Wastewater 3.0: Looking Into the Future of Wastewater

Wastewater 3.0 is a term that’s been thrown around in the industry a lot these days. But what does it really mean? Since the term itself is so broad, it’s often difficult to break it down into manageable parts.

In addition, one of the resounding problems that both utility providers and technology companies seem to face is using the massive quantities of data that they now receive – thanks to advancements in technology – to power decisions and embrace Wastewater 3.0.

Rich Prinster, our Business Development Manager, was invited to lead a roundtable discussion on Wastewater 3.0 at the 2nd Annual SWAN North American Alliance Utility Workshop in Chicago, a collaboration with the Alliance for Water Efficiency and Global Water Works. This event was a riveting experience that brought together thought leaders working in the water sector from across North America to discuss “Modernizing North American Water Systems in the Digital Age.”

What is Wastewater 3.0 and how did we get here?

We need to look backwards so that we can move forward.

Ancient fortress walls contributed to high density populations as cities developed after the dark ages. Open gutters collected waste in the streets in these overpopulated areas, leading to water contamination, poor sanitary conditions, disease, and death. As time went on, disposal of waste into surface water was banned, and septic tanks and other technologies were invented to filter wastewater. In 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was amended and became known as the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act maintained existing water quality standards and introduced regulation of water pollution at the federal level.

Wastewater 3.0 is really all about the next phase in this story and being smarter with our water data collection and analysis, allowing us to make better decisions based on networks of information. We can now leverage technology, such as sensors in our data acquisition networks, to get early warnings of increased flows or contaminants in pipes. This information allows us to react more effectively at the treatment plant level, and to predict flow and loading, before small problems become major concerns. This real-time optimization allows utilities to improve operations, minimize dosages, and prioritize maintenance, among other things.

Are we there yet?

Many major cities are using various technologies to build smart water networks. At the SWAN North American Alliance Utility Workshop, the City of Chicago discussed how they have added remote sensors for real-time data acquisition throughout their distribution and collection system in places like fire hydrants to collect flushing data and pressure readings. These sensors allow them to better prioritize maintenance based on flows, which in turn has allowed them to decrease overall costs by proactively maintaining their assets rather than replacing them after a problem was reported.

Despite the advancements, many utilities are still struggling to implement Wastewater 3.0 technology, which makes it difficult to collect, organize, and use their data. Unfortunately, population rates continue to grow across the United States, and the infrastructure supporting those growing communities continues to age. Most treatments plants weren’t necessarily built to be able to handle this growth.

Baby steps to accomplish great things

Stringent source control programs can help to alleviate stress on wastewater plants by keeping pollutants out of the pipes and plants in the first place. This, in turn, both protects the pipes and plants and allows the utility provider to run their system more effectively, thereby treating more influent. These source control programs therefore allow utilities to preserve the infrastructure they currently have in place as the community grows.

As mentioned above, implementing inline sensors can help to optimize plant operations because they allow the plant to process more wastewater. It also extends the life of the plant because operators are able to access information on influent quality before it gets to the plant. Plant operators can then make real-time adjustments in order to treat influent more effectively.

Many utilities are also turning to trusted technology systems, such as LinkoExchange, POM Portal, and mobile data collection from WaterTrax in order to automate the acquisition of data throughout the collection system. This allows them to more effectively gather information to make informed decisions and to keep the bad stuff out in the first place.

By looking into the future and focusing on these big picture items, we can start to narrow our priorities into small but necessary steps that will meet the needs of the future. While it is daunting to think that in 15 years our population will be 1/3 larger than it is now, if we start effectively utilizing our data and new technologies today, we can create efficiencies in infrastructure that will allow us to rise above future challenges.