When is containerized water treatment the best option?

April 7, 2023
Containerized water treatment offers a more portable source of clean water but is not ideal in every scenario. Read on to discover when it is best to use them.

Choosing the right water treatment technology involves many smaller considerations. Picking between purification methods is the most obvious factor to consider, but the form factor of these facilities matters, too. One increasingly popular option is containerized water treatment. 

Mobile water treatment is growing rapidly, with experts expecting it to be a $9.5 billion industry by 2031. Of course, popularity alone does not mean these systems are ideal for every situation. While containerized treatment centers are excellent for some applications, they are not feasible in others long-term. 

What Is Containerized Water Treatment? 

As the name implies, containerized water treatment offers a complete purification system within a portable container. More often than not, they sit inside standard shipping containers, which are typically either 20 or 40 feet long and 8-feet wide. However, custom-built fabricated steel enclosures are also available, offering a wider range of shapes and sizes. 

Regardless of the container type in question, these structures house treatment technologies like reverse osmosis or nanofiltration systems, testing areas, piping and pumps. Some also include noise insulation, safety showers, chemical storage or HVAC systems. 

Once these containers arrive on site, you only need to connect them to power, a water source and any other relevant pipe systems. You can then begin treating water within the container the same way you would with a larger, more conventional facility. 

Benefits of Containerized Water Treatment 

To know when to opt for a containerized system, you first need to understand what they can offer. Here is a closer look at three of their most significant benefits. 

Portability 

The most obvious advantage of containerized water treatment is that it is portable. Storing water purification systems in a shipping container makes them small enough to move and does not require any extra packaging to protect them in shipment. Organizations can load these mobile units directly onto ships or trucks for transport, then unload and use them almost immediately. 

That portability is ideal for rapid expansion before a company can set up larger, more permanent facilities. Movements like the USDA’s recent $102 million investment to expand water access in rural areas promote this expansion, but building permanent facilities takes time. Containerized systems provide a faster alternative. 

20-foot shipping containers offer an even more portable solution, ideal for mobile fieldwork. As companies move around to test different areas, they can take these systems with them, requiring little more than a truck to haul them. 

Affordability

Containerized water treatment may also be more affordable than more conventional facilities. Part of that affordability comes from their smaller, portable nature. Using existing shipping containers minimizes infrastructure requirements and reduces material needs, leading to faster lead times and lower production costs. 

Containerized systems’ low installation requirements further drive down their upfront expenses. Construction can be unpredictable, with projects undergoing six budget changes and five schedule changes on average. Because containers require minimal installation in the first place, companies can avoid much of this complication, minimizing related costs. 

Bodies like the U.S. Water Alliance are trying to make water prices more equitable, and achieving that requires lowering treatment costs. Containerized systems’ minimal upfront expenses could help organizations reach those goals. 

Scalability 

This affordability and portability combine to enable another benefit — scalability. Because containerized water treatment is easy to move and does not cost much to install, it makes it easier to scale operations up or down according to fluctuating needs. 

If a utility company already has a more conventional treatment facility but faces rapidly rising demand, it can install containerized systems for temporary relief. The quick setup and relative affordability of these units let the business expand its operations quickly, while larger facilities take time to build. Similarly, if demand drops and the utility needs to cut costs, they can remove these units easily. 

Global water usage has steadily increased since the 1980s, so while many operations may not need to scale down, quick capacity increases can be helpful. Demand may also fluctuate between areas as people move, so even as overall demand rises, facilities may still need scalability both ways.  

Disadvantages of Containerized Water Treatment 

These benefits are impressive, but it is important to recognize that containerized water treatment has unique downsides, too. You must weigh both sides to determine if containerization is the best option for your specific needs. 

High Maintenance Needs 

One of the biggest drawbacks of containerized systems is that maintaining them can be complex and expensive. Their compact form factor, while ideal for transport, makes it difficult to perform even basic maintenance like filter replacements. You may have to remove multiple pieces of equipment first to have enough space, adding considerable time. 

It is also worth noting that the shipping containers these systems use weren’t built with water treatment in mind. Consequently, the interiors may not feature sufficient corrosion protection, leaving them vulnerable to rust if any water leaks. These leaks are likely to affect a small, concentrated area, which is ultimately far more damaging than more generalized rust occurrences, jeopardizing the system. 

These risks and complex maintenance requirements can make repairs time-consuming and raise related costs. That inefficiency and expense may counteract the benefits you enjoy from these systems in some scenarios. 

Diminishing Returns 

Factors like these long, high-cost repairs hint at another issue with containerized treatment. While these systems are often more affordable upfront, they eventually reach a point of diminishing returns at scale. 

Some local governments may require features like fire protection and noise insulation that do not come standard in containerized systems. Implementing these can quickly raise their costs. In facilities with high infrastructure needs, these additions may make containerization a less cost-effective option overall. 

It is also important to consider these containers’ limited capacity. Many facilities will need more than one, and the costs of customizing, installing and maintaining multiple containers will eventually outweigh the operating costs of a more conventional system. 

Determining if Containerized Treatment Is Right for You 

Understanding these benefits and disadvantages is the first step to knowing if containerized water treatment is right for you. Once you know what these systems offer and where they fall short, you can compare these factors to your needs. 

Generally speaking, containerized treatment is best for small-scale or temporary treatment needs. Most industrial or infrastructure-grade use cases may need higher-capacity systems, but independent residential applications can benefit from containers’ size and affordability. As regulations like California’s ongoing water restrictions incentivize homeowners to create their own clean water sources, containers may offer the most accessible option. 

Containerized treatment is also ideal for emergency water needs. Situations like Jackson, Mississippi’s 2022 water system emergency can result in hundreds of thousands of residents needing a new source of clean water. Containers’ quick setup and near-term affordability make them an optimal solution, especially because cities can send them elsewhere once the emergency is over. 

Containers may also be ideal as a temporary expansion as utility companies build more permanent infrastructure. While they are not cost-effective long-term on large scales, they can help meet immediate water needs during the lengthy construction process of more traditional facilities. 

Containerized Water Treatment Has Many Applications 

Containerized water treatment systems’ portability and upfront affordability make them a highly flexible option, but they are not ideal for every situation. Understanding when and where to apply them will help water companies and other users make the best decisions for their needs. 

Water treatment comes in many forms today, each with unique benefits and disadvantages. Learning more about them is an important step in optimizing your water systems. 

About the Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is the editor in chief of Revolutionized, a popular science publication that dives into the latest innovations in science, technology and industry. 

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