By WC&P Staff
Small water treatment systems can range from rural community water supply to modern systems for a new apartment complex. WC&P spoke with Tyler Gamble, Commercial Products Applications Manager at Canature WaterGroup, and Kevin Osborn, Northeast Regional Sales Manager for Water-Right, to learn about the challenges and regulations that small systems face.
WC&P: According to the US EPA, of the 145,000 active public water systems in the US, 97% are considered small systems, meaning they serve 10,000 or fewer people. That is a lot of area and different types of environments to cover. What are some similarities that small systems often share?
Tyler Gamble: Smaller systems commonly lack funding for upgrades and proper maintenance, tend to use dated equipment, and have part-time rather than full-time operators. While the water they produce is safe to drink from a microbiological standpoint, the disinfection methods sometimes create poor taste and odor.
Kevin Osborn: Small community water supplies are as varied as residential homes. You can have larger homes and smaller homes, homes that need a lot of treatment and others that don’t. The same goes for small community systems.
The small community system needs to look at what it is servicing. Some community systems have a building and some just have a wellhead out in the woods. There are a lot of possible challenges you can run into with small systems. Small systems do all have the same needs as far as providing clean, potable water for the end user. It is on you, as a contractor, to do your due diligence—the end users may not have the answers you need to proceed.
WC&P: With small systems in the middle of the spectrum from residential water treatment to huge municipal systems, what are some common challenges that small systems face?
TG: Their challenges mirror their similarities: lack of funding, aging equipment, and a reliance on part-time operators. Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) and other changes to the source water composition (i.e., more pesticides in agricultural areas) are also a challenge because they have limited funding to invest in new treatment options and equipment.
KO: Small systems don’t usually have a dedicated service person. It might be a mobile home park owner who needs to comply with public health regulations. The owner needs to find out what he needs to do, what regulations and/or regulatory authority to comply with. Then what are the water issues? The owner needs to figure out what to do, how to pay for it and more.
Also, finding an engineering firm can be a big challenge. If it is stipulated by local public health rules, small systems often need to find an engineering firm to help design the system to comply.
WC&P: What is the relationship between point-of-use (POU)/ point-of-entry (POE) solutions and small systems?
TG: Point-of-use and point-of-entry systems act as a final barrier for homeowners. Residential and commercial softeners, filters, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet systems remove targeted contaminants not removed during the treatment process. POU and POE systems greatly improve the quality of drinking and working water in homes and businesses.
KO: In the large municipal systems, the goal is to comply with regulations and public health needs to provide healthy drinking water. But individual homeowners using municipal water can still decide if they want a residential water treatment system to treat hard water or taste concerns. The same goes for small community systems. The system treats according to regulations and health needs but individuals can still get further water treatment. The system is centrally regulated and maintained but individual needs may vary. Residential users need to be aware that municipal water can still experience periodic issues with things such as lead, PFAS, etc. The best option for people on a public water supply is awareness of historical issues and having a final barrier in their home for their protection.
WC&P: The water treatment industry deals with a lot of regulation from the national level down to local stipulations. What are some of the regulations that affect small systems the most?
TG: The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) came into effect in 1974 to ensure safe drinking water in the US. As part of the SDWA, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations set the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and treatment techniques for water contaminants. The EPA is responsible for drinking water regulations and monitoring compliance. The USDA provides funding, technical support and training for rural water projects. In 2020, the USDA and EPA announced their partnership to help small water systems face challenges like aging infrastructure and rising costs.
KO: There are lots of regulations the small community systems need to pay attention to, particularly around public health. Chlorination for disinfection to prevent illness and maintaining chlorination levels is one category. PFAS are a concern in any water treatment system. Arsenic levels are a big focus right now. Other regulations focus on nitrates and other contaminants but also quarterly testing and keeping a record of providing safe water.
WC&P: When designing treatment for small systems, what are some of the main things you’re solving for? What are some of the common solutions or technologies that are used?
TG: Small system design is driven by the EPA’s MCL requirements —meeting those is critical. Secondary design considerations are given to aesthetic objectives, like removing iron or manganese, so water users feel confident using their tap water. Small systems tend to rely heavily on media filtration as well as disinfection. Membrane filtration is starting to become more commonly used by small systems as it becomes more affordable.
KO: The issues and solutions are all the same as a home water treatment system, just bigger. And the same concerns and processes are followed. What does the water tell us? Testing is critical. Maybe iron or manganese is a concern. PH levels are also important. Flint, Mich., was an example of how low PH levels can cause issues with infrastructure.
Then you need to understand the water usage and distribution. What is the usage and distribution? How many hook ups are needed? What is the right pump size? Do you need repressurization? You need to tailor the system to work for a mobile home park or a condominium complex, as an example.
WC&P: Wastewater recovery and reuse is becoming a hot topic. Is that something small systems are dealing with?
TG: Many water treatment providers are having to develop new water sources to meet demand, particularly in times of drought. One of the solutions is looking to water recycling and reuse of wastewater. Reverse osmosis membrane technology is one technology being used by small systems because of its ability to remove virtually all impurities. Membrane technology and system design improvements have made it possible to minimize reject water. Some municipal RO systems are achieving water recovery better than 90%.
KO: In certain areas of the country, it’s more of a concern. For example, California is aiming to increase reuse and treatment of wastewater. There are pros and cons to recovery and reuse but it depends on the local regulations. Every state and local community has public health regulations that must be followed.
WC&P: Contaminated source water is an issue in several communities across the country. What are the main concerns for source waters?
TG: Chemicals of emerging concern (CEC), overall source water quality, waste accumulation, and climate change (i.e., drought affecting the water table) are all key concerns for communities.
KO: Concerns about groundwater are the same as ever. Arsenic levels, nitrates, PFAS, and many other contaminants have changing targets. And with any contaminated water, the harder it is to treat means the more expensive it is to treat.
Is there pre-treatment that is needed? That’s another cost. You wouldn’t necessarily put a softener on a community system but if you need soft water to treat contaminants that affect public health, then you need to do it. Do you need to do blending? What about storage tanks?
WC&P: What’s on the horizon for small systems? In 5 to 10 years, what will be the challenges and what new innovations will be available?
TG: Manufacturers will continue to improve the efficiency of systems so they use less energy, salt, and water. In some cases, this may make certain technologies more attractive or viable for small system use, in other cases it may improve methods they are already using. Ultraviolet systems using LED technology, which will reduce power usage, are also on the horizon.
KO: Ten years ago, I thought we would all be using membrane technology in residential and small systems. But the technology that we had 20 years ago is still most of what we use today. The technology has become more efficient, and we can fine-tune the treatment better. Technology will catch up.
Regulations are always changing. Arsenic levels now must be lower, PFAS must be dealt with, even monitoring pharmaceuticals in the water. At the end of the day, it is up to the consumer to ensure that their water is safe for their family.
About the authors
Tyler Gamble is Commercial Products Applications Manager in the Commercial Industrial Engineering Division of Canature WaterGroup. He has been with Canature WaterGroup for almost 6 years and is based out of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He has a Master of Engineering in Environmental Engineering from Dalhousie University and a BA in Bioresource Engineering from McGill University.
Canature WaterGroup is a manufacturer and distributor of residential and commercial water treatment solutions. Its mission is to provide dealers with value by producing innovative, high-quality products in the most efficient manner possible. With over 50 years of industry experience, Canature WaterGroup provides solutions from water analysis and system selection and sizing to start-up support.
Kevin Osborn has been the Northeast Regional Sales Manager for Water-Right for the past 9 years. He has been involved in sales and engineering in the drinking and wastewater industry for over 20 years and has a BA in Mechanical Engineering from WPI in Worcester, MA. Kevin’s primary role involves managing and supporting A. O. Smith’s water treatment brands through collaboration with distributors and Professional Water Treatment Dealers. He can be reached via email, [email protected], on his direct line (508) 397-1876, or via Water-Right at (800) 777-1426.
Water-Right is a manufacturer of residential and commercial water treatment products established in 1963. They offer a variety of brands with patented features distributed through wholesale and dealer-direct channels. Water-Right was acquired by A. O. Smith in the spring of 2019 to join their Water Treatment division.