A Detective’s Approach to Successful Water Treatment Projects
By Robert Slovak
Summary: The following article originally appeared in the premier issue of Agua Latino-américa magazine. It was modified for publication here with the author’s permission.
The “way” of the indomitable sleuth Sherlock Holmes—created by English author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—can be best summed up by the detective’s very own words:
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”1
“You know my method. It is found-ed upon the observance of trifles…”1
You may wonder how I would apply this to your success in water treatment. But, I assure you this is one business that can greatly benefit from Mr. Holmes’ approach to solving the mysteries of crime.
I observe, time and time again, the same shortcomings in the information gathering process used by water treatment professionals in accomplishing a water treatment project. The story is often the same—the salesman or engineer didn’t ask the customer enough of the right questions. They didn’t dig deep enough. They accepted the first round of answers and didn’t go back for more. Mistakes were made. Costs were more than expected.
Finding the mark
If you find your company rarely “hitting the bull’s eye” when it comes to water treatment projects, it most likely comes back to the failure to look for what Holmes calls the “elementary” details. You must train yourself to be relentless, and to anticipate when your client isn’t capable of telling the “full story”—since it’s certainly not intentional. As Holmes treats his suspects so you should treat you customer. Never believe they’ve given you all the necessary details about their requirements. The more you stick to this water detective approach, the more efficiently and profitably you’ll complete your water treatment projects.
Let me take the simplest of examples, one that’s “committed” throughout the water treatment industry daily. I’ve been guilty of this fault and it’s likely you have too. You’re called in to look over a water treatment requirement and at some point you ask what volume of treated water they require. Your client tells you 12,000 gallons per day and you write it down. You’re satisfied. You ask other important questions and finally return to your office to discuss the project with an engineer who’ll specify the system design. An inexperienced engineer may take this information at face value and start designing a system to deliver 12,000 gallons in a day—that is, in 24 hours. This would translate to 500 gallons per hour (gph) flow—throughout the day. The young engineer proceeds to specify treatment equipment (e.g., a softener or RO system) with just enough capability to deliver 500 gph operating 24 hours a day. It isn’t until after the installation that the customer calls to complain that the system won’t perform, i.e., they can’t get the 12,000 gallons in their company’s eight-hour workday. Your customer’s “day” was different than the salesman’s “day.” This example may be an oversimplification, but I cannot stress how important it is to inquire in depth about your customer’s water use pattern.
The best way to avoid this type of problem is to make up your own checklist for all your staff to use—anyone interacting with the customer who gathers information to specify and install water treatment systems. These checklists of questions should be tailored to the applications and technologies you’re qualified to work with. It should be a “living” document because even your best efforts at producing such a document will require modification on occasion. There’ll never be enough information gathered and you must always be ready to expand and update it. Also, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Encourage your staff to develop the habit of taking photographs and making drawings of the installation location conditions.
Let’s take a typical modern water treatment business, one that serves the residential, institutional and light industrial markets with a variety of technologies, including but not limited to:
- Media treatment—softening, iron removal, activated carbon, etc.
- Filtration—sediment and activated carbon cartridge, backwashing media, etc.
- Chemical feed—chlorination, pH, oxidation, scale inhibition, etc.
- Ultraviolet (UV) and ozone—disinfection, oxidation, etc.—and
- Reverse osmosis (RO)—but limited to potable feed water only.
Your company receives requests for water treatment solutions from prospective customers. You know how the process goes. It’s often beset with mistakes, revised pricing, installation callbacks and even system re-design. Sometimes you wonder where the profit went. How would you improve the process? What “tools” would you give your staff to minimize these costly problems? The key is to create your own questionnaire, dedicated to your business model, which allows your staff to acquire the critical information necessary to be “on target” in each step from customer visit to installation.
Project data sheet
Let’s get started and create a list of required information for the business model above. The following list of items to include in a project data sheet should assist you:
1. Customer identification: Name, address, telephone, fax, email, contact names with extensions
2. Customer referred by…: Who takes credit for getting you and the customer together?
3. Salesperson/sales engineer: Who is responsible for direct communication with the customer?
4. Project category: Residential, commercial, institutional, light industrial
5. Scope or definition of the project: An overall but concise description of the job and the problem to be solved. This should be easily understood by management and the rest of the staff.
- This section should be as detailed as possible and may be continually revised, as more is understood about the problem. Then, when you’ve completed this important exercise, write it up separately and have the customer sign it to avoid misunderstanding later.
- Water quality required (hardness level, chlorine level, total dissolved solids or TDS level, microbiological concerns, etc.). List any special standards that have to be met (e.g., Type II lab water, boiler quality water, spot-free rinse water, etc.)
- Water volume and use pattern (see Figure 1)
- Minimum flow and pressure required (see Figure 1)
- Number of people or equipment (e.g., bathrooms, kitchens, pools, dishwashers, ice machines, beverage systems, production lines, etc.) served
- Overall description and size of the facility served
- Details of the distribution of the treated water (e.g., piping configuration, size, material)
- The type of operation (manual, semiautomatic, fully automatic) of the water treatment equipment
- Budget limitations
- Time constraints (e.g., the customer needs to be operating in six weeks)
7. The volume of treated water required (daily, hourly, etc.)*
- What information was used to determine the total volume and who supplied it?
- IMPORTANT! For commercial, institutional and industrial customers, estimate the pattern of use over each day of the week and/or each hour of the day. Expect to meet with great resistance in obtaining this information because it may require significant extra work from your busy customer.
- If no one has any reliable information to offer, be prepared to install a flow totalizer and/or refer to some of the water industry reference charts that estimate water usage for specific applications.
* I give special attention to this requirement because experience tells us that so many mistakes are made in assuming and estimating water usage. Select the volume units that best apply to the requirement, e.g., gallons per day (gpd), per cubic feet per day, etc. You or your customer will rarely be right the first time around on this number so don’t be surprised to have to revise it several times.
8. Flow rate and pressure required for the treated water
This can be based on one or more factors—known usage factors, number of persons served, number of bathrooms, pipe size, equipment specifications, etc. Like water volume estimates, if no one can offer reliable information on an existing installation, be prepared to install flowmeters and/or refer to industry reference charts.
9. Existing water supply information*
- Treated or untreated public supply, treated or untreated private supply, other (specify)
- Surface water, well water, other (specify)
- Type of surface water (e.g. river, lake, pond etc.), well depth, well flow capacity
- Location of supply from water treatment location (provide drawing)
- Important concerns regarding the water supply (contamination levels, seasonal problems, etc.)
* The type, source and known treatment.
10. Existing water storage*
- Direct feed from distribution (flow rate/pressure)
- Primary reservoir capacity (covered/uncovered, elevation, distance from treatment, fill control mechanism, inlet flow rate/pressure)
- Secondary reservoir capacity (covered/uncovered, elevation, distance from treatment, fill control mechanism, inlet flow rate/pressure)
- Treated water reservoir capacity, if applies (covered/uncovered, elevation, distance from treatment, fill control mechanism, inlet flow rate/pressure)
* Provide drawing of all reservoir relative locations and elevations.
11. Existing supply and distribution piping*
- Pipe sizes
- Pipe lengths
- Pipe material
- Piping configurations
* Provide a drawing of all piping relative to the water treatment system.
12. Existing water pressurization*
- Pump make and model
- Pump inlet and outlet size and horsepower
- Hydropneumatic tank make, model and capacity
- Pressure control mechanism (e.g., pressure switch, flow switch or manual) and settings (e.g., high/low pressure or flow.)
13. Existing electrical power available at the installation location
- AC Voltage (e.g., 115, 230, 380 VAC)
- Current capability of available circuits (e.g., 20 Amp, 30 Amp)
- Phase (e.g., single phase, three phase)
- Regularity and stability of power*
* Inquire about any power supply problems that are common such as the power goes off or the circuit breakers trip several times a week. This could significantly affect the operation of water treatment components such as softener timers, chemical feed pumps, etc. In remote areas, it may be important to monitor the voltage fluctuation over several hours and if necessary, install special voltage regulators or even backup power generators.
14. Existing on-site water treatment equipment*
- Make and model
- Special settings (e.g., salt dosage, chemical dosage, backwash time, etc.)
- Date of installation and condition of equipment
15. Installation location information
- Description and dimensions of the existing facility, room or space allocated for the water treatment system. Document any space limitations, especially doorways that may not be large enough for equipment such as tanks (provide photographs and drawings).
- Construction characteristics of the installation location—wall, floor and ceiling materials, lighting; window location, etc.
- Available electrical power—location of outlets, electrical boxes, disconnect boxes, etc.
16. Physical, chemical and microbiological parameters of the water supply
Identify which parameters are relevant to the application, that is, they require reduction or indirectly affect the performance of the process or equipment. Some of the more common parameters are listed in Figure 2 for reference.
After the above Sherlock Holmes investigation of the “crime scene,” you’re now ready to put your homework on paper for the appropriate water treatment system proposal. Whatever the proposed design you submit, by following the advice in this article, expect to have a new experience in having the project proceed from beginning to end with fewer problems and more profitability than before.
- Encarta® Book of Quotations© & (P), Microsoft Corporation, 1999. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
About the author
Robert Slovak is president of AROMAN Inc., a water treatment consulting company in Incline Village, Nev., and currently serves as a water consultant and manufacturer’s representative in Brazil. He is also the technical director for Agua Latinoamérica. A member of the Water Quality Association, Slovak is the author of its manual, Application Guide to Point-of-Use Reverse Osmosis Systems. He can be reached at the following emails: email@example.com (U.S.) or robtslovakBR@aol.com (Brazil)