UK Water Monitoring Offers Huge Opportunities To All Sensor Makers

Sensors Insights by Michael Strahand

The UK water industry provides approximately 18,000 liters of water to over 50-million people, every single day. With almost 400,000 km of water mains and roughly 350,000 km of sewerage, the whole water network is enough to reach the moon and back. In order to maintain and control the whole process of treating wastewater and providing safe drinking water, the UK water industry must deploy vast instrumentation across the whole network. This allows organizations to monitor critical factors such as pH levels, water turbidity, and chlorine levels.

The Value of Accurate Data
The importance of precise and reliable data for UK water companies is incomparable. Without it, they cannot accurately monitor or maintain the day to day processes put in place to complete their responsibilities. Data allows an organization to shape, change, fix, and analyze anything necessary to provide a better service and product. Data acquisition relies on sensors of all shapes and sizes including flow sensors, magnetic flow meters, pH sensors, conductivity sensors and turbidity sensors to name but a few. Monitoring water quality represents a huge opportunity to all sensor manufacturers. As sensors form the heart of online monitoring, reliable and accurate instrumentation is vital for water companies to achieve optimum performance levels.

Instrumentation Reliant on Human Intervention
So why are UK water companies not getting the most value from their data collection? Obviously, instrumentation is only as good as the set-up and maintenance behind it. If a company is experiencing a shortage of routine staff or specialized man power, then accuracy of information starts to dwindle. In general, 'UK water plc' is currently looking to de-man its operations. Dependence on instrumentation is increasing at a time when the specialist manpower necessary to maintain and operate the instruments is being lost. This contributes towards a lack of control, which can cause less effective processes, higher costs, and poorer water quality. The same is true if the initial training program for staff members is inadequate or deficient.

Network Monitoring
Typically, water passes through the water treatment works before it travels through pipes to our taps. Although water leaving the treatment plant meets some of the best standards in the developed world, anything can happen to it between there and the taps. Therefore there is no guarantee that the quality of water leaving the plant is the same quality of water reaching homes and businesses.

In an attempt to monitor and control this issue, most UK water companies usually send a number of employees to take random samples from different water networks for testing. In essence, these tests are limited to employee capabilities, restricted to time, and subject to inaccuracies.

Opportunities are Being Missed
Water companies are missing an incredible opportunity, one that can save a lot of time, money, and effort while simultaneously increasing customer satisfaction. Currently, water companies do not have the opportunity to eliminate a customer complaint or issue before it actually happens. For example, in the current process the first time a company will often hear of an issue or problem is when a customer calls it in to complain. At this point it is too late; the complaint is registered and the company has an unhappy customer.

This scenario is potentially more damaging if a whole village or town issues the same complaint, such as funny looking or strange tasting water. Commonly, water companies often experience a spot of poor-quality water within the system. This run of contaminated water may have bypassed the organization's random test methods along its route through the pipes.

But what if water companies could detect a problem before it reaches the customer? Wouldn't it be a lot better if they were able to locate a spot of contaminated water almost instantly? What if they were to replace human testers with water monitors and sensors the likes of those supplied by a multitude of global instrumentation manufacturers, i.e., ATi, Endress and Hauser, Hach Lange, Siemens, Severn Trent Services and others? However, replacing manual testing with instruments is successful and efficient only with routinely-maintained instruments, precisely calibrated to set procedures using traceable calibration devices. Scale of deployment is also important, meaning studies show installing small numbers of monitors has no value.

Large scale deployment, which can deliver real-time information much more accurately, does have a value but requires larger capital investment. The 'big three' parameters routinely measured and that can deliver value are residual chlorine, pH, and turbidity monitors. The calibration of all these devices requires manual intervention and the use of primary or secondary standards. Unfortunately, manual intervention offers the greatest source of real and potential errors. Simply put, variations in methods and procedures lead to errors that are greater than the changes in the water quality under test.

Current processes are comparable to owning a brand new iPhone but only using it like the old Nokia 3210, to only call and send text messages. There is much more value to be gained from instrumentation than what is currently being achieved.

Security of the Water Supply
The value of large-scale deployment of water quality monitors to ensure security is already a reality in the USA. A 2005 project under the ETV program by the USA's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entailed the testing of multi parameter panels from a number of leading manufacturers for their response to contamination. As a result of this work, hundreds of multi-parameter water quality systems from several manufacturers are in use in the USA.

An EPA document, EPA 600/R-09/076 of October 2009, lists typical systems. Amongst the many conclusions in this report, there is a comment mirroring this author's concerns: "The operator should consult with the instrument manufacturer(s) and develop a thorough understanding of the instrument outputs during power outages and other malfunctions, such as the loss of reagents. It is important to develop a monitoring plan for scheduled maintenance, order expendable supplies in a timely manner, maintain calibration standards and schedule sufficient manpower to cover network operations. Following a good monitoring plan will ensure the collection of high-quality data that meets the monitoring requirements."

Sensor manufacturers must not only supply the equipment, they need to also provide effective training to allow water companies to get the best from their instrumentation. Post-installation training is arguably more important than the selection of the manufacturer of the monitor.

An end user study by the Philadelphia Water Department bears this out. (CH2M HILL, May 2013. Project Title: Selection of Online Water Quality Monitoring Technologies and Station Design). The white paper submitted to EPA is part of the Water Security Initiative Grant Awarded to Philadelphia Water Department. Visit for more details.

Initial Investment is Worth Every Penny
With the installation of accurate water monitors, water companies need not rely on random testing and human intervention. As long as instrumentation is set-up properly and well maintained, the data received is invaluable.

Of course, the initial investment is high for installing water monitors across an entire network. But considering the wealth of benefits water companies will receive such as real-time accurate data, better service, and higher customer satisfaction, it becomes a clever outlay. As there is no longer a need for human testers and the better service attracts more customers, this initial investment will pay for itself several times over. The opportunity is there for our water companies and the sensor manufacturers; however it is detrimental for both them and the ends user if they don't take advantage of it.

Michael Strahand is General manager, ATi Europe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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