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Water conservation embraced by more manufacturers

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Ongoing droughts in the United States have diverted attention from energy concerns to another area of conservation – water.

Although manufacturing consumes only 5 percent of the water supply, according to the United States Geological Survey, companies are now actively embracing the goal of reducing, reusing and recycling water.

water spiggot

IBM, for example, has a goal of reducing water use by 2 percent annually. Ford Motor Co. aims to cut gallons per car by almost two-thirds over a five-year period. The water-intensive food processing industry has developed safe methods of reusing washing and cooking water or using steam instead of water.

This focus is more than an attempt to save money. Lean manufacturing principles apply to use of water as well as energy. In addition, maximizing this precious resource positions companies as good corporate citizens.

Imagine the scenario of a company that continues to draw down hundreds of thousands of gallons a day from reserves during a drought that is causing wells to dry up and crops to fail. Even if water use is an integral part of processing, there are technologies and equipment available that reduce or reuse.

Besides the amount of fresh water expended, there is wastewater to consider. To be returned to the water supply, wastewater must be treated. Cutting down on solids and contaminants reduces the burden downstream as cities and counties grapple with large volumes impacting treatment capacity.

Just like initiatives to reduce electricity use, water efficiency should be part of your corporate culture and mindset. If employees don’t understand why you are concerned about cutting down on water use and waste, they may not comply. Compliance will also increase if the issue is framed positively, with rewards for attaining goals as well as for reporting problems. Reward the behavior you want to encourage.

Process and equipment specifics will vary widely according to your industry, but the first step for all companies is a water audit. How much water are you using and where is it being used? Uses may include processing, boilers, cooling, bathrooms and kitchens, cleaning, vehicle washing and landscaping.

During the audit, you may identify problem areas in which water is leaking or otherwise being wasted. An example of waste is continual flow during processing instead of automatic shut-offs or on-demand use.

The amount of water used in various functions is a prime area to examine. Many industries have created modifications that cut back on the amount needed to perform a function. For example, water volume in the washing and rinsing of vegetables is greatly reduced with the use of sprayers rather than immersion baths.

Steam can replace water entirely in some functions, such as blanching or peeling. Agitation and fog rinsing technologies use less water more effectively.

Plants with boilers can either replace them with on-demand hot water systems or optimize their operation. Using air rather than water in cooling operations also reduces use and waste. For a quick first step, install high efficiency faucets and toilets – relatively easy and inexpensive improvement.

Reuse of water is an area that is gaining momentum as the next step in efficiency. A main concern is the quality of the reused water so as not to contaminate the manufacturing process.

Intel pioneered a method of reducing the tap water needed to make ultra-pure water for cleaning silicon. Then the company developed rinse water collection systems that enable runoff to be used in cooling towers, scrubbers and other operations.

Many companies are using cooling tower and other run-off to irrigate landscaping. The food processing industry is investigating disinfectant methods and reuse guidelines so that water can safely be used more than once in produce washing and preparation, as well as beverage production.

Once the audit is complete, the next steps are to prioritize your water efficiency plan activities and create budgets for improvements and new equipment, if needed. Goals and performance minimums must be set and monitored. Many companies use a team approach, along the lines of safety teams, to implement and manage the water plan.

Resources to help you learn more and plan your water efficiency strategy are available online. The Water Efficiency Manual is available at www.energystar.gov/index.

The Environmental Protection Agency has prepared a guide to reusing water, at www.waterreuseguidelines.org. The American Water Works Association is a nonprofit organization offering comprehensive resources, tools, education and conferences on the topic of water management. Visit its website at www.awwa.org.