This article originally appeared in the October 2019 WWD magazine as "Rethinking Wastewater Monitoring."
Despite its name, wastewater is a critical type of water that must be understood regardless of the source of discharge because freshwater is a limited resource on this planet. As municipalities and wastewater treatment plants grapple with needing to do more with less resources — and major concerns when it comes to potential fines — many are starting to realize the immense value of reusing water and driving efficiencies.
However, first they need to have a firm understanding of water composition when it comes to reuse—not just from a mandated compliance standpoint but rather based on how the treated water could be used for several other purposes. Reuse comes in many forms — from drinking to commercial needs like irrigation, golf courses, etc. — and has the potential to drive additional revenue, optimize operational efficiencies and potentially reduce regulatory limits. Unfortunately, most industries simply have not changed their mindset enough to invest in continuous monitoring to proactively understand what actually is in their water for safe reuse.
So where does water quality monitoring fit in and how has it evolved? Previously, municipalities and water treatment plants were forced to rely on static lab testing and all of the time consuming manual data processing that came with it. Many treatment plants still do daily static lab testing, but that leaves them flying blind as the test results are delayed with manual approaches, so they can remain unaware of problems for hours or even days. With several portable devices entering the market, there are others who use these instrumentation options, but some sensors are not sensitive enough to collect the precise data needed for effective action in real time. In addition, fragmented data, constant calibration concerns, handheld probes based on contaminants and manual maintenance efforts simply add to the inefficiencies and frustration.
With the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), the ability to build predictive models with machine learning and to apply artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, real-time water quality monitoring is changing how we look at wastewater. As water that runs clear can still be terribly toxic, the need for a proactive and advanced water quality monitoring systems that alerts us immediately if there are hazardous toxins, contaminants and pollutants in any water source is evident.
Knowledge is power, and we can act only on what we measure. The ability to maintain a smart water management system for a treatment plant, municipality or farm will be the norm in the future of water automation. Retraining the staff and becoming creative about how smart water data infrastructure can be built into every environment will be essential over the next decade. While the water may look the same as it did 10 years, 10 days or 10 minutes ago, we now have the ability to know exactly what actually is in the water at a precision and speed that was previously unobtainable.
New technologies also will dramatically reduce testing costs and generate millions of dollars of savings per wastewater plant based on chemical feeds and repurposing operational funds. All wastewater should be actively monitored to ensure it meets the specific safety requirements for any intended reuse. Monitoring should not just focus on the environmentals like pH, ED, TDS, TSS, etc.; once treated, it should be tested for dangerous toxins like lead, copper, nitrates, arsenic, chlorine, dissolved oxygen, chromium and silica, as well as several organics and microbial parameters.
Beyond safety, however, actively detecting, transmitting, analyzing and monitoring water quality creates efficiencies for municipalities and treatment plants from process management to post-treatment distribution. Getting accurate, actionable insight on the best remediation action, predictive maintenance and more will transform how water treatment plants are managed. Continuous monitoring with advanced diagnostics and alerts notifying the necessary personnel of any anomalies or maintenance concerns eliminate human error and keep the workforce efficient.
Water efforts no longer can take a backseat to power, energy, transportation or other mission-critical industries. It cannot be compartmentalized. Interdisciplinary, cross-functional teams are needed to solve such a complex problem without a myopic vision. Organizations embracing the era of smart water management can drive new operational metrics by eliminating the guesswork across the board by minimizing manual controls, optimizing chemical feeds, eliminating unnecessary cleanings and calibrations, avoiding static lab testing and reducing the cost of raw materials for treatments.
It is time to rethink how to manage, protect and treat our wastewater. Ultimately, smart water monitoring gives operators more control over their output and their bottom line. Now that proven technologies are available, there is no valid reason to claim ignorance. The water flowing in and out of a treatment plant affects us all. Policy changes need to be in effect to bring about enforcement on a broader scale at the effluent just as much as decisions are controlled by the operator for the influent.