As a business, large or small, water is an important utility. With rising prices, unpredictable droughts and increasing population, mains water is set to become an expensive commodity. From April 2017 businesses could shop around for their water supplier, over 36,000 already have. Businesses that consider their water supply and quality to be critical are turning to alternative sources. Streams, rivers, groundwater and the sea all offer tantalising cost-saving options and water security when accessed and treated correctly.
Water supply without compromising quality
The business imperative is to ensure a ready supply of quality water, in the volumes required, at the right price.
Since the water market opened up, shopping around for your water can improve your bottom line, but it still comes through the same mains. Under certain circumstances its supply could be compromised. The water regulator, Ofwat, expects water companies to prioritise consumers over businesses when demands on supply are high, managing their water resources so that this happens. A Water UK report in 2016 suggests climate change and growing demands on supply could all threaten continuity of supply to businesses. We are observing a growing business trend, to seek alternative water sources to towns’ mains, without compromising quality.
A secure water source – The boring alternative
So what are the options for businesses who want to be sure they can access water whenever they need it? During a hot 2006 with hose-pipe bans, the Royal Horticultural Society secured their water supply for the Chelsea Flower Show. They sunk a 100 metre deep borehole in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. This eliminates any future restriction of water supply in times of drought, avoids third party infrastructure problems and generates long term financial savings.
Using boreholes is not a new practice. According to British Geological Survey there are vast numbers of private supplies across the UK that abstract groundwater for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses. In 2015, more than 4,000 boreholes, as well as some large springs, were being used for large private, industrial or agricultural supplies. This trend is also driven by rapid returns on investment. Some large dairy farms have reportedly returned their investment in under 9 months.
Other alternatives surface
Boreholes are not the only option for alternative water sources. Other businesses look to surface water, lakes and streams, driven by close proximity and high prices to get mains water to them. Some connections to the mains are prohibitively expensive requiring many yards of piping to be laid. Drawing large quantities of water for manufacturing and processing from ground or surface water requires an abstraction licence for volumes over 20,000 litres a day.
Some coastal businesses may consider looking to sea. Sophisticated desalination technologies are proven and bankable. The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) predicts that desalination plants could become more common on UK coastlines and estuaries by 2050. By then the number of desalination plants across the world will more than double with a further 18,500 becoming operational. IChemE estimates that at least four municipal desalination plants and up to 800 smaller units could be providing water to industry in the UK.
Looking for alternatives to mains water makes long term financial sense as water prices continue to rise. Water companies are committed to investing £44 billion between 2015 and 2020 on infrastructure improvements to prevent leaks. Studies show that over the past decade water prices have risen by as much as 82% within some regions of the UK. Many businesses have concluded that creating and managing their own water supply infrastructure delivers greater control of their overheads.
Getting your own water
So what infrastructure is needed? All abstraction systems require piping, pumping, water storage and water treatment. For boreholes, drilling and lining is needed together with geological expertise to find a suitable ground water source. An effective water treatment system will deliver the water quality required. It’s important to talk to water treatment specialists who can analyse your water, discuss quantities of water you require, understand your water use and tailor a cost-effective solution. This can include filtration, disinfection and softening, depending on the water source.
Surface water will contain suspended and colloidal solids. Dust dirt, and decayed vegetation are just some of the common materials. Removing solids protects downstream processes, eliminating expensive downtime. Physical separation with an ultrafiltration polishing stage is often the most cost effective treatment to remove solids from the water.
While groundwater is unlikely to contain solids, it may be contaminated with naturally occurring elements. These include arsenic, radon or uranium, traces of pesticides and other chemicals. Reverse osmosis systems and activated carbon filters provide a cost effective solution to remove these.
Drinking raw water from streams and rivers is a growing trend in America, but wise people recognise the associated acute and chronic risks. Expect to find bacteria, viruses, and parasites associated with animal faeces in raw water. You are also likely to store your abstracted water, encouraging additional microbial growth, so disinfection is an important part of your treatment system. Ultrafiltration, chlorination and UV treatment are all effective technologies for creating potable water.
When will your business look for alternatives?
The water industry in the UK is changing with the increasing pressures made upon it. There will be an estimated 77 million people consuming water in the UK by 2050. The Environment Agency predicts more extreme weather conditions, heralding drought and potential interruption of supply. Regulators are already considering changes to the water abstraction regime.
Businesses should consider whether it’s time to look at alternative secure water sources and the long term savings they could deliver. While sustainable water use is high on the corporate agenda, water security should also be part of your resource planning.