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Experience, Resourcefulness and Extra Effort the Key to Success

Townsville Laboratory ServicesSituated in North Queensland, Australia is a laboratory that started 35 years ago as a council laboratory monitoring the city's potable and wastewater systems. Add in NATA and ISO accreditation, and a subsequent business decision to market excess capacity to surrounding smaller councils and the business community, and this once small council lab now generates over 1 million dollars annually from external client’s analysis. Not surprisingly the benefits of analysing samples locally, removing days from analysis turnaround times proved immediately attractive to smaller councils and businesses in North Queensland. The real benefit (and differentiator) is “We understand the business of our customers because our own business is based on municipal water and wastewater service provision” explains Edgar Salvador, Laboratory Coordinator. 

Knowing and understanding the client’s compliance requirements means the lab cannot only help design a sampling plan, they can package a suite of tests to help their client meet monitoring requirements and then explain what the numbers actually mean. Providing guidance to clients is important as many may know they need to monitor but not necessarily know what to do. “We always go back to what the legislation wants them to do. We don’t pretend to know what they need, but we guide them as to what is best to help them comply with the legislation requirements, and then deliver meaningful results” said Edgar Salvador. 

The lab has grown to a team of 12 highly skilled scientists, microbiologists and lab technicians. Maintaining a competitive edge means not only employing experts in organic chemistry and microbiology, it also involves a commitment to ongoing cross discipline training. Combining the multidisciplinary skills of the staff with the most advanced instrumentation and robotics, ensures the lab can be producing analysis 24/7 whilst still maintaining a high revenue to staff ratio. 

Eight smaller cities and shires around Townsville utilise the Townsville Laboratory Services for drinking water testing, sewage effluent license compliance, environmental testing, and a wide range of microbiological analysis. It’s not cost effective for a smaller shire of 30,000 people to establish their own lab so utilising Townsville Laboratory Services makes sense from the perspectives of costs, speed of analysis, governance and compliance. 

As you would expect, over the lifetime of the lab the nature of testing, analysis and monitoring has changed, with the biggest driver being environmental compliance requirements. In the early 90’s the main operational requirement was for pH, alkalinity and e-coli testing. In the past 5-10 years there has been a shift to low-level detection capabilities and this has largely been made possible with advances in technology and specifically by instruments such as the AA3 Segmented Flow Analyser. The workhorses of the lab have been and continue to be the discrete analysers. The AQ2 Discrete Analyser has been in service for many years, and it has recently been joined by the larger, and more advanced AQ400 Discrete Analyser. The lab has also expanded in the area of organics and atomic and molecular spectroscopy, utilising an ICP Mass Spectrometer, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, 2D Ion Chromatographs and GC Mass Spectrometers. Today mandatory requirements to monitor drinking water for things such as Perfluoro Carbons and pesticides drives capability expansion plans. Once council requirements have been met excess capacity is then marketed to private industry, maximising instrumentation utilisation and lowering the cost per test. 

In the earliest days of the lab instrumentation was complex and purely the domain of PhD scientists. Over time robotics, hardware and software developments has made it easier to run analysis without being experts in the engineering of the instruments. All that being said, the location of the lab in regional Australia, a long distance from larger cities and the associated support, demands a level of resourcefulness from the lab scientists. So, the scientists here ensure they maintain an understanding of the mechanics, a bit of the engineering and more importantly the chemistry. Whilst the lab does use standard methods like USEPA, their combined experience, knowledge and desire to be responsive to their client’s needs results in the development of lots of methods in-house. These methods are subsequently validated and then accreditation from NATA is sought. Being a dynamic, client focused lab also means at times they challenge their instrument manufacturers reporting limits in order to deliver on customer requirements. Recently Townsville Laboratory Services challenged SEAL to deliver on a reporting limit of 5ppb for ammonia to meet the requirements of a large client. Current published methods were delivering 10ppb. SEAL technical support accepted the challenge and delivered the necessary results. 

The lab routinely performs a wide range of analysis on water, wastewater, and environmental samples analysing for everything from e-coli to pseudomonas to low-level nutrients, organics and trace metals. More recently the lab has become one of the few labs north of Brisbane to test for disinfection by-products and odour compounds in water. Thanks to the AA3 Segmented Flow Analyser they can now also go into very low-level nutrients in both fresh water and sea water. Whilst the AA3 is widely used by marine labs worldwide, Townsville Laboratory Services is one of the few commercial lab in Australia with that capability. 

This story reproduced from the SEAL User Newsletter, Australia.