How Little Is Little?

How long is 1 million minutes? Two weeks, two months, two years, 10 years? Nope, it’s 694.4 days. Now I ask, how long is a million inches? 100 miles, 1,000 miles? Turns out, a million inches measures exactly 15.78 miles. In the utility business, we measure thing in parts per million every day, yet we sometimes don’t think about how small a part per million really is.

On most Kentucky Pollution Discharge Elimination System (KPDES) permits, the limits set on pollutant discharges are set in parts per million (PPM) or a percentage of a part per million. As an example, after chlorination for disinfection and dechlorination, to remove most of the chlorine after its job is done, wastewater effluents can have no more than 0.019 PPM of chlorine present.

To compare this to the 1 million inches equaling 15.78 miles example, we would measure about 19/10,000 of one inch of that 15.78 miles or about the thickness of a folded piece of paper. Fairly precise, wouldn’t you say?

Things get measured at this level, and at even more precise levels, at wastewater and drinking water plants all over the Commonwealth every day. We, as citizens, have to depend on the men and women who operate and maintain these facilities. We have to depend on them to do hard, dirty, tiring, precise jobs every day. If they fail to measure things correctly, people may become ill or the environment may suffer from excess pollution.

Over the last 21 years, I have had the pleasure of meeting a large percentage of the drinking water and wastewater operators in the Commonwealth, and I find them to be some of the most conscientious and hardworking people I’ve met. They do complicated math equations, adjust pumps, determine chemical dosages and make major decisions that protect the public and environment. These operators deal with the public, and most people have no idea what they do or how they do it. In this industry, there is not a lot of room for error, and in most cases, they don’t need the room. The precise measurements that they take and the decisions that they make using the data collected normally lead to changes for the betterment of the environment and therefore, the citizens of Kentucky.

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