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Case Study: 60% Cost Reduction Applying Reliability Centered Principles to a Small-Scale Facility

Learn how we helped a California wastewater treatment facility reduce their costs by 60 percent as a result of a RCM implementation.

The Challenge

A California wastewater treatment facility serves a small local community of under 20,000, as well as other community service organizations. This wastewater treatment facility is a state-of-the-art membrane bioreactor plant (MBR) that includes fine screening headworks process, full nitrification-denitrification treatment, biosolids drying, chlorine contact disinfection, and subsurface effluent disposal fields. The plant was designed to treat a maximum daily flow of 500,000 gallons per day.

During the wet weather season the community reuses approximately 30 percent of its treated wastewater, and during the dry season the recycle water reuse jumps up to 95. This variation is due to California’s lack of rainfall in summer months. Moreover, when dry summer months are coupled with California’s ever-changing drought conditions, reliability of the wastewater treatment plant becomes of the utmost importance to this environmentally sensitive community.

Due to the annual cost of contract operations, facility leadership recognized an opportunity to reduce annual spending by taking plant operations in-house. Shortly thereafter, the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) staff began to face challenges in three key

  1. Severe nocardia foaming
  2. Significant increases with effluent ammonia and nitrate concentrations
  3. Premature equipment failure

Staff at the facility were unable to resolve these issues on their own, so the leadership engaged Pinnacle to perform a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) in order to gain control and a better understanding of the process.

Upon completion of the RCA, the following opportunities were identified:

  • Implement controls to reach an acceptable level of repair/replacement costs
  • Reduce premature failure of critical equipment
  • Maintain cost controls relative to O&M labor
  • Improve O&M workforce performance
  • Improve process control reliability
  • Increase operator workflow efficiency
  • Introduce proactive maintenance strategies

Pinnacle's Solution

After the success in resolving immediate process control issues, facility leadership requested further assistance to build a reliable O&M program to reduce future problems. Pinnacle’s solution was to apply the principles of Reliability Centered Maintenance to O&M activities in order to:

  • Gain control of the process
  • Build a program to support reliability and consistency of O&M tasks
  • Optimize and ultimately reduce the annual spend of the facility


Phase One: Gain Control of Process

1. Develop an RCM-Based Strategy for Operating and Maintaining the Plant:

Pinnacle entered into an O&M contract to operate, maintain, and manage the water and wastewater facilities. As a contracted O&M partner, Pinnacle helped the community develop an RCM-based strategy to operate and maintain the plant.

2. Evaluate Current O&M Staff Core Competencies:

Pinnacle evaluated the personnel requirements for the facility. This included optimizing staff and bringing in seasoned Grade-V operators that embraced the total productive maintenance (TPM) philosophy to train and mentor O&M staff. These seasoned operators were kept as advisors to O&M staff once training was complete.

3. Determine Risk Levels for each of the Plant’s Unit Processes:

A Failure Consequence Analysis (FCA) was conducted to determine the consequential criticality for each of the unit processes. The FCA was conducted with the involvement of O&M staff and used as a form of training. This step optimized laboratory testing and operator round duties.

4. Determine Criticality of the Treatment Process Assets

A Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) was performed to determine the risk criticality for all treatment process equipment. The FMEA was also conducted with the involvement of O&M staff and used as a form of training.

5. Evaluate Inherited Safety Program:

Pinnacle reevaluated and optimized the safety program put in place by the previous O&M contractor. A full safety review by Pinnacle safety officers was completed and new standards were adopted.

6. Perform Root Cause Analysis for Biological Foaming:

An RCA was performed to determine the underlying cause of process failures and foaming. This analysis also served as process control training for O&M staff. As a result of the analysis, adjustments were made to process control strategies to resolve underlying issues.

Phase Two: Implement Steps to Improvement

With reliability built into the operations systems, the next steps focused on implementing RCM into the maintenance systems, as well as integrating the documents and procedures into the community’s Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS). These steps included:

  • Building the asset register and developing the functional-based asset hierarchy.
  • Collecting missing installation O&M manuals and ensuring that they aligned with the field equipment.
  • Leveraging the findings of the FCA and using them to overhaul the current Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
  • Using the findings of the FMEA to overhaul the entire maintenance program and convert to a proactive strategy.
  • Identifying O&M reliability-driven tasks.
  • Overhauling Preventive Maintenance (PM) Job Plans, Lockout/Tagout (LOTO), and spare parts systems.


In 2015, Pinnacle began contract operations for this community, with a focus on implementing RCM methodologies into the facility’s O&M program. As of 2017, the facility is close to full implementation of an RCM program, and as a result, dramatic improvements have been made to facility performance. Overall, the benefits seen by this community include:

Asset Management Implementation:

  • Implementation of an effective, functional, and practical Asset Management program
  • Improved repair and replacement strategies that help management improve spending plans
  • An effective method of bringing O&M and managers together as part of the systems overhaul
  • Reliability is built into the O&M culture
  • Improved operational strategies that lead to an efficient maintenance strategy
  • Improved key performance indicators and equipment health monitoring
  • Computerized Maintenance Management System built with reliability principles supporting the O&M tasks
  • Improved process reliability


Reduction of Biological Foaming and Process Control Issues:

  • Optimized dissolved oxygen (DO) residual levels from 3-4 mg/l to 1.2 mg/l
  • Improved ammonia removal from 1 mg/l to none detected (ND)
  • Improved nitrate removal from 8 to 10 mg/l to 2-4 mg/l
  • Biological foam 85 percent removed and continuously controlled


Cost Reductions:

With the improvements made by Pinnacle, and the gradual implementation of an RCM program, total costs to the community have seen a 60 percent reduction between 2012 and 2017, with additional improvements expected when all elements of the program are fully implemented.

A more in-depth breakdown of cost savings includes:

  • Decrease in the community’s annual spend by 50 percent due to lower O&M contract costs
  • Lower chemical costs due to the use of 75 percent less chlorine
  • Staff optimization has lowered labor costs around 50 percent
  • Improved process control has reduced blower use and energy costs to the community by around 50 percent
  • An improved O&M program has reduced overtime around 90 percent
  • Unplanned operator responses are down

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