Point-of-use (POU) reverse osmosis (RO) membranes often get a bad rap within the water treatment industry for a few reasons: It is a saturated, commoditized market with slimmer margins; there have been minimal technological advancements in system performance; they have a high percentage of wastewater to drinking water; and consumers are demanding greener, less wasteful products.
Despite these issues, RO technology still provides some of the highest-quality water to consumers, and in some areas is the only option to improve drinking water quality. To better understand how industry professionals can regain footholds in RO applications, we first must review the current state of the POU membrane market.
State of the Market
Purveyors of RO membranes created the technology for commercial and industrial applications in the late 1960s. A few decades later, a demand for RO technology in residential applications arose, and the industry standard of thin film/layer composite was developed. Manufacturers and dealers alike capitalized on this new, emerging market, especially in the western parts of the country, where total dissolved solids are a significant issue.
As the marketplace continued to be saturated with similar technologies and consumers’ desire for a more efficient product rose, dealers began to experience reduced margins and profits. With no innovation in the industry for almost two decades, manufacturers were faced with a challenge: They needed to create an RO membrane with the same lifespan and increase efficiency and profit margins without increasing list price.
POU RO element design—specifically the distribution of feedwater to the membrane—has remained somewhat static since the introduction of thin film/layer composite or non-cellulose membranes. Most RO systems, depending on design and operating conditions, dispense 70% to 90% of feedwater to the drain. Many RO systems use a similar membrane and distribute water through the element in the same manner, so there is little opportunity to increase the systems’ efficiency.
Attempts to increase efficiency have related to either adjustments in the size of reject flow controllers or modifications to ancillary components, such as storage tanks. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, but essentially attempt to mitigate the inefficiencies on the back end that are caused by the fundamental design of the RO element.
This lack of efficiency often is used as a selling point against RO systems. With competition in the filtration market, it can be difficult to make end users look beyond the wastefulness of RO to see its benefits, thus making it more challenging to sell RO systems over filtration technologies.
In order to accurately address the efficiency issues of RO membranes, manufacturers need to improve the distribution or flow of feedwater to the membrane without disrupting rejection performance or the daily production rate of the element. The unnecessary additions of ancillary components, like storage tanks, are a disadvantage to dealers because they do little to reduce the amount of feedwater dispensed. New technology is most effective and easily embraced by the marketplace when it is packaged in a configuration that can easily be retrofitted into existing equipment while simplifying the development of new systems.
Necessity of New Technology
Faced with the challenge of increasing efficiency while maintaining the same membrane lifespan, manufacturers understand that any new technology must still provide water quality comparable to the existing membrane technology. Dealers deserve better technology that does not drive up margins or create additional, oftentimes unnecessary stages. Infusing new technology through minimal retrofit simplifies product differentiation in a highly commoditized, generic market, while lessening the impact of costly disruptions (e.g., third-party certifications) to OEMs’ existing systems.
However, such technology takes years to develop, because manufacturers want dealers to rest assured they are purchasing from companies that take a stance on integrity and produce well-engineered, reliable products, instead of taking shortcuts. Once perfected, the introduction of revolutionary technology to a decades-old market will help dealers and OEMs improve profitability and give them new reason to promote a standard product offering.