Efforts to set practical water treatment cost goals get underway once decision-makers realize they are spending more than they should when keeping operations running.
Attempts to cut costs do not happen quickly, and successful attempts may require significant investments. However, there are various worthwhile strategies to pursue.
Run a Technology Trial After Setting Goals
It is often difficult to accurately assess how much money a new technology could save. However, running a short-term trial could give plant leaders a good idea of what to expect and provide them with the confidence to move forward with future investments.
First, decision-makers should choose some specific goals they want to achieve. They should then meet with technology providers and discuss what is possible. Planning a trial with what seems the most appropriate or promising technology can happen after that.
Tampa Chooses Suspended Ion Exchange Technology
A wastewater treatment plant in Tampa, Florida, tried a suspended ion exchange system. It involved using resins that bind to impurities to remove them from water. Estimates showed the facility could save up to $4 million per year with this approach.
During a December 2020 interview about the project, Mayor Jane Cantor said the approach aimed to reduce chemical costs.
“The cost-benefit analysis is that it would save millions of dollars per year and the chemicals that are utilized now in the treatment of water. It is a very exciting and innovative treatment process," Cantor said. “We will do, you know, whatever is necessary to provide the best water possible for our community. But it is a pilot phase right now. And so, looking at the return on investment, we’ll have to see how this pilot works,”
Some unknown factors were how much it would cost to replace the resin and how often that upkeep would be needed. Additionally, there were questions surrounding the costs of using and disposing of the salts used to remove sulfates from the water.
However, the trial’s results showed the technology worked better than expected. Tampa officials allocated $100 million for the facility, which will treat 149 million gallons of water per day. Planners hope to have it operational by 2026 or 2027.
Know When to Upgrade
Many wastewater treatment leaders fail to understand how cost metrics may be higher than they would like because of aging and inefficient equipment. These items can also break down more frequently.
Predictive maintenance can bring savings of 30% to 40% over reactive upkeep. It may also show that certain pieces of older equipment fail so often it makes more sense to replace than repeatedly repair them. Upgrading aging systems can optimize plant operations by improving reliability and offering additional equipment functionality.
Energy-Efficient Upgrades Target Costs & Improve Aging Infrastructure
In one example, leaders at a Troutdale, Oregon, wastewater treatment plant worked with Ameresco to adopt an Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC) model. It involves a contractor guaranteeing energy efficiency through certain upgrades. Plants that save energy can reduce overall costs, too.
Troutdale public works director Fred Ostler said the plant was around two decades old, and many components were nearing the end of their expected life spans. Company representatives that initially moved onto the property took over what was formerly an aluminum plant. At that time, leaders overestimated the necessary infrastructure when planning for growth. That meant some of it never got used as expected.
“One half of its aeration basins have never been used,” Ostler said when speaking of the plant in its present state. “If you can imagine that is [sic] these two aeration basins side by side. One has been used for 20 years, and the other side has been dormant, and we are waiting for those customers to come along.”
Replacing one boiler used in the aeration process led to an estimated 40% savings. There was also an opportunity to install a single blower that took the place of three older ones. It could handle 80% of the plant’s needs with less energy.
This upgrade plan also accounted for the fact that the best option is not necessarily to look for whatever offers the lowest upfront cost. Instead, people involved in the project assessed the overall life cycle clock to see which changes would have the biggest cost-effective impacts over time.
Use Data Analytics to Drive Decision-Making
Facilities can also reduce costs by relying on data analysis and business intelligence tools to find and correct process inefficiencies. Having information about a plant’s operations on hand allows managers to notice issues more quickly and address them promptly.
Hungarian company Organica Water uses bio-centric processes to manage water quality and prevent scarcity. It has more than 120 treatment plants, and leaders sought a better way to oversee operations. They chose data analytics and business intelligence tools as some of the main ways to do that, believing improved visibility could save time and money.
“It used to take up to an hour for on-site engineers to understand the effects of changing a system setting, plus even more time archiving and using that data for deeper analysis," said Andrea Bolgár, a senior engineer with Organica Water. "Also, when problems arose, we couldn’t follow up or fix them as rapidly as we would have liked."
The company chose a cloud-based system that lets technicians remotely monitor site operations. This saved money by limiting travel. The system also allows looking at archived data to discover system automation opportunities.
“The biggest cost in a wastewater treatment plant is water aeration because microbes in the water need oxygen to break down organic material. We run blowers to ensure enough oxygen is provided to meet the effluent limits of each plant,” Bolgár explained. “Thanks to the new remote system, we can optimize our use of blowers and energy. We saw a 30% energy saving at one Hungarian plant, equating to about HUF 3 million (USD $9,200) a month.”
The technology will also help the company remain resilient during future operating increases.
“Water treatment plants will be expected to continue using just as much energy as we do now to treat water to the effluent limit. If more plants applied our approach, they could cut their energy consumption down by at least 15%,” Bolgár said.
Implement Artificial Intelligence to Achieve Cost Savings
Artificial intelligence (AI) has had significant impacts in industries ranging from health care to marketing. However, a study showed it’s beneficial to use it in wastewater treatment plants to reduce costs, too.
A 2020 trial in Denmark investigated how AI could help wastewater facilities reduce operating costs and to what extent the technology would save money. The researchers found that managing aeration cycles by prioritizing them when energy costs are low or using renewable energy could result in substantial cost savings. They determined that aeration can consume 45% to 75% of all electricity costs associated with a plant. Thus, the aerators were a good focal point for this study.
The team developed an AI model that takes data from smart sensors within the wastewater treatment plant. It then uses that information to select the most cost-effective operating option that still meets all the facility’s quality requirements.
“We've seen in simulations that — in relation to how you manage in the moment — you can save 10% to 20% on operating costs by managing smarter," said Peter Stentoft, who worked on the project.
Artificial intelligence is still an emerging technology in wastewater treatments. Plus, utilizing it will vary depending on a facility’s specific needs. However, this example shows that AI could be worth consideration, provided a treatment plant has the resources for it.
Meeting Water Treatment Cost Goals Is Possible
These options highlight some specific ways leaders at wastewater treatment plants might reduce their operating costs. Most solutions won’t provide immediate results, but they’re worth exploring, especially if company leaders want to stay competitive and support the bottom line.