Consultants vs. Operators

Sometimes it can be easy to forget everyone is working toward the same goal of safe, clean water for the customer.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

There has been a lot of writing recently in various trade publications about the role engineers, contractors, owners, and operators each have to play in the design and operation of a water treatment plant or water system . . . and the problems resulting from this inevitable relationship.

Various letters to me have indicated a current lack of respect and cooperation exists between many operators and engineers, as well as between engineers and contractors.

Several years ago I wrote a column about the role consultants and contractors each have to play in a successful design and project outcome. I would like to vary the topic this month and apply these tenets to consultants and operators of a water system.

I have been privileged to work as a contractor, a water works operator, and a consulting engineer during my career. While performing the tasks unique to each job, I have been amazed at the animosity and disrespect that often exists between these vital professions. I believe this chasm and problems that often result are generally due to miscommunication or a genuine lack of communication between the parties. Added to this is a misconception about the role each party should have in the design and operation of water system improvements.

I feel only through mutually sharing experience and knowledge can we all benefit in learning from the successes and failures of our industry brethren— and with a little luck, avoid making those same mistakes in the future. Most of these mistakes in design, construction, or operation of the system are preventable and often the result of small misunderstandings and miscommunication between participants on a project.

I intend to discuss the relationship difficulties shared by operators, contractors, and consultants. You may notice I use the term “consultants” rather than engineers or consulting engineers. This is because in today’s world engineers are not the only professionals responsible for the design and supervision of water projects. Quite often, architects, hydrogeologists, construction managers, environmental scientists, and engineers specify and supervise the construction of all types of projects. Since this is a common practice, I will refer to all parties within this classification as “consultants.”

And although I fully recognize the importance and current respect gained and earned by the women in our industry, I will refer to each party within this column using the male gender terms only. This concession is done only for simplification.

All About Honesty

Often in my career, I’ve been either in the middle or on the edge of a conflict or dispute between consultants, contractors, owners, and plant operators— depending on which hat I was currently wearing. I have found after some long and intense soul searching as well as discussions with fellow engineers, owners, operators, and contractors the best way to handle these disputes. That’s through honesty, mutual respect, open communication, and remembering one overriding factor above all—the inescapable fact we are all supposed to be working for the good of our client or employer.

That’s what it’s supposed to be about after all, isn’t it? Producing cool, clean, and safe drinking water?

The reputable operator wants to do a good job for his employer and customer, perhaps enhance his reputation a bit, maybe raise the family’s bank account, and operate a water system that will safely and efficiently produce consistently clean and safe drinking water.

Believe it or not, the consultant actually wants the same thing. His survival, just as the operator’s, is directly tied to the customer’s ultimate satisfaction and whether or not he has properly represented the client’s interests during the project.

The last thing a conscientious consultant wants is to design a project that doesn’t work as intended. Worse yet, doesn’t work at all. But we’re all human and no less or no more than the guy in the trench or the one cleaning a filter. Consultants are certainly not deities, nor are they prone to making mistakes any less or any more than the average person.

The problem is a consultant’s mistakes are usually more visible and apparent. The best way to visualize this is by remembering consultants are just ordinary people with ordinary needs and desires. Most of the consultants I know are everyday kind of people with spouses, kids, dogs, and mortgages. They don’t want any conflict with anyone on a project—if for no other reason than it costs extra money the consultant had not planned on in his design or budget and doesn’t have the time to deal with unexpected problems. Who does?

In this way, operators and consultants are similar. Neither can afford to give work away, and a lot of uncompensated extra work will rapidly cause a sea of red ink on the bottom line or the bills at home to go unpaid.

The best way to understand the consultant’s limited role in a project is by understanding his normal contractual relationship with the client. Most current client/consultant contracts specify the total cost and hours budgeted for the project. If a cost or time overrun occurs, most often the consultant has to absorb those. It’s therefore in the consultant’s best interest to streamline and coordinate the design and management of the project and avoid disputes whenever possible.

In order to trim costs, owners often won’t include the cost of the consultant’s involvement or even his attendance at startup of a new or retrofit plant construction in his contract. Unfortunately, egos, unforeseen problems, and territorial wars often interject themselves into the mix during design and actual construction that ultimately result in problems or hard feelings.

I have personally experienced and am not proud of past clashes with well drillers, electricians, excavators, and plumbers. In almost all cases, the problems could have been avoided with better and earlier communication between me and the other party. By the time a big problem rears its ugly head, the project is usually already in some trouble due to time or cost issues. The client is generally not interested or sympathetic in who is at fault. The client just wants the project finished and functional and within the allotted schedule and budget. The client is usually not willing (or able) to come up with the extra funds to pay for the problem.

The operator, sometimes accurately, fears he will receive the blame even if the problem is beyond his control or isn’t his fault. In addition, the operator may feel the consultant has only a reputation and ego to preserve and is not usually willing to budge towards an operator’s request, even if the need is apparent.The operator, often overlooked and ignored, feels slighted and disrespected for the lack of input he was permitted during the design process.

From my experience, none of these parties are seldom always right, and generally all are at least partly wrong. Unfortunately these disputes often end up in arbitration, or in extreme cases court, but almost always with mutual suspicion and resentment shared between the operator or owner. A negative, uncooperative attitude benefits no one and usually leads to long-term issues between parties on a project that can last for years.

Based on my experience, there are methods to avoid some of these problems. I will address and suggest some of them as they apply to consultants and operators.

For Consultants

The consultant must remember the operator is a professional, just as he is, but usually with different priorities and needs.

The operator not only must operate a diverse and complicated water system, he must also deal with equipment breakdowns and repairs, budget concerns, endless forms and paperwork, constant changes in water quality, never-ending “new and improved” regulatory requirements and reporting rules, scheduling problems, safety issues, and all the other problems unique to the job.

The operator as a fellow professional is entitled to the same respect the consultant feels he should be given. Many times the operator has obtained his training from a combination of schooling and field experience, or perhaps through years of hard work alone. Anyone who is this devoted to their profession and has spent the years of work and training required to obtain the benefits of certification along with the responsibility they now carry is fully entitled to the same respect and recognition enjoyed by anyone with any degree or letters behind their name.

The consultant should seek out the advice of experienced and knowledgeable operators who will be operating the system he is designing well before preparing the design documents and certainly before releasing them for bidding.

An experienced, smart consultant will recognize no one individual engineer can possibly have all the experience, knowledge, and background necessary to provide for every conceivable occurrence and construction variable, regardless of his own past experience. The consultant should seek out the counsel of those individuals who will be in charge of running the water system after it is built. After all, what good is the best design if the facility is not operated as it was intended?

I have seen numerous designs that were excellent on paper but were later modified by the operator simply because they would not work as designed. What good is that? Forget the desire to win an award for design or engineering. The consultant must put his ego aside and place the needs of the client ahead of his desire to be all things to all people. He should always remember his primary responsibility is to serve and represent his client in the best and most efficient way possible—that is, provide the customer with the highest degree of safe drinking water possible. That’s the bottom line.

The consultant must recognize the operator often has decades of experience in plant operation and water treatment far beyond his own.

The consultant should be willing to benefit from the operator’s experience. This is especially important to consultants with five to 10 years of design experience or less who too often think the answer to every problem must lie in a book somewhere—if only they could just find it! It simply doesn’t work that way in the real world.

The consultant must recognize the operator is the one with his hands on the buttons of the plant and in the water day after day, and often the person best suited to give opinions as to the most cost effective treatment means and methods.

The consultant must recognize neither Mother Nature nor Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) have taken the time to read his specifications or review his plan.

Sometimes a good design on paper may just not work as planned. Very simply: If the consultant used good judgment and diligence in preparing the design. If he employed rational judgment and any needed bench testing when selecting the treatment process. If he sought out the advice and counsel of those more experienced in the subject area. If he adequately monitored the construction and assured himself as to the integrity of the design. Then: He has done everything expected of him.

Yet with all this prudent caution, mistakes do sometimes happen. When they do, the consultant must put aside any egocentric or liability concerns and seek out the advice and counsel of operators who can help correct the problems.

Did you notice I put the full responsibility on the consultant for these items mentioned? This is exactly what he gets paid for. No engineer can possibly anticipate every characteristic of the actual design and construction process, no matter what school they attended or how many projects they have seen completed.

Of course, I can’t let operators off the hook too easily. Although most of the following information is directed to operators, it also applies to the owners or managers of water systems.

For Operators (and Owners)

The operator should realize the consultant is there to produce the same final outcome as the operator; he only provides a different service towards this outcome.

Both parties have the same ultimate goal: to provide their client (or employer) with a successful project that will produce clean, safe water for the consumers. The consultant is not there to “disrespect or ignore you” no matter what it may seem like. His job is simply to represent the client and their interests in the best way he can.

As a matter of fact, the consultant is generally duty bound by contract and ethics to put the interests of his client ahead of even his own. I cannot personally recall a situation where a consultant purposely sabotaged the success of a project for personal reasons. Certainly, any consultant who regularly uses any dishonest methods will be weeded out in a short time as the profession, clients, or regulatory agencies will eventually discover these actions and force the consultant out of business and eventually out of the profession.

I know from personal observation the vast majority of consultants are fair and honest individuals who actually pride themselves on their ability to work with operators as well as contractors and clients.

The operator should seek out the advice of a knowledgeable local consultant whenever a critical situation or plant conditions warrant, even if the consultant is not necessarily involved on your specific project.

Although many operators feel you cannot possibly learn any water treatment knowledge from a book or without experience, this statement is not true. Modern technology has provided us with processes that now treat water that could not be treated 10 years ago. There is a world of newer technologies coming along every day that are being pioneered by engineering firms—that’s right, engineering firms.

Consultants often have the advantage of experience working with various types of treatment and operational problems with other clients you may never have heard about. The consultant may be able to offer you methods or resources you may not have known about which may help you in your job. If you really want to be a hero to your employer, I can think of no better way than by finishing a project with few or no problems and in a time frame where so many others have previously failed.

Also, as corny as this may sound, consider offering advice and friendship to your local consultants, even if they don’t ask for it. Get to know them as individuals over a cup of coffee and share some of your war stories. Offer to assist them in the preparation of specifications and plans for your facility. Offer advice about staying away from risky procedures or using construction methods that may come back to haunt either of you. Remember, the consultant really only wants what you want: a successful and reliable project and a satisfied client you can both brag about.

Ask to be involved in the design portion of the project.

Do the research and learn the intricacies of the treatment process or the well under design. Ask questions and be available to the consultant for meetings and discussions. Provide input that is technically feasible, cost effective, and reliable. Don’t be defensive or arrogant should one of your recommendations not be accepted, but politely ask for a detailed and full explanation. Read and understand every detail of the project design and specifications before you complain about the consultant. Quite often, disputes result simply from the operator’s failure to fully grasp and understand what the consultant’s intent or criteria is for a specific design element.

If you are involved on a project with a consultant and problems do occur, immediately contact the consultant or your water system manager or owner and attempt to find a mutually agreeable solution to your concern.

One of the most serious and frequent problems I observe between operators and consultants is the desire by some operators to disregard, or worse yet, totally ignore the consultant’s role in the project.

An approach such as this will definitely lead to suspicions and ill feelings on the part of the consultant and your employer that won’t benefit anyone in the end. Involve the consultant in all relevant decisions and don’t try to go around him or circumvent his authority and instead try to deal directly with the contractor on technical matters. This is surely a recipe for a project disaster that will undoubtedly lead to severe problems with the consultant, and probably the contractor and your employer as well. Respect his role and authority during the project and submit any disputes through the channels described in the contract documents.

As I previously indicated, consultants will be much more receptive to input or criticism if a legitimate problem is come upon and he has been fully involved and informed throughout the construction process.

For Everyone

I sincerely hope the suggestions I have offered will benefit both consultants and operators who manage and operate the facilities we design.

To our valued operators, managers, and owners: Read and use what I have suggested during your next project, share this article with your consultant, and start a dialogue before you start the project.

To my engineer brethren I offer a simple challenge: Take the information I have given you, combine it with your own talent and experience, and share the result with the operators you will be working with. I guarantee all of you opening this line of communication will see less conflict, better communication, and a happier client. Through this effort, you will be able to join the many professionals and operators who have said, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Until next month, work safe and smart.


Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 35 years experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at epbpe@juno.com.

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