More Value for the Customer

March 1, 2006

About the author: Matthew Sweetman is vice president and general manager of Watts Premier. He can be reached at 623.505.1516.

There is continued debate over the cost benefits of point-of-use versus centralized treatment of water. It is true that the process for centralized, or wellhead, treatment is easier to complete. It has been the most common way to treat water for more than a century, so people in the industry are familiar with the engineering treatment design, approval and building process.

The process for most centralized treatment systems is the same: There is a contaminant identified; the water system consults with an engineer; the engineer designs and develops a treatment system; it is sent to the state or county for approval; and once approved, it is built. However, there are questions associated with this process. Does the water system really get what it wants? Do the customers, whose bills have increased, benefit from centralized treatment?

When a new water contaminant is identified or regulated, this process begins again. There is more time and more meetings and costs associated with the modification or addition of a treatment system to reduce the new contaminant.

Where will it end? More importantly, how much is the average consumer willing to pay for water? Across the U.S., new articles are reporting double-digit annual rate increases. It is not uncommon for water rates to be $40 per month, with an additional $30 to 40 per month for sewer.

Struggle for Compliance

Now that the arsenic deadline has passed (unless you are in a state that has granted extensions or exemptions), many arsenic treatment plants are going online across the country, and with them, we are learning real-world costs as opposed to estimated quotes. There is no doubt that wellhead treatment is the way to go for large communities, where the millions of dollars spent on the treatment program can be reasonably absorbed by the large population using the system, and amortization of loans over several years.

However, the issue is particularly interesting for smaller communities. If you are plugged into reporting entities, you are hearing about the continued push back from a number of states on arsenic compliance, as well as the high costs for small systems to get into compliance. Small communities, as well as non-transient, non-community systems, are seeing rates increase 50%, 100% and in some cases, more than 200% in order to get into compliance. Residents of small communities who are accustomed to paying low flat rates for their water are now paying $50 or more per month.

Again, the question is: What is the value of this additional cost for the consumer?

Decentralized Approach

This is where the point-of-use program really separates itself for the small communities. With the decentralized program, not only are consumers receiving water that is in compliance with the arsenic regulation, but it is also in compliance with many yet-to-be-created regulations. I have heard recently that many areas affected by arsenic in the southwest also may have issues with uranium and perchlorate. A properly implemented decentralized system utilizing RO technology will have communities in compliance with these water issues before they are even regulated.

A number of major cities have surveyed their customers regarding the quality of their drinking water. Many of these studies have shown that consumers do not notice the primary drinking water contaminants. Rather, they notice the secondary contaminants, such as chlorine, sulfur, turbidity and hardness, which are all culprits of bad-tasting water. This is one major reason why the bottled water industry has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.

Another issue that is gaining attention is the presence of endocrine disruptors (EDs) in water. EDs are synthetic chemicals that, when absorbed into the body, either mimic or block hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functions. EDs that have been identified in water include Valium, steroids, antibiotics, antipsychotics, birth-control hormones and beta blockers. Evidence shows that these are having serious effects on aquatic vertebrates. Concerns such as gender flipping and gender trending are now being seriously researched, and the results are not looking favorable for EDs in the water.

Real-world cases for decentralized RO units cost between $5 and 13 per month depending on the installer and treatment package being used for the system. This is independent of the size of the community, as the cost is linear.

Watts Premier has a number of projects in various points of completion within several different states. Each state has developed its own decentralized guidance program, and some are more restrictive than others. In the end, once there are more decentralized systems in place, and states are more comfortable working with the approval and monitoring processes of decentralized programs, it is likely that many of these additional monitoring and size restrictions will be modified.

Unique Benefits

Decentralized treatment is not for every community, but it does have unique benefits. Wellhead treatment for arsenic works very well for many large communities, but once the system is in place and the water is in compliance with the new arsenic regulation, what real value has been added for consumers? How much will rates increase when the next set of water treatment systems goes into place?

Decentralized treatment with RO brings not only immediate compliance with the new EPA MCL for arsenic, but also the potential to provide additional protection for future compliance issues. In addition, it provides a tangible benefit that can immediately be recognized and appreciated—great-tasting water. The decentralized treatment program is a low-cost compliance program for today, providing peace-of-mind for small communities that are strapped for cash.

About the Author

Matthew Sweetman

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