With an expanding population, increasing costs and the introduction of increasingly stringent environmental regulations we ask what are the major challenges now facing operators of wastewater treatment plant installations? We look at four main areas, highlight the key issues and examine how advances in technology could help improve performance.
The growing importance of wastewater treatment
Safe, clean drinking water is one of our most basic human needs, not only in the developed world but all across the planet.
The water and wastewater treatment industry is at the heart of this process, and businesses and the people who work to develop new systems to return clean water back to rivers and lakes have a major role to play.
At the top of this agenda for many wastewater treatment plant operators is operational efficiency, and it’s this fundamental principle which has been driving innovation in the water sector for many years.
Huge advances in the technology used in the treatment of wastewater and industrial effluent have been made in recent years, but there is lots still to do.
What are the major challenges facing operators of wastewater treatment plant?
There are four major challenges facing operators of wastewater treatment plant and these can be split into four broad categories which are energy consumption, people skills and competence, dealing with sludge, and footprint and facilities.
Here, we’ll deal with each one in turn looking at some of the key considerations.
Energy consumption in a wastewater plant
You might be surprised to learn that it takes a lot of energy to treat wastewater, and that these energy costs are one of the largest expenses a water treatment company will incur.
Research has shown that in developed countries such as the UK, processing wastewater to make it safe to return to the watercourse is thought to consume between 2% and 3% of the country’s total energy use.
The most “energy hungry” part of the whole process tends to be the biological treatment stage, which accounts for between 50% and 60% of the total energy used in a typical wastewater treatment plant.
Scientists and researchers have been working to develop new biological wastewater treatment processes which will be able to work just as efficiently, but by using less energy.
Typical innovations include advances in such areas as using ultrafine screens (filters) at the start of the water treatment process, using modern membranes during the aeration process, and treating return waste streams directly.
What about the people operating the wastewater treatment plant?
Wastewater treatment is a 24 hour a day, 365 days a year business… it doesn’t stop.
The people running a wastewater treatment plant have to be properly trained and hold the right qualifications – they need to be competent to do their job.
People working in wastewater treatment might be on call to deal with everything from a leaking pipe or valve to problems with sophisticated electronic control equipment and monitoring instruments.
Maintenance to keep the plant running at maximum efficiency also experiences seasonal demand, with an additional impact on staffing.
We’re not going to see wastewater treatment plants manned by robots with no human presence any time soon.
However, emerging technologies are automating an increasing number of the processes, which in the future will continue to reduce staffing levels, and costs in wastewater treatment plants.
Dealing with wastewater sludge
Sludge is the term used to describe the residue which is left behind after the chemical, physical and biological treatment processes are complete.
One of the biggest challenges faced by businesses involved in the wastewater treatment industry is dealing with sludge and disposing of it in a suitable, environmentally sympathetic… and legal manner.
Every wastewater treatment plant has to develop long term, safe methods for disposing of any sludge created during the treatment processes.
One of the best solutions used currently is to recycle sludge containing nutrients or organic matter into agricultural fertilisers or soil treatments.
Even more recent advances can help to reduce the amount of sludge which is produced in the first place making treatment plants more efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly.
A wastewater treatment plant needs lots of land, they are expensive to build and are often unpopular with local residents
A further major challenge in dealing with activated sludge is the cost of construction and the size of site which is needed to accommodate the wastewater treatment plant and buildings.
A plant treating activated sludge can be very expensive to build and planning considerations are often a contentious issue for local residents; nobody wants to live close to a wastewater treatment plant which they perceive as smelly and noisy.
However, given the increasing population in many UK towns and cities, there is a constant need for new and more modern wastewater treatment plants, or expansion of existing wastewater treatment facilities.
One current development which could have a significant impact on the size of a treatment plant is increasing the biomass concentration by adding media for biofilm attachment into the system.
This measure can help reduce the area required for a wastewater treatment plant and its buildings.
A smaller treatment plant obviously reduces the land costs, however, it also reduces the costs of related to items such as steel, concrete and equipment.
These are just four of the main challenges facing operators of wastewater treatment plants.
There are many more factors to consider too, and one of the main responsibilities of wastewater plant operators is to keep abreast of both challenges facing the industry and the potential solutions to those problems, both now and in the future.
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