By James Peterson
It’s no secret that safe and readily available water is important for public health, can boost economic growth and help reduce poverty. But factors such as climate change, growing populations, natural disasters, increasing water scarcity, and urbanization continue to challenge water systems around the world. To add to the complexity of the problem, certain regions show starkly different demands of the future of water. On one side is a basic need: the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. On another, consumers are opting to pay for a different drinking water product all together; bottled water sales are at an all-time high in the U.S., and 86 percent of new 2017 water cooler units in Germany provided carbonated water on demand.
On top of the challenge of securing sources of water, treating and distributing safe drinking water is becoming more complex. Our existing water infrastructure is increasingly stressed by service and management needs and contaminants it was not built to treat. New infrastructure is facing the choice of building systems in traditional ways with the same eventual issues, but refined thinking to drinking water infrastructure design and new technology being used in unique cases are now starting to present opportunities for a more resilient future for water.
Contamination Beyond Centralized Treatment
Highly urgent contamination events over the past years with lead, Legionella, and forever contaminants in groundwater like perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) or 1,4-dioxane have highlighted that a centralized treatment system cannot solve many of our emerging contaminant concerns. Lead issues in Newark and Legionella problems at care facilities across the U.S. and Europe are occurring beyond the service connection and within premises. Remediation programs for groundwater contaminants like PFCs in Hoosick Falls are faced with how to provide treatment to private well systems drawing from contaminated aquifers.
The response to many of these events has been experimental, but have highlighted a successful approach to drinking water treatment used rarely in the past. All of these cases have effectively responded with point-of-use and point-of-entry solutions to address the specific contaminants and assure the safety of water at the tap, even as primary treatment from groundwater sources. While these first sites have paid an extreme cost for the emergency management contracts, their cases show a clear opportunity for technologies like activated carbon and UV to be used on premise as primary treatment solutions. As technologies like onsite reactivation of carbon and UVC LEDs decrease both costs and service needs of these solutions, decentralizing treatment systems becomes increasingly cost competitive, while managing issues that centralized treatment cannot.
A Changing Climate
Changing weather patterns also continue to impact water systems. Severe weather and hurricanes are becoming more frequent and devastating — research shows a large increase in intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes since the early 1980s, as well as an increase in Category 4 and 5 storms. These damaging storms leave behind contaminated flood waters and damaged drinking water infrastructure. Extreme droughts and damage to natural rainwater management systems also create more water contamination risk, as rainfall that occurs in areas that have been enduring dry periods can quickly lead to flooding.
These increasing stresses to our aging infrastructure create more needs for maintenance and more opportunities for the infiltration of contamination or disturbed biofilms. As desire grows to reduce disinfection byproducts generated by chlorine-based treatment and reduced use increases water age in infrastructure, central treatment facilities are more limited in their ability to add disinfection residuals to water in order to manage growing issues.
Consumers Continue To Pay More For Tap-Water Alternatives
Single-use bottled water consumption continued to grow in 2018, expanding its market lead against all other packaged beverages. With almost a third of U.S. consumers considering bottled water their primary source of drinking water, and contaminated drinking water being the third-largest health concern in the U.S., there is continued growth in consumer spending for the perception of safe water.
While bottled water growth rates show no sign of slowing, more consumers are grappling with the realization that most bottled water is from the same source as municipal water and the environmental impact of single use plastic packaging. This is continuing to spur new opportunities, products, and services that can visibly assure consumer perceptions of water quality. While U.S. consumers still tend to prefer pitcher or faucet filtration devices, a spike in contamination occurrences in the news is increasing awareness around more in-depth reduction claims from more advanced treatment options.
In addition to strong contaminant reduction claims, the public’s favor is growing around products and appliances that provide options beyond just tap water. New, popular water dispensers for home or office service come with all kinds of bells and whistles, such as advanced heating and cooling systems, flavoring options, and carbonation. But the increased complexity of these dispensers are giving way to more contamination and service risks from stagnation to filter fouling, allowing for plentiful cases where water coolers and dispensers may have higher concentrations of microorganisms than the initial tap water.
Increased Use Of Microbial Testing
Factors such as increased Legionella outbreaks in building plumbing and the current draft of the new EU Drinking Water Directive moving portions of microbial testing to the tap are also pushing microbial testing to become faster and cheaper. Not only will this help identify public exposure to microorganisms from drinking water infrastructure, but also it is increasing the number of consumers who are able to determine if their tap water, fouled filter cartridges, or stagnant water storage tanks are the source of microbial contamination.
But identifying specific organisms is still a challenge for home testing and a debate remains around if positive HPC test results should be of concern. This year’s annual study by the Water Quality Research Foundations (WQRF) once again found that over 70 percent of serviced residential filters are contaminated with coliform. Service providers and dealers of water purification equipment and appliances will continue to face increasing questions around the microbial content found in the water produced by their equipment with increasing availability of low cost microbial tests.
End-Of-Line Treatment Becoming A Necessity
Secondary or primary treatment of water at the point of entry and point of use will continue to be growing approaches to water purification in 2020. While larger infrastructure continues to have opportunities to improve public perception, new products and services providing a more attractive glass of water and noticeably alleviating consumer concerns of contamination directly at the point of dispense will experience faster moving opportunities.
Looking at the factors impacting water safety, it is clear that in the years ahead manufacturers and service providers of water systems at the end of the tap must look at how to provide new forms of treatment and manage the associated service needs. As stakeholders incorporate these points of treatment into the point of use and point of entry, they should be planning for the next opportunity to evolve quickly from more than just an optional treatment choice, to a critical part of how water infrastructure operates.
About The Author
James Peterson is responsible for the strategic direction of Crystal IS’ products focused on water markets — Optan for sensing and Klaran for water disinfection. He develops business models for UVC emitters and ensures these product lines meet the specific customer needs in water markets. Prior to Crystal IS, he cofounded Vital Vio, a company that designs, engineers, and manufactures LED lighting systems that reduce bacteria and other organisms from at-risk environmental surfaces. James holds four patents in using light for disinfection and was named to the 2016 Forbes 30 under 30 list. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.