operations staff in every stage of the project from preliminary design through to commissioning. This integrated team approach increases all team members' understanding and sense of ownership of the project, and leads to better decisions and designs.  

  • Consult operations staff members directly and regularly throughout the preliminary and detailed design process. Their input will help shape the project, identify cost-cutting activities and foster a sense of ownership during subsequent project phases and the operation of the plant.
  • Use an integrated design process (IDP) and bring together internal participants from different departments and levels (e.g. administration, procurement, operations) along with key external participants (e.g. regulators, architects, engineers, contractors, users, researchers, consultants). Integrated teams and IDPs tend to create better approaches and plans, reducing the risk of unanticipated delays later in the project.

Learn what other municipalities have done

Read the case studies on Brockville, ON, and Picton, ON, for examples of successful, integrated project teams. Consult the presentations on project planning and design from our online workshop series on wastewater best practices.

Tip 2: Optimize long-term returns on investment 

As owners and operators of wastewater systems, municipalities bear both the construction and the operating costs of these facilities. Thus, it is important to look beyond the initial capital costs to select the technologies and systems with the best long-term return on investment. Making the best decisions to ensure efficiency in both construction and operations is critical to achieving long-term cost savings and optimal performance.  

The experience of our partners suggests that you should consider two approaches: 

  • Life-cycle cost analysis includes a range of techniques to look at the potential environmental impacts of a product or project and the costs of purchasing, owning, operating, maintaining and disposing of it. This approach helps decision makers compare the full costs of the various options and select the option(s) with the best long-term return on investment, rather than automatically going with the option with the cheapest upfront costs.
  • Value engineering is a structured approach to analyzing projects, products or services to deliver the maximum value for the municipality. The process focusses on achieving the optimal balance between function, performance, quality, safety and cost. While value engineering is most effective when used during the design stage, most of the projects we reviewed used it during the procurement process to look for cost savings.

Use either a life-cycle cost analysis or a value engineering approach early on to identify and preselect the technology that provides the best value for your municipality's needs. Later, use the results of life-cycle cost analysis and other cost-benefit analysis to guide the tendering process.

Learn what other municipalities have done

Read the case studies on Amherstburg, ON, and Argyle, NS, to see how these approaches were used successfully. Consult the presentations on project planning and design from our online workshop series on wastewater best practices.

Tip 3: Include contingencies in the project budget and schedule 

Contingency planning is important to manage delays and cost overruns due to problems with contractors, suppliers and extreme weather events. Working with specialized cost consultants to develop risk management plans will help you to create more realistic budgets and schedules. 

At a minimum, municipalities should build a 25 per cent contingency into their budgets for financing or fundraising purposes. With this contingency line in place, your municipality will be able to access the funds it needs without looking for alternative forms of financing should additional costs be incurred.

  • Build in budget and schedule contingencies to deal with cost increases, extreme weather, contractor delays and other potential challenges.
  • For upgrades on existing facilities, include sequencing activities so operations at the plant will be able to continue undisturbed.
  • Set clear requirements to complete scheduled work before releasing payment.
  • Work and communicate with the contractor and funding partners to resolve delays and deal with any additional costs without sacrificing the integrity of the project.

Learn what other municipalities have done

Read the case studies on Waterloo, ON, Wetaskiwin, AB, Amherstburg, ON, and St. Andrews, NB, which illustrate how rigorous planning and estimating processes enabled these projects to overcome delays and increased costs. Consult the presentations on project planning and design from our online workshop series on wastewater best practices.

Checklist for a successful wastewater treatment plant upgrade

Use our project checklist to ensure you are addressing the key issues in every phase of your project.

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