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Water Is a Scarce Resource
Picture of Donna Switzer

Donna Switzer

Water Is a Scarce Resource

Learning to Treat it That Way


We all love it and use it. It is required for life. Over half our body weight is water. In fact, it is recommended that we drink half our body weight in ounces of water every day. However, did you know that according to UNICEF, 4 billion people (that is 2/3 of the world’s population) experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year.

There are regions within the United States that have an abundance of water, while others have restrictions. For example, there are growing microbrews in the Northeast because of the water quality and availability, and yet states like Arizona, California, Nevada, and Florida restrict water usage due to extended droughts and other shortages.

It may seem like water is abundant, I mean, they nicknamed the planet, “the big blue marble” because of the oceans. However, only a fraction – 0.5% – of the earth’s water is usable/accessible for drinking.

So, how do we become good stewards of the water that we need and use in our industrial processes? We don’t want to fall into the “tragedy of the commons” and diminish the water available in our communities. By incorporating systems thinking into our design and maintenance programs and taking a 5-step approach, we can evaluate each industrial process for opportunities for water conservation.

First step — assemble a team of people and gather data. Your team should include designers, operators, and representatives from facilities, finance and purchasing. Develop a baseline to determine where your system is using water. Not just one manufacturing line or process, but your whole plant. Conduct a mass balance by accounting for all water coming into your plant, where it is used, and how much is being discharged or wasted. Look at water bills and plumbing schematics. It may require an investment in meters to identify exactly where the water is going throughout the plant and how much is being used in each location.

Remember to account for water used in your product, water used for fire suppression, and water that is evaporating (i.e., boiler makeup water). Finally, evaluate the quantity and quality of water being discharged, what contaminants are in the effluent, and what type of treatment is required before or after it leaves your plant.

Secong step — by taking into account your business objectives, set goals related to water. Some examples include reducing use, reducing the amount discharged, reducing the toxicity of the water discharged, being able to reuse water on-site, or finding alternate sources of water for use on-site. Your water goals should support the overall company objectives and fit with the community needs. For example, your company objective may be to have the highest profitability, so your water goal may be to decrease cost to treat wastewater. Another example is that your company wants to be the number one employer in the region, and so your water goal may be to reduce overall use so that water remains available for other community members, or identifying a wastewater stream from another local manufacturer that can be used in your process. One example of this is a Pennsylvania power plant that uses the effluent from the municipal wastewater treatment plant as cooling water makeup. In this scenario, no surface water is impacted.

Third step — is to make water systems a maintenance priority. This means that there should be an on-going effort to stop the leaks. This effort may go a little deeper than typical and may include conducting a dye test to confirm that the plumbing schematic is accurate (inlet and outlet are as drawn), or may require sending a camera down the pipes to see if they are intact. But it could be as simple as looking at systems that aren’t typically on the maintenance punch list – like the water works in the women’s locker room/bathroom, the outdoor hose connection, or the automatic irrigation system. Set a plumbing investigation task in your regular maintenance schedule to ensure there are eyes on the pipes to facilitate stopping leaks before too much water is lost.

Forth step — is to prioritize your effort on the biggest or easiest win that will meet your identified goals. The effort may not require a capital investment, or it may. But having a quick win under your belt enables you to show progress quickly and gain momentum and by-in around other projects. Sometimes, water conservation opportunities can be designed into plant upgrades or redesigns. For example, when new or upgraded processes are coming on-line, it may afford the opportunity to install more water-efficient equipment or appliances. This is where your team can brainstorm projects or opportunities. Look at all kinds of projects: For example, is there an opportunity for reusing water onsite, are there fixtures that are reaching the end of life that can be upgraded to more water-efficient models, are there alternate sources such as rainwater capture and use? Ask employees for ideas about water conservation related to their tasks – can you install a simple valve to restrict or make variable flow, is there an innovative technology that can be applied to the tasks.

Last step — is to implement one of the projects that your team identified as feasible and meets your water goals. After the project has been implemented, continue to collect data and compare it to the baseline that was conducted in step 1. Tell your story! Use the data and consider putting a dollar amount to it. So instead of saying “we saved 100 gallons per month,” you can say that “we save enough water to increase the profit margin on our product by 3%” or “we save enough water to install a new employee shower in the gym without increasing overall water use.”

Barriers to water conservation

Of course, there are always arguments against change. Financial Barriers: Water may be considered “cheap” and not worthy of additional resources. There may be discrepancies related to whether water and equipment expenses are assigned to operational budget versus capital expenditures, and projects may not meet company financial investment decision requirements (e.g., return on investment).

Physical Barriers: Equipment changes may be technically infeasible because of competing factors such as lack of “real estate” for holding tanks or plumbing is not accessible; or necessary “validated” cleaning processes cannot be changed, such as with pharmaceuticals.

Program Barriers: Additionally, your company may be focused on other issues, such as energy use/reduction and carbon emissions, product quality, employee health and safety, or other social issues; and my not have the resources available for water conservation. Sustainability issues are typically driven by clients and other stakeholders and their focus may exclude water. Finally, other programs may be driving improvements in the plant, such as recent restrictions on chemicals containing PFAS, that are commanding company resources.

Aligning your goals to company business objectives help to reduce barriers.

In conclusion…
Even though the US seems to be focused on carbon emissions, water is a finite and precious resource worthy of conservation. Identify opportunities for water conservation by conducting a baseline evaluation of water use and discharge. Implement identified opportunities on a prioritized basis, in accordance with your company’s business objectives, and shout out success stories.

If you would like more information about how you can plan for and implement a successful sustainability or water conservation program, please contact us. We can work with you to illustrate your risk of doing nothing, identify opportunities for water use reduction, and support a water conservation team in developing a program that fits your business model.

Resources: Photo by mrjn Photography on Unsplash

Water Conservation Ideas

  • Evaluate or modify product scheduling to reduce the need to clean between batches
  • Evaluate or reduce the volume or rinse time of equipment
  • Consider community involvement – such as a stream cleanup – to advertise your commitment to water
  • Look at water-efficient fixtures/appliances when doing equipment upgrades
  • Consider simple process changes like switching to using a vacuum instead of hosing down equipment or floors

But before you make any changes, ensure that the new method/equipment is technically, environmentally, and economically feasible.

Ask the team these questions: will the equipment fit in the plant, will our employees be able to operate the new system, will the new process create additional wastes, and/or will the new process create an additional workplace hazard (physical or chemical). Reducing water in a cleaning process, for example, may concentrate the contaminants requiring additional fees from the wastewater treatment plant.

The option that leads to the highest water use reduction may be infeasible to implement!

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