The online RCAP Resources Library has a variety of resources that are useful to small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

Use Performance Indicators to Improve the Operations of Your Utility

Imagine you are driving and on your car’s dashboard a light comes on. It indicates that the car’s oil needs to be changed or that the engine is overheating. Auto manufacturers have included this feature as a way to tell owners to take action regarding the vehicle’s operation. A light in a place visible to the driver indicates that something elsewhere needs attention.

In a similar way, you can set up indicators in your utility that can let you know that action needs to be taken in a certain place. The benefits of using performance indicators can include bolstering efficiency and keeping your treatment plant running smoothly and in compliance.

Operators in particular are required to keep track of certain data, such as the chlorine residual or the quality of the effluent. However, by keeping track of data that is not necessarily required, operators and others at a utility can link two pieces of information not normally linked, thereby helping to predict how the plant will act under a certain set of circumstances or showing how an operation can be improved.

What is a performance indicator?

The definition can be very technical, but to paraphrase loosely from the International Water Association’s Performance Indicators for Water Supply Services manual (IWA Publishing, 2007): It is a measure of some sort of variable that shows the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of the utility service.

Collecting information – in this case, measurements in a process – for the sake of having information alone is not enough. If that measurement information is used to take actions and make decisions, then it becomes useful.

Performance indicators for others besides operators
For bookkeeping/finance staff and those responsible for the financial operations of a utility, ratios are a helpful performance indicator. See more about them in this RCAP article on how to maintain a utility’s financial health.

A sudden spike in water usage by a customer can be an indicator of a leak that the customer may not know about. Establishing ways to discover unusual patterns in customer usage can be helpful in spotting problems.

Customer complaints are always performance indicators. Keeping track of the nature of their complaints is a way to pinpoint problems, whether they are related to billing or water quality.

Types of indicators

There is a wide variety of indicators. They can be related to the financial aspects of your utility, the water resources, the personnel, or the treatment processes. Treatment plant operators can find many indicators to use because of the materials, equipment and processes they work with. Take, for example, the time of day you run a pump. You may discover that running the pump at a different time of day will save money because you are running it during off-peak hours.

Another example is to keep track of the amount of time it takes to drain your storage tank(s) on a normal day so you will know how long it will last during an emergency such as a power outage.

Some indicators are seasonal. For instance, by keeping track of rainfall and the resulting increase in storm water volumes, an operator can get a feel for how much rain it will take to create an inflow and infiltration problem in the plant. By keeping a watchful eye on performance indicators like this, you may be able to react before a crisis develops.

Perhaps your treatment facility draws raw water from a lake. Lakes go through upheavals during the change from warm to cold seasons. During this time, the lake can develop many more suspended solids due to the cold water mixing with warm water, which stirs up silt from the bottom. By tracking the concentration of solids in the water and the amount of settling time and chemicals required in the treatment plant, an operator may have a very good benchmark for a couple of areas in a plant in, say, mid-October or November.

Because operators work with treatment on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, they have the opportunity to notice trends – changes in data over a period of time. To establish performance indicators related to trends, you can ask yourself: Do usage levels change during the holiday season? If so, should you have extra chemicals on hand? How does temperature affect the efficiency of the chemicals? Do you use more electricity during hot, dry weather, or during the cold-weather season?

How to establish performance indicators

Besides the examples provided here, there are many more performance indicators that you can establish and use. It may take some creativity to link processes and information together. The key is to establish a signal or relationship that can show room for improvement or adjustment.

You can keep track of data in spreadsheets. Use calendar functions for data related to time. Use formulas and calculations to show trends. Ask your bookkeeper to help you set up a form that’s easy to fill in if you don’t know how to use Excel well.