Nov 07, 2018

Prioritizing Purification

Using real-time sensors to help with filter maintenance

Using real-time sensors to help with filter maintenance

Today in the U.S., potable water safety is no longer a given. In fact, 2016 research from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only one in three Americans believed the water from their taps was safe to drink, and 70% said they are not very confident in their state government’s ability to ensure the safety of their water. 

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), a federal law that protects public drinking water supplies throughout the nation, the U.S. EPA sets standards for drinking water quality to ensure water coming out of the tap is acceptable for human consumption. As part of SDWA, municipalities are required to periodically sample and measure water quality levels, and residents can even request the results. Despite these safeguards, most municipalities have violations—some even have chronic issues.  

Resolving issues in municipal water delivery systems is a resource-intensive issue that faces increasingly complex challenges. For example, increased dosing with chlorine or chloramine to prevent biofilm formation may result in harmful byproducts such as trihalomethanes and halocetic acid. There is no quick fix. 

Water safety is and will become increasingly dependent on at-home water treatment. However, many consumers today are not well-versed in water treatment and often fall victim to common misconceptions around water quality and purification. For instance, a basic carbon-based water filter will not remove all dangerous bacteria from the water that runs through it, but the everyday consumer does not intrinsically know what invisible contaminants can slip through, nor do they know how to properly treat water to eliminate contaminants when they are present. 

Practically, municipalities are unable to address infrastructure issues quickly enough, and because most consumers lack the proper knowledge to treat water at the point of use, the result is a compelling opportunity for water treatment manufacturers. At the heart of addressing this is having consumers “see” water quality issues and appreciate that water quality is not an event but an ongoing concern, then offering effective and affordable technology solutions that enable consumers to safeguard themselves against possible contamination issues. In this fashion, treatment manufacturers can help prevent serious health and financial implications in the future, while expanding business performance. 

Solutions need to be developed that can tangibly measure and track water quality at the point of use so consumers can realize—and understand—the concern and value in real time. 

Seeing is Believing

Culturally, consumers have learned to trust their drinking water supply and likely are unaware that the quality of water from a tap or refrigerator can change quickly. Water quality concerns routinely show up on the news, the result of flooding, aging infrastructure or other contamination issues, prompting urgent consumer action and a willingness to research and prioritize performance and quality. However, national attention and natural optimism soon relegate this, and performance and longevity no longer become the focal points over the price of the product. 

Even as consumers become more educated on the potential risks associated with the water coming out of their taps and more products become available to mitigate those risks, the fact remains: It is hard to actually see water quality. When something is floating in the water, we know the water is dirty. When the water flows clear, there is an innate assumption that it is clean. However, it is the invisible microscopic contaminants such as Legionella or E. coli that pose the greatest concern, and the challenge remains that if consumers cannot see it, they struggle to put value on the products that will protect them from invisible threats. Real-time sensing solves this problem. 

The ability to track, measure and alert consumers on the status of their water quality is the key to making water quality tangible. For example, imagine a water dispenser on a refrigerator. When the time comes to change the filter, a light may turn on to alert you, but this alert is based on a recurring timer rather than any real measure of water quality. Many times, we simply reset the timer to turn the light off and continue using the same filter, without realizing that this small action could allow the water to become unsafe. Water filters removechlorine from water—the carbon absorbs water, and after enough use, it cannot absorb the chlorine anymore, leaving it to flow straight through into our drinking water.

Water purification devices equipped with sensors could readily monitor water clarity, organic contaminants and levels of nitrates. 

With real-time sensing in water purification devices, consumers will better realize the value of having an intelligent, connected solution that can protect their future safety. As more products become connected, there is greater opportunity to enable consumers to control and understand their water quality.

Driving Innovation 

Although consumers often treat water quality as a “quick fix” problem that may be solved with simple filtration products they do not fully understand, the quality of water is a complex issue that can result in serious illness when not properly addressed. Current water scares around the U.S., such as Legionella outbreaks in places like New York and even Disneyland, have begun to change a consumer mindset about the urgency of the issue. By building innovative products that consumers believe are an essential safety component to their homes, water treatment providers can change views on appliances and similar home and office products forever.

Innovation in the market must inspire manufacturers to design products that are comprehensive enough to meet consumer needs. This means the product performance that relies on a consumer for monthly or even yearly maintenance is not the most convenient or the safest way to provide a clean water solution. An effective product will take into consideration the behaviors of consumers, which often is the tendency to skip or ignore a water filter change, and use new technologies to make this requirement obsolete. The longevity of a product must outlive a consumer’s needs. When a manufacturer understands the importance of eliminating the need for a consumer to perform a maintenance check or update to an appliance, they will ensure the safety of every consumer’s water. 

Water purification methods like ceramic filtration or UVC LED-based purification could be implemented as point-of-use tools that do not require consumer action. Disinfection technology built into refrigerators, water dispensers and ice machines are key areas for design innovation, but these safety solutions do not stop in the kitchen. Water running out of shower heads and in bathrooms also are potential dangers for consumers. However, the same technology that is integrated into kitchen faucets and appliances should be applied to any area of a home that dispenses water from a tap. 

Advancing the water disinfection market means changing how we think about product design. Years back, new and more aesthetically pleasing designs drove the industry forward. Now, the industry must look toward new innovations that keep consumers safe and enable product differentiation in the market. This process requires new kinds of thinking that focus on the behavior and lifetime safety of the consumer. Creating future-proof, point-of-use products for consumers to rely on is the next generation of water treatment. Products must go beyond letting the consumer choose whether or not to change a filter or reset a maintenance light. Injecting technology-driven innovation into the water disinfection market will introduce long-lasting and integrated solutions that will resonate with consumer demands. 

The Future of Water Purification

Water is the lifeblood keeping us alive, yet we continue to rely on quick fixes and siloed solutions for disinfection rather than a holistic approach because visibility around water quality remains a challenge. The more tangible a problem is, the more motivated we are to solve it. For instance, major online breaches over the last few years have led to a revolution in online security, evolving from simple password protection to two-factor authentication and biometric logins. This same kind of evolution into a comprehensive approach to water quality is necessary to keep consumers safe. 

Creating a foolproof system that can last the lifetime of the consumer is delivering real protection to people across the world. When competition compels product manufacturers to cut costs, they start making trade-offs in performance and de-prioritize the quality that the modern consumer needs to begin to understand the emerging sensitivity of their own taps. 

Product managers are responsible for designing practical, all-inclusive solutions to water quality. It starts with educating the consumer around why they need to question the quality of the water coming out of their taps and innovating solutions that not only solve the problem of water quality, but make it tangible and therefore valuable to consumers through real-time sensing.

About the author

Eoin Connolly is vice president of product management for Crystal IS. Connolly can be reached at [email protected] or 518.271.7375. 

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