How to drive effective water treatment and management at your facility

March 29, 2021
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Kevin Milici discuses regulations and technological advances affecting water quality.

Kevin Milici is the executive VP of marketing and technology for Kurita America, a global leader in water solutions and one of the world’s largest suppliers of water treatment equipment, chemistries and services. The Kurita Group takes an integrated solutions approach to water treatment, looking for the root cause of a plant’s real problem or inefficiency, and developing a site-specific remedy. Plant Services chief editor Thomas Wilk spoke with Kevin late last year on the role that maintenance and reliability teams play to drive effective water treatment and management.

PS: What kinds of contact does Kurita America have with customers like the "Plant Services" audience? Is it an advisory capacity where you introduce new technologies to these teams?

KM: We have a very robust approach to the relationships we build at the plant level. That ranges everything from plant management, the plant manager, engineering, operations, environmental, health and safety, sustainability functions, maintenance services. To complement that, we do the same at the corporate level, where we're working with a corporation regarding a specific plant or an entire fleet. Those main kinds of functions are replicated at the headquarters level, if you will, and we try and manage our benefits that we provide and the interactions between both those groups.

We have a regulatory environment that is definitely getting tougher for our customers. I know there's been a lot of talk in the political environment about relaxing regulations and that sort of thing. I don't really see that happening in practice in the water space. If anything, I see it going the opposite direction because of the influence at the state level.

There are and will be increased regulatory challenges in the acquisition, use, and discharge of water, which isn't getting any easier. We have sustainability issues and problems with water scarcity all over North America and the world. Over the next decade or so, water is not going to be the "don't think about it, it's a given" kind of a resource that it once was. It is, in certain parts of the world and in this, a precious commodity, and the availability, the cost of acquiring it, and the quality of it will shift.

The reason I raise those issues is that as we talk with those functional managers that we're discussing, the whole attitude, attention to, inquisitiveness of our customers and prospective customers is a pretty steep upward-swinging curve. It was always strong from an operational point of view, and protecting and ensuring asset integrity over time or heat transfer efficiency, for example, but now it's got a whole new twist. And that twist is, (water quality) is getting the attention it deserves because of all the drivers that are out there.

PS: You know, it's really interesting you mentioned the issue of water quality and freshwater availability. I don't mention this very often because I think people would find it strange, but I waited to start a family until I resettled back here in Chicago where we are next to Lake Michigan, and that issue of water is not going to be the same issue as it is elsewhere in this country. It mattered a great deal to me to give my kids a head start in a place where easy access to fresh water was one less concern, and I do believe that concern is going to grow over the next 30, 40, 50 years.

KM: Oh, no doubt about it. For a business like ours, we're very focused on corporate social responsibility, and that whole issue really plays into our equation. You may have heard a lot about purposeful branding: that people, and not only in their personal lives, but increasingly in the B2B environment, buy from companies because of what they do and what their philosophy is towards certain societal issues, right. About 30 years ago, the leadership of Kurita Water Industries in Japan formulated the following company philosophy … "Study the properties of water, master them, and we will create an environment in which man and nature are in harmony."

I've been in this business a long time, and I saw those words for the first time about two years ago, and it really inspired me. I mean, that is our mission, and we're finding that in those discussions with our customers or prospective customers, there's an increasing sensitivity to, respect for, and curiosity on how that translates to my plant or my company or my unit operation, whether it's wastewater, generating steam, or cooling.

Listen to the entire interview

PS: That's a genuinely inspiring mission statement. When you do come into contact with these plants, do you see the maintenance and reliability teams working on these missions to improve sustainability, and move toward zero-waste, those sort of goals?

KM: No doubt about it. And not just maintenance and reliability teams, but there's all kinds of functional areas involved. Again, the title sustainability hasn't been around that long, right. Now you're seeing it not only at the corporate level, but at the plant level, and even assigned to other functions; as you go through the organizational chain, that sustainability word is increasingly there.

PS: When it comes to digital technologies for energy management and reliability, where on the spectrum would you say that the utilities that you work with, the wastewater treatment utilities, where are they positioned? Are the utilities early adopters, fast followers, or somewhere in between?

KM: I see it as two bookends and there is the whole spectrum in between. So I don't think it would be fair or accurate to say that the utilities, in aggregate, are on either one of those ends of the spectrum. It's somewhere in between: it's driven by the company, driven by their leadership, driven by the nature of what they do.

For example, if they're already heavily engaged in the IoT space themselves, the likelihood that they're going to have an IoT and a digital orientation, in my experience, is probably higher than if they’re not. And, it's just so much around us and so much part of the fabric of our world today, that it's really tough to deny the role and value of digitization. It all boils down to getting the right information into the hands of the right people, in a form they want it, when they want it, and that they can act upon.

To me, digitization is a fantastic opportunity to enable the untapped greatness that all these professionals that plants have. Sometimes they don't have the bandwidth to focus on it because they're doing other more conventional things. To me, digitization and IoT represent an opportunity to liberate the intellect that people have, and give them the freedom to think at much higher levels to do things, because some of the other more routine and tactical things are being helped through the digitization.

PS: You mentioned earlier the issue of increasingly stringent regulations that are being put in place, and they will likely not be getting any less stringent regardless of the administration in the U.S. These digital technologies, we have found, can give plant teams peace of mind because once you do get the system in place and the technologies in place, the data collection and storage and especially compliance is all automated. As you say, it's one less thing to think about.

KM: You know, in this century, technology is just evolving at a rapid pace and  digital sensing is upon us, which basically means that there's a lot of information stored in that sensor itself. You know, when's the last time it was replaced? Is it performing to specification? Is it likely to fail? I mean, there's all kinds of intelligence just at the point of measurement.

A good example of how that comes into practice is, one of the regulations that's definitely increasing is the discharge of phosphates into the environment. Phosphate-bearing chemistries are a traditional mainstay of corrosion control and scale control in cooling water systems. Well, the problem with a phosphate, when it gets into the river, or the lake, or the ocean, or all three, is that it's a nutrient, and is an engine in the creation of unhealthy algal blooms. If (the discharge) happened somewhere in the upper Midwest, it ultimately finds its way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and you wind up with a scenario where massive areas of the Gulf of Mexico are dead zones.

Finding ways to mitigate that regulatory challenge involves not only chemistry changes and introducing the technologies and materials that achieve the same technical performance but do not contain phosphorus, but also the measurement and control and monitoring of those technologies to make sure that they're performing to the degree they need to. It's an interesting web of challenge and opportunity.

PS: I've got a friend in New Orleans who sometimes teases me and says, "Will you please stop dumping stuff in our river?" And I'm here in Chicago. There's a multiplier effect at the endpoint which a lot of the people upstream never see.

KM: Out of sight, out of mind. That's why states like Wisconsin have been very, very stringent on that issue. And they're thinking not only of their own water quality, but they have an attitude of responsibility and respect for all the downstream impact.

PS: When it comes to the technologies that firms like Kurita are developing to support the mission of the maintenance reliability operation sector, what technologies are you excited about, and possibly including that corrosion control technology you were talking about?

KM: There's a wide gamut that I can answer that question with. First of all, let me just step back a little bit and say, when I visited our new parent company in Tokyo for the first time last year, I had the chance to visit one of the global technology centers (there are several of them around the world in Europe, in Singapore, in Japan) and it was just an amazing sight, the level of investment in technology innovation. There's a lot of talk with words like that out there, but I really saw it up close and very personal, the depth and breadth of that investment, both from a water treatment equipment point of view and from a chemistry point of view.

To answer your question more specifically, there are technologies that enable us now to replace conventional treatments that involve multiple treatments, with a single treatment. For example, (one of these is) film-forming amine technology. The investments in automation and control for different plant operations such as wastewater on sensor technologies and control systems that very effectively and efficiently control the dosing of coagulants, for example, to a wastewater system, and do it in such a way that at the end of the day, the propensity for a system to either to overfeed chemical and waste chemical (or underfeed it) based upon changing conditions is mitigated. We have a commercial offer called S.sensing CS that does that.

Another one that just comes to mind would be the topic of water reclamation. Take a system such as a cooling tower, that bleeds off a certain amount of water continuously to maintain a certain chemistry situation that is manageable from a corrosion and scale point of view. Well, that's a lot of water that often goes right to the wastewater plant and winds up getting discharged. What we do is integrate solutions that involve not only chemistry – for example, membrane treatment chemicals, along with filtration membrane equipment, like ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis – to create these integrated packages or compact modules that take cooling tower blowdown and, instead of sending discharging it to the shore, recondition it if you will, and it becomes the makeup water back into the cooling system. This reduces a tremendous amount of freshwater consumption, going back to our water scarcity issue, and at the same time it mitigates discharge challenges, both from a volume and a water quality point of view.

Corporate social responsibility, when it comes to issues such as environmental sustainability, is not a zero-sum game with growing a profitable business. Now, the trick is that they are complementary to each other. Our attitude is that we have a great financial future because of the opportunities to help ourselves and our customers improve their social responsibility.

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