Challenges in Operating Industrial Wastewater Treatment Systems

There are major challenges facing operators of industrial wastewater treatment systems that can affect the major overall performance. These can be split into five broad categories including:

  • footprint and facilities.
  • treatment chemical costs, 
  • dealing with sludge,
  • energy consumption,
  • operator skills and competence,

With increasing costs such as operating materials and labor plus increasingly stringent environmental regulations we must evaluate the challenges now facing operators of industrial wastewater treatment systems? We look at five 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 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.

In recent years there have been huge advances in the technology of municipal and industrial wastewater treatment systems. But there is lots still to do. The goal is to improve effluents for recycle and reuse opportunities in potable and non-potable applications. 

Footprint and Facilities 

Topping the list of challenges for many wastewater treatment applications are the foot print and technology required to treat new pollutants added to discharge permits, increasingly stringent discharge limitations, and maintaining compliance. In some instances, production takes precedence over pollution control.  When this occurs producing compliant effluent may become a challenge for operators.  Older technologies may require more manual labor and may and may require more space than newer technologies. Reduction in footprint and operational efficiency, are fundamental principles that has been driving innovation in the industrial wastewater treatment sector.

Treatment Chemical Costs

Many industrial wastewater treatment systems require the use of chemicals to assist in separating the pollutants from the wastewater.  In recent times, supply chain issues have challenged industrial wastewater treatment operations. Product shortages, substitutions and price increases have caused the need for new technologies.  Wastewater Operators have had to become creative maintaining operational goals and objectives.  

Dealing with Sludge

Some industrial wastewater treatment systems had to return to using inorganic coagulants.  Inorganic coagulants are low in cost but often require high chemical dosages due to low molecular charges.  These inorganic coagulants will effect pH resulting possible pH noncompliance.  Frequently these inorganic coagulants will attach to hydroxide molecules in the wastewater forming large floc particles.  These large floc particles hold water generating high volumes of sludge.  If these sludges cannot be properly dewatered increased disposal charges may be applied increasing operational costs.  

Energy Consumption in the Wastewater Systems 

Wastewater treatment systems require large volumes of energy to operate treatment equipment. Quite often energy is often the highest expense to operate a treatment system.   Using biological processes require high volumes of oxygen to be added into the wastewater to maintain the microbiological organisms used to reduce BOD, Ammonia-Nitrogen, and Phosphorus.  Oxygen is applied using large aeration blowers.  Blowers can also be used in large equalization basins to keep the wastewater homogenized to minimize fluctuations in the wastestream.  

Many new technologies are being used to remove pollutants to produce potable and non-potable reuse waters.  These often use fine pore filtration such as microfiltration, ultrafiltration, nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. These technologies have high pressure requirements to push the wastewater through the membranes using large pumps with high horsepower demands.  

Plants that operate biological systems may use anaerobic digesters to aid in sludge reduction and further reduce organic loadings leaving the system.  Digesters may be used at plants with high organic wastestreams to produce methane gas.  The methane gas can be captured and sent to energy conversion system to reduce wastewater system energy demands is  capturing the methane gas produced in the digestion process.    

Depending upon the wastewater application or geographical location many plants are implementing the use of solar energy to help reduce energy costs.  

Operating Skills and Competence

Depending Upon the size of the industrial processes, the wastewater treatment system may need to operate 24 hr/day and 365 days/year.  Having a qualified staff to operate and maintain that system can be challenging.  

Many new technologies are being utilized in today’s wastewater treatment systems. These technologies are using semi-automated and fully automated systems.  These automated systems utilize sensors, probes, and analyzers that download data to a computer that controls the system operations. 

Today’s Operators not only need to be mechanically inclined to repair pumping equipment and motors, changing valves, and pumping fluids to different parts of the plant they also need to be computer savvy to establish the controls to operate the system.  A strong electronics and computational programming are required.  Data is now collected by a computer, analyzed, make operational adjustments, and send a report on the action to the operator who may be working remotely on the other side of the system.     

These emerging technologies are automating an increasing number of the processes, which will continue to reduce staffing levels, and costs in wastewater treatment plants.