Science is everywhere—especially in your purified water

 

If you’ve been following Aquastructure, our monthly blog series that breaks down all the details about how we bring fresh drinking water to our customers, then you know we put a great deal of effort into purifying our water.

From filtering out dirt and debris to zapping away bacteria and adjusting pH levels, we closely monitor our water at the source, during treatment and after treatment to ensure the final product meets and exceeds regulatory requirements.

In the past, we’ve discussed the different types of filtration processes for both surface water treatment and groundwater treatment, but we wanted to dig even deeper into the scientific details. We sat down with Director of Treatment for Aqua Pennsylvania Matt Miller, whose team is responsible for optimizing the treatment of drinking water and wastewater throughout their state, to clear things up. (Pun intended.)

Welcome to the fantastic world of filtration!

If you take one thing away from this blog, we hope it’s the importance of coagulants in the filtration process. Coagulants are vital chemicals that help tiny pieces of debris particles in surface water stick together and form larger clumps so they can easily be removed from the water.

All those organic particles that creep into the surface water have a negative charge. The coagulants, meanwhile, have a positive charge, meaning that they act like magnets and repel against each other when combined. When this happens, we’re able to neutralize those unwanted particles. They begin to stick together, which makes it easy to flush them out of the water.

Remember these diagrams? Behold: Coagulation and filtration!

Coagulants aren’t the only substances working wonders on our water, though. There’s also sand, gravel, and anthracite, which more or less act as filters.

“If you have ever been to the beach, poured a pail of water onto the sand, and watched it disappear, you have witnessed filtration,” Miller explained.

Just like sand at the beach, in a water filter, the water moves down through tiny pores in sand and gravel, trapping all of the little particles that don’t need to be in our drinking water. From there, the filtered water flows through an ion-exchange filter that trades undesirable contaminants, like calcium and magnesium ions, for harmless substances, such as potassium or sodium. 

Aerate, chlorinate, repeat.

Sometimes, the pH levels in surface water and groundwater are a little out of whack. That’s because when carbon dioxide is in the water, it forms a weak acid called carbonic acid. Carbonic acid isn’t very fun for the body to digest, so we implement a process called aeration, which is a fancy term for the addition of air into the water. This removes any carbon dioxide and normalizes pH levels.

Last, but definitely not least, is chlorination. According to Miller, the use of chlorine is the most common and effective process for disinfecting drinking water. This powerful substance is used to kill bacteria and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. However, too much chlorine is no good, so our operators carefully monitor the amount of chlorine added to each batch of water. 

Welcome to chlorination nation!

How does chlorine work, you may ask?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that chlorine, which is an oxidizing agent, has a neutral charge, meaning that it’s able to sneak into the negatively-charged pathogens and destroy them so they don’t multiply and make us sick. 

With all this talk of positive, negative and neutral charges, do you feel like you’re back in elementary school science class? We sure do!

It’s time to get sludgy. 

Now that we’ve covered the science of our drinking water, let’s talk about wastewater. We’ve already walked you through what happens to the water after you flush, so you’ll remember that there’s some pretty intensive cleaning done by itty-bitty microscopic organisms. This wastewater cleaning process is appropriately termed The Activated Sludge Process. (Can you think of a cooler name? We sure can’t.)

“Most times, we think of sludge as a bad thing, but in this case, sludge is a community of bacteria that each have a particular function,” Miller says. “The sole purpose for these bacteria is to eat and reproduce.” 

The sludge loves to eat all the not-so-yummy leftovers in our wastewater, like ammonia and nitrate. Interestingly, depending on what type of contaminants the sludge needs to eat, Aqua will monitor the bacteria’s access to oxygen, since the gas can affect the processes. By the end of their meal, the bacteria are full and happy, and our water is ready to head back to the local rivers or streams. 

All this technical talk has us sure of one thing: Science is all around us, from the water we drink to the processes and technologies that make it clean enough to do so. 

Thanks for joining us on another part of our Aquastructure journey. We hope you’ve learned as much as we have!

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What does it take to acquire and upgrade a water system?

 

Let’s be frank: Operating and maintaining water systems is not an easy task, especially when they need tons of infrastructural improvements.  

Earlier in our Aquastructure blog series, we shed a bit of light on the state of our nation’s water infrastructureand pointed out that most of the pipelines we depend on each and every day were built at the start of the 20thcentury. In the present day, all of that infrastructure is near the end of its life, which means that upkeep and updates are a pressing need. 

Considering those challenges, how does a company like Aqua continue to provide efficient and affordable service? It all comes down to the water systems Aqua acquires, along with regular updates to existing infrastructure.

Craig Blanchette, president of Aqua Illinois, checked in to give us some insight into Aqua’s acquisition and upgrade processes. 


Blanchette (third from right in sunglasses) with fellow Aqua Illinois employees during a local volunteer project.

More water, less problems

Since 1995, Aqua has acquired more than 300 water systems, most of which are from municipalities (which own 85 percent of the nation’s water systems). However, sometimes those systems come from other sources, such as smaller regulated utilities, homeowners associations, water and sewer districts, and developer-owned systems. 

As the number of water systems in Aqua’s network grows, the efficiency and affordability of its services grow, too. The theory at play here is “economies of scale,” which is the economic principle that the more goods or services can be produced at a larger scale, the higher the savings in costs.

“By adding customers, Aqua is able to spread these fixed costs over a larger customer base, alleviating much of the burden from our new and existing customers,” Blanchette explains. 

What happens if Aqua wants to acquire a new system?

When Aqua is preparing to acquire a new system, typically Aqua and the other party—whether it’s a municipality or some other organization—begin by sitting down and talking shop (think inspections and negotiations). This can take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. The goal is to create a partnership which benefits the community.

After that, an asset purchase agreement is created, which outlines all the details of the transaction, such as pricing and inclusion of assets. The APA must then be approved by the state public utility commission, which takes about six months to a year. During the PUC approval process, an administrative law judge takes on the case, and expert witnesses, like engineers, accountants and financial advisors, must evaluate and vouch for the legitimacy and benefits of the proposed acquisition. 

Once the agreement is reviewed, modified and approved by the administrative law judge it is then forwarded to the PUC for its final approval. Once this is complete, Aqua can sit down with the seller and officially take ownership.  

And then it’s smooth sailing?

With the right due diligence, yes! A lot of these existing water systems must be assessed to ensure everything is up to speed. In most cases, many of the system’s assets are underground and cannot be easily inspected.

“In these cases, we rely heavily on the maintenance records of the municipality in determining where future replacements are needed,” Blanchette notes. 

The most common upgrade is water main replacements, which are predominantly located underground and are often left out of a municipality’s investment plan. Blanchette adds that water service lines, main line valves and fire hydrants are also among the areas of a water system that may need more attention. 

“These assets are incredibly important because they are the backbone of any community,” Blanchette says. “Reliability of a water system is important in providing Earth’s most essential resource.” 

Whenever Aqua acquires a new system, they prepare a new capital investment plan to help determine where and when adjustments and updates are needed in each system’s infrastructure. Aqua then reevaluates that plan to determine future improvement needs. From that point forward, investment in the existing infrastructure is constant. 

It seems to be a team effort.

Very much so! Aqua works closely with the communities it serves andregularly meets with community members to coordinate all these infrastructure improvement projects. 

For example, if Aqua wants to do a water main or sewer replacement, they’ll first run it by the local road authority to plan resources accordingly. 

 

“If a road authority is planning to resurface a roadway where Aqua is also looking to replace a water or sewer main, it saves our customers the cost of restoring the roadway,” Blanchette explains.  

Now that is what we call synergy. 

Thanks for tuning in, water and sewer connoisseurs! We’ll see you next month! 

 

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Shedding light on the state of U.S. water infrastructure

 

From filling up the bathtub to boiling a pot of water to watering the plants, we rely on a ton of water for our daily needs and activities. 

And because water utilities like Aqua work so hard behind the scenes to make it seamless, it can be easy to take Earth’s most essential resource for granted. However, there’s a lot more that goes into our steady and reliable water supply than meets the eye. In fact, sometimes you have to go hundreds of feet underground to see it. 

The intricacies of water infrastructure tend to be out of sight and out of mind for many of us, and we wanted to shed a bit of light on the state of all those systems. So, we talked with Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin to get the scoop on the state of water infrastructure systems across the United States. 


Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin (left), employees and board members tour an Aqua facility in Illinois.

You mentioned water infrastructure. What does that look like?

First, let’s go back in time to the beginning of the 20thcentury, which is when the U.S. started laying miles and miles of pipelines deep within the Earth (one million miles, to be exact). These are the pipes that collect water from the ground and surface sources and transport it all the way to your tap. 

The good news is that underground water pipes last up to 100 years, so this infrastructure has provided us with reliable drinking water throughout the past century. The bad news, though, is that a lot of time has passed and those pipes desperately need to be replaced. 

How desperately? 

Well, every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the current status of water and wastewater infrastructure across the nation. Let’s just say it wasn’t a report card you’d want to bring home to mom and dad. (Spoiler alert: the United States got a D). 

Here’s the thing: we are facing a very serious water quality challenge in the U.S. due to aging water systems, stringent drinking water and wastewater regulations, and budgetary constraints. The time to take action is now.

Tell me more about this dilemma…

According to Franklin, many aging water systems are falling behind because it’s simply too pricey for communities to upgrade or replace all those old, deteriorating pipelines. And we’re talking big bucks: according to the American Water Works Association, we need about $1 trillion over the next 20 years to get water infrastructure to where it should be. 

Most of the country’s water systems are municipally managed, and the truth of the matter is that municipalities having competing priorities for funds to improve and replace the pipes. They have to prioritize water projects with other needs like schools, police and fire departments, roadways, and bridges, which can be rather tricky. However, prolonging investment in water infrastructure improvements can have serious consequences on the safety and quality of our drinking water over time. 

“Although the challenge to the U.S. water infrastructure is less visible than other infrastructure concerns, it’s no less important,” Franklin reminds us.  


Pipes, pipes, and more pipes: Looks like infrastructure! 

What about Aqua’s water? 

“Since Aqua’s only focus is on water, Aqua customers can feel confident that we are actively updating and upgrading infrastructure to meet the needs of their families and communities,” Franklin says. 

This means new pipes, efficient treatments from the source through the plant, and sturdy storage tanks for all. Additionally, Franklin assures us that because investment in water infrastructure is a key pillar of Aqua’s business strategy, Aqua customers can continue to expect clean, safe, and reliable drinking water and wastewater services

Back to the infrastructure dilemma. There has to be a solution, right?

Thankfully, yes, and that’s where Aqua comes into play. Over the past several decades, Aqua has teamed up with and acquired many municipal and private water companies that are struggling to keep up with their water and wastewater systems and injected some much-needed capital into their aging water systems. 

Plus, when Aqua makes these infrastructure improvements, cost-effectiveness is always kept in mind. That means that we take measures like purchasing pipes in bulk and using scientific approaches to tracking main break history, pipe age and more to ensure that rate increases are kept to a minimum for the benefit of our customers.  

 Our board looks forward to any opportunity to learn more about Aqua’s infrastructure systems.

In just 2017 alone, Aqua invested a ton of money (as in more than $450 million) in water and wastewater infrastructure, and since 2007, Aqua has acquired (and drastically improved) 174 water and wastewater systems. Looking forward, you can expect Aqua to play a leading role in fixing up many of these deteriorating water systems. 

“Aqua is committed to renewing and improving water and wastewater infrastructure through thoughtful and continuous capital investment,” Franklin adds.

 The next time you take a sip of water or wash your hands in the sink, try to remember all the hard-working Aqua team members that are dedicated every day to bring you clean and safe water. See you back here next month, where we’ll reveal the best kept secret to safe, reliable drinking water.  

 

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Taking a Green Glimpse at Aqua’s Eco-Friendly Initiatives

Now that we’ve covered the different processes by which Aqua treats and distributes water, it’s time to take a step back and look at how we keep it green. With Earth Day right around the corner, we were curious about all the eco-friendly and sustainable ways in which Aqua does its part for our planet. But first, we wanted to know: why is it so important to be “green” in the first place?

To find out, we spoke with Aqua team members Krista Scheirer, environmental specialist, Mark Bubel, project engineer, and Chris Crockett, vice president and chief environmental officer. And we’re not exaggerating when we say they gave us a lot to think about.

What’s all this talk about a carbon footprint?

You’ve probably read about this concept at some point, but every person, place and object in this world has a carbon footprint.

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide each entity releases into the air and serves as a way of measuring our impact on the environment. The larger the carbon footprint, the greater the damage is to our environment.

What does Aqua think about all of this?

Because the decisions we make today are crucial to ensuring that we have reliable sources of drinking water in the future, Aqua is always on the lookout for improvement projects and opportunities that will help us function as sustainably as possible. In fact, our processes are already quite eco-friendly!

Good to know, but how exactly?

Let’s start with the easiest process: groundwater treatment. Because groundwater is typically quite clean from being filtered in the infiltration process, it doesn’t require too much work. So even when it does require some extra TLC, we’re able to keep our treatment’s carbon footprint to a minimum.

That’s not so hard. Right?

Well, surface water treatment is a bit trickier. We protect our surface water sources as much as possible, because the cleaner the water is when it reaches the treatment plants, the less chemicals and power are required to treat it.

Additionally, we use renewable energy at many of our treatment facilities (think: LED lighting and solar panels) and frequently replace old pipes and meters, which significantly reduces water loss.

Finally, remember the various materials (hint: mainly dirt) that get filtered out of surface water during the treatment process? Well, at Aqua, we are exploring “upcycling” those waste materials to make things like bricks.

Hold up. How can you prevent waste from going to waste?

Back in the third installation in our Aquastructure series, we talked about how microorganisms are dumped into the wastewater to get rid of organic matter containing carbon and nitrogen.

In order for these microorganisms to work, they need oxygen. So much, in fact, that feeding the microorganisms oxygen usually accounts for more than half of the energy used at the plants. (Yep, you read that right: HALF!) To improve efficiency and cut back on oxygen, we installed sensors that adjust and recirculate oxygen levels, which ensures that all our precious energy and oxygen isn’t going to waste. 

Meanwhile, those microorganisms are alive, so they begin to grow and reproduce, forming a nutrient-rich “sludge.” In the past, this sludge was pumped out of the tanks and sent straight to a landfill. However, we figured there must be a better way to deal with this sludge, so we found a solution to get rid of it once and for all.

This is where anaerobic digester tanks come in. These digesters mix and heat the sludge, which significantly reduces the remaining amount. The leftover bits and pieces of sludge can then be reused for fertilizer. Yum!

Ok, so it’s not so simple after all.

No, not really! And this only covers our eco-friendly practices when it comes to our treatment plants. At Aqua, we also host staff volunteer days for tree plantings, stream cleanups and habitat restorations. Our foundation contributes funding to dozens of environmental groups, and we work with more than 50 community organizations and regulatory agencies on water quality improvement projects.

Oh, and did we mention that Aqua facilities are home to many local ecosystems and endangered species? It’s true: From bird sanctuaries to diverse landscapes to valuable forests, we do our very best to protect these resources for the magnificent wildlife and aquatic life, and, of course, future generations.

Here’s the thing: Aqua completely relies on the health of our natural resources. Whatever we do to the land, the air or the water ultimately finds its way back into our wells and reservoirs. Aqua doesn’t just want to make sustainable decisions for the environment—we need to. 

 

Be sure to tune in next month when we jump into the current state of water infrastructure in the U.S. and discover how it impacts each and every one of us.

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Digging Deep into Groundwater Treatment

Welcome back to Aquastructure, our year-long blog series where we help you, loyal water user, become a real-life expert on all things H2O. We’re going behind the scenes of Aqua’s daily operations to break down all the complicated systems that work together to bring you clean, refreshing water each and every day.

Last month, we learned all about surface water and the treatment process that goes into making water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs clean and crisp. This month, we’ll tackle groundwater and learn a bit about how that water becomes something we actually can put into our bodies.

We turned to Alissa Vanim, manager of environmental compliance at Aqua New Jersey and Joe Mingle, director of operations at Aqua New Jersey, to get the 411 on groundwater treatment.

So what makes groundwater special?

Let’s start with the most obvious fact: groundwater comes from—drum roll, please—the ground. Deep within the earth, there are underground wells that collect buckets beyond buckets of water from aquifers, which are layers of rock and soil that transmit water. Those aquifers contain water from a mix of natural sources, such as precipitation (like rain or snow) and nearby rivers and streams.

But that well water isn’t as drinkable as we’d like—it’s been hanging out in the dark hundreds of feet below the ground, after all.  

Okay, but how does the groundwater leave the ground?

After a while, those wells fill up, and it’s time for all that groundwater to see the light of day. So off it goes to a treatment plant, where the water undergoes various treatment processes depending on its quality. This may include a bit of the ion-exchange process. The ion-exchange process sounds super complicated, but it’s really just a mix of positively and negatively charged ions doing some black magic to remove contaminants such as nitrate, fluoride, sulfate and arsenic.

Is that all?

Of course not—that’d be too easy. There are also activated-carbon contactors that absorb other chemicals that don’t belong in our drinking water. This improves the taste of the water and removes odors as well.

Sometimes nuisance metals, like iron or manganese, seep into the water, so that’s where sequestration comes in. This process makes sure the water isn’t discolored or metallic.

Lastly, there’s aeration, which raises the pH levels and removes CO2 gases from the groundwater. All in all, this pre-treatment process is just a necessary step we have to take to remove a ton of harmful pollutants from our water. 

Is the next stop chlorination?

Back in the day, waterborne diseases wreaked havoc on society. But thanks to chlorination, all those harmful bacteria and viruses (think: salmonella, E-Coli, Coliform, Legionella and fecal coliform) get destroyed so we can go on living happy, healthy, hydrated lives.

Once all that water has been chlorinated, it moves on to post-treatment. Here, green sand filters pull out any additional iron manganese and hydrogen sulfide to achieve optimal water quality. Finally, post-treatment chlorination is added as the last process before delivery.

Can I get the water now?

Now that the water is clean, it’s time to send it off to you, the water customers of the world. If the water is not immediately needed, it is transported into large, elevated storage tanks. From there, all that safe, drinkable water gets distributed to you via underground pipes so that you can drink it, cook with it, wash with it or flush it away to your heart’s desire.

Ta-da! That’s all for groundwater treatment, folks. Join us next month, where we’ll provide all of the (dirty) details on wastewater. 

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