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A new ‘best way’: how standardisation leads to success in the water sector

Far from unchangeable rules that have been set in stone, standards can be a catalyst for innovation and improvement.

Standards are by their nature specific, offering a best practice approach to everything from water treatment processes to sewer pipe rehabilitation and the materials that should be used.

Australian water utilities have a plethora of standards to draw on. There are global guidelines issued by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), national guidelines from Standards Australia and the Water Services Association of Australia, not to mention an organisation’s own standards.

“Standardisation helps ensure consistency and makes our maintenance and operations simpler,” Sydney Water Service Planning Manager Norbert Schaeper said.

“It means that every time someone goes to a pumping station, they walk into the same configuration. They know there’s a control panel, they know what to expect at the panel, and they know what sort of pump is going to be there and how it will be mounted.”

This consistency helps utilities manage their assets in a more efficient and cost-effective way, said Sydney Water Urban Design and Engineering Manager Ken Wiggins.

“The aim of asset management is to get the most value out of assets and provide the required level of service at the lowest price,” he said.

“If we have consistency, we can understand how assets will perform in the future and predict operating costs.”

A new ‘best way’

Although it’s easy to see standards as a rigid set of rules, Wiggins said good asset management requires changing standards as the industry evolves.

He pointed to sewer pipe rehabilitation, which has been transformed by the emergence of trenchless technologies.

“Over 20 years there has been a progressive increase in the technology we can use for sewer rehabilitation,” Wiggins said.

“Initially there were a few things that didn’t work very well, but the technology looked promising, so specifications were prepared.

“As each new bit of technology comes onto the market, the industry trials it and adopts it as a new standard.” 

Without a framework of standards, Schaeper said innovation is at risk of being a one-off improvement rather than a greater benefit.

For example, if someone discovers a better way of lining a pipe, it might improve a single project. But if the approach is written into a new standard, it ensures all future projects will be improved in the same way.

“Without a standard, you’re reinventing the wheel each time,” Schaeper said.

“But if you lock the innovation into a standard when a new ‘best way’ is discovered, it becomes the typical way of working.”

Setting the standard

For Melbourne Water Process Safety Engineer Stephanie Hastings, it’s not just the technical information within standards that should evolve, but the standards themselves.

Melbourne Water has been looking at its standards in a bid to make the documents more user-friendly and accessible. This includes modifying the document layout and structure and designing templates that can be used by everyone, including service delivery partners, consultants, contractors and people with disabilities.

“We have been consulting both within Melbourne Water and with the end users of our standards to see how they can be improved,” Hastings said.

“Standard documents are traditionally very dry and not really good at conveying information to the end user. We’re making it easier for people to understand and learn how to apply standards by keeping the same technical information but restructuring how it’s presented.”

In future, Hastings said Melbourne Water would look at sharing the standards it has developed with the wider water sector.

“We have a lot of resources and expertise in-house, and we want to share that knowledge so smaller authorities and municipalities, who might not have the same resources, can access and use the information,” she said.

“We also have some unique equipment and assets, like our tertiary treatment plant, which uses ozone and is the largest in Australia. If other water authorities are going to use ozone for treatment, having our standards could be helpful.”

Norbert Schaeper and Stephanie Hastings are members of the Australian Water Association's Asset Management Specialist Network. Click here to learn more.