If there is one municipal utility or government service that’s routinely taken for granted by American citizens it’s sewers, waste water and water quality. We tend not to think too much about where the water that comes out of the tap comes from. And we certainly don’t give it any thought when it goes down the drain or gets flushed.
And while waste water and water quality aren’t things that Americans often ponder, they probably should. The waste water industry is a fascinating one that’s essential for life, and that’s facing some significant challenges. It’s also an industry that’s becoming increasingly high-tech, contrary to what many may believe.
To learn more about the challenges facing municipal waste water organizations and the new technologies that they’re embracing to overcome them, we sat down with Barry Liner, the Chief Technical Officer and Director at the Water Environment Federation. Barry’s organization will be sponsoring the upcoming WEFTEC Conference, which remains – in its 92nd year – the world’s largest and most respected water quality-focused conference.
During our discussion with Barry, we talked about the evolution of waste water utilities – how they’ve matured from organizations that handle waste to product companies. We also talked about the new technologies impacting the industry and what attendees can learn at this year’s WEFTEC Conference. Here is what he had to say:
Modern Equipment Manufacturer (MEM): Can you tell our readers a little bit about WEFTEC? When did the conference get started? What kinds of companies and organizations usually participate?
Barry Liner: WEFTEC is the world’s largest water quality conference and exposition. The event attracts more than 20,000 attendees every year, and this is the 92nd edition of WEFTEC. This year, we have about 1,000 exhibitors and 1,000 technical presentations. It’s a blend of both an expo and a conference.
Many of the attendees are municipal utilities and industrial buyers. Government and elected officials also attend, and there is a special track for them. While private water companies participate, the technical presentations are generally given by water and waste water utilities and the engineers that support them.
The exposition participants include large original equipment manufacturers, large waste water treatment and sewer companies, as well as services companies and innovative IT companies. We even have the Innovation Pavilion where we highlight startups that we have rigorously vetted and feature. Then alumni of that program exhibit right next to the pavilion. The expo, itself, is about the size of 22 football fields.
It’s a very unique event in that it blends technical education with the equipment and supplier expo.
MEM: What are some of the main challenges that government officials and utility companies are facing when it comes to water quality today?
Barry Liner: I think some of the largest challenges that are impacting many of our attendees include aging infrastructure, an aging workforce and a focus on resource recovery. And we can talk about each of those things individually.
When it comes to aging infrastructure, many municipal utilities are dealing with pipes and treatment facilities that are in dire need of upgrade. Water treatment facilities need to upgrade their infrastructure and introduce new treatment solutions and technologies. New equipment is not only more effective, but it’s more energy efficient and can help to reduce costs. This aging infrastructure is expensive to operate, new technologies are greener and more energy efficient.
On the workforce side, there is a problem with aging leadership. We’ve heard about the silver tsunami for years, and it’s starting to become an issue. We need to train a new, emerging generation of water quality and wastewater leaders. We also need to diversify and bring under-represented populations into the industry. WEFTEC has been working to bring these populations into the industry through a program called InFLOW, which promotes STEM education and the waste water industry at historically black colleges and universities. This year, we’ve expanded the program to include additional under-represented including Native Americans and Latinx.
Workforce needs are also changing. Smart water and new technologies are reshaping the industry, and we need a new generation of employees that understands and embraces those technologies.
These organizations are also facing challenges when it comes to sustainability and resiliency. We’ve had a massive paradigm shift where waste water is no longer considered waste. It’s a resource that we can recover and reuse. We’re creating energy, generating fertilizer and finding ways to recycle water back into the potable water supply. We’re making products now, not treating waste. This is important as we deal with resiliency issues. If we do a better job doing resource recovery, waste water can be a resource.
MEM: Many outsiders may not think of the waste water or water quality industry as a high-tech one, but there are undoubtedly many different, popular technologies that are making their way into the industry – including Big Data and data analytics. What would you say are some of the larger technology initiatives across water quality organizations today? What technologies are they investing in right now?
People – especially on the waste water side – tend to generally, “flush and forget it.” But many things happen after the flush. When we talk about intelligent water systems and smart water, many of those technologies that you mentioned – data analytics, the IoT, AI, drones – are being incorporated to solve the problems that we’re facing.
Many of the things that we’re seeing with the aging infrastructure can be improved with advanced asset management techniques. Utilizing sensors, Big Data, data analytics and AI in water treatment facilities can optimize treatment operations, as well as improve capital planning, energy efficiency, and water quality.
Data science is coming into the field. There are companies looking at non-revenue water. Are meters under-registering? Are we losing money? Do we have leaks? Are there sewer overflows? Is watershed management being done effectively? This can be determined with smart sensors. Even drones are now being used to provide evaluation of irrigation needs and asset condition.
Every part of the data analytics revolution is permeating into the water space. And, while we’re seeing a lot of small, smart-water startups, the large companies are investing in their own smart water innovation and R&D. They’re even acquiring smaller companies for their innovative smart water solutions.
MEM: What about the actual water treatment systems and devices that they rely on? Are these systems and devices becoming smarter? Better connected? How is that benefiting the water treatment plants and water quality organizations?
Oh, definitely. When I was talking about asset management, it’s not just the pipes. It’s also the water treatment equipment. We’re looking to make this equipment more energy efficient. We’re looking to optimize those assets. We’re looking to cloud enable it, control it remotely and even do proactive maintenance. By getting the data from these devices into the cloud, we can better utilize AI solutions, analyze data and make more educated, informed decisions.
In fact, one of this year’s innovation winners is a cloud-connected smart pump.
That being said, security is a challenge. When you’re operating critical infrastructure, you need to ensure that it’s all secure. That’s a real challenge for these companies. All of this connectivity used to improve asset management and operations make it vulnerable to cybersecurity threats, which is why you’ll see cybersecurity firms on the expo floor.
MEM: For anyone coming to WEFTEC for the first time, do you have any tips for them so they can get the most out of their experience?
We have a special session on the first day of the conference for first-time attendees. When you talk about an expo that’s larger than 20 football fields in size, it can be daunting. We encourage them to sit through that half-hour session to help them strategize for their visit and learn what to expect.
Also, we’ve introduced a mobile app, and it is a wonderful tool for new attendees. We would encourage all attendees – not just first-time attendees – to download it in advance and use it to plan out their trip. This will let them plan out what technical sessions and exhibitors they want to go to see.
I would also encourage all attendees to be sure to go to the innovation pavilion to see the future of the industry. There will be more than 40 startup companies there that are bringing to bear new technologies that will help to further revolutionize the industry.
We’re also going to be running a beer garden. That beer garden will be serving Pure Water Brews – beer brewed with recycled water. So that’s really exciting.
Finally, we’re running mobile sessions that cover technologies and then guide you over to vendors that can give you technical educations about those solutions. That blends the expo and the educational aspects of the conference and help to maximize an attendee’s time.
For additional information about WEFTEC and to register for this year’s event, click HERE.