Water is cheap.

Unless, of course, you’re in an area where it’s scarce. Or your municipality can’t handle your wastewater, so you have to have your own treatment facility. Or the hauling costs for taking away wastewater keep increasing.

Factor all those things in with the sheer amount of water used in food and beverage plants, and suddenly, water isn’t cheap. And in many cases, it’s becoming harder and harder to count on having the same amount you’ve always had available to you. What that means for food and beverage processors is that while water conservation may not be as flashy as saving energy, it’s an important component of not only sustainability efforts, but of protecting the bottom line.

That lack of flashiness can make water conservation efforts a hard sell, because the mindset among plant employees is different. Everybody understands concepts such as energy-efficient lighting or raising an HVAC set point, because they do those things in their own homes. But how many people leave the faucet running while brushing their teeth? Or would even consider running water from the dishwasher through a filter, then reusing it to wash clothes?

Obviously, food and beverage plants would be operating on a much larger scale than those examples, but the basic concepts are the same: Conservation and reuse are both possible, but they require some salesmanship to get them to take hold. It is possible to cut down on water usage without sacrificing productivity, but to do so, processors have to be sure they’re not only aware of how much water they’re using, but how to ensure that when they do implement conservation measures, those measures are followed.

Measurement and management

You’ve probably heard it a million times: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The reason you’ve heard it so often is that it’s true, and it’s the starting point for conserving any resource. Goals are good, but you have to have a reference point, says U.S. Water’s Brett Robison, strategic business leader—food & beverage.

Robison says that when clients look to conserve water, a common theme is a lack of understanding of their current situation.

“They have a goal—that ‘we have to reduce water usage by X amount by such-and-such a date,’” he says. “However, they often don’t know where they’re at in terms of water usage. It’s hard to make improvement if you don’t know where you’re starting from.”

Knowing how much water you’re using overall is the beginning, but it’s just that—the beginning. You can measure how much electricity a production line or even a single piece of machinery uses, but can you do the same for water? If not, then you’re already limited in how effective you can be, because you can only manage your water usage in the broadest sense. Processes are going to require a certain amount of water to work, and if you can’t measure how much is being used in those processes, then you have no idea whether you’re being wasteful or not.

Digging down as far as possible is crucial to seeing real benefits from your water conservation efforts, says U.S. Water’s Steve Tapper, industry consultant.

“We commonly see that plants may know how much water comes into the plant or how much leaves the facility, but they don’t know the different processes and how much water goes here or how much water goes there,” says Tapper.

Robison seconds that and raises another important consideration: Quantity of water matters, but so does the quality of water. Certain applications are going to require fresh water, while others can be done with reused water. So, not only do you need to know how much water all of your processes use, you also have to understand exactly what kind of water they need.

Once you have quantity and quality defined, then you can start to look at how much water is being used compared to how much is necessary. With those pieces of information in hand, Robison says, the picture of water usage in your plant becomes much clearer.

“For the most part, if we know the application and understand the quality of the water needed for that application, we can help identify the best water reuse, recycle or repurpose solution for that application,” he says.

Production possibilities

One real-world example of how plants can cut down on water usage comes from Regal Beloit’s recent retrofit project at a Sierra Nevada brewery in California. In addition to being an expense, water shortages are a very real concern in California, and tighter regulations on water usage mean that processors have to find ways to cut down on usage.

“Water reduction is quickly becoming ubiquitous in the beverage and brewing industry, and we have been working over the past 30 years to steadily reduce our water consumption,” says Stephen Russell, plant manager, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. “In light of California’s water concerns, it became even more important that we evaluate any and all means of reducing water consumption.”

Like many beverage and food processing plants, the brewery was using conveyors—in this case, on its keg line—that required constant lubrication from soap and water to reduce friction between the line and the containers. Whenever the line was running, lubrication was being applied, so hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were being used every year to keep the conveyor lines running.

Regal Beloit installed a dry conveyor system, which uses a low-friction, FDA-approved material that requires no lubrication. Instead of requiring the constant application of soap and water to keep the line lubricated, the conveyor runs completely dry.

Since the keg line was retrofitted about a year and a half ago, the brewery has saved more than a million gallons of water and expects to save 750,000 gallons a year. That goes a long way toward both cutting costs and meeting state requirements.

There are other benefits in this particular project as well. Soap and water works well as a lubricant, but it also has a corrosive effect on bearings, gearboxes and other components that can wear out quickly on washdown conveyors. The new system also requires fewer clean-in-place schedulings, which saves not only water, it cuts down on the time required to keep the system clean.

There’s a safety benefit as well. All that soap and water had to go somewhere, and having it flowing through the conveyors and into drains could lead to slip and fall hazards, as well as strict requirements for what employees or plant visitors could wear in production areas. Now, with the dry conveyor system, that particular line has eliminated the slip and fall concern caused by the soap and water system, says Tom Eure, director of material handling, Regal Beloit.

“I’ve been in beverage plants five years ago that required boots to be worn in the plant, because there was so much soap and water flowing off the conveyors just to allow the product to run,” says Eure. “Today, in many of these plants, you could wear your dress shoes, because (the conveyor system) is running completely dry.”

Not just reducing—reusing

Reducing water consumption is a great goal, but there’s a point you can’t go past, because you have to be able to produce your product. No matter how efficient a system is, food and beverage manufacturing is going to require water, and lots of it.

“There’s a diminishing return to reducing water to make food,” says U.S. Water’s Robison. “At some point, you have to start looking at repurpose and reuse.”

Some of this can be straightforward and is already pretty common, such as a dairy using process water to rinse out trucks or a food manufacturer using heated process water to make steam. But there are steps that can be taken beyond simply using water twice.

The first step is figuring out how you can reuse water and what treatment steps must be taken to do so. These factors will change dramatically based on what kind of facility you’re operating. While a brewery that is still using soap and water as a lubricant may be able to capture the water and use it in certain applications, an ice cream plant may not have that same capability.

Infrastructure challenges can arise as well, says Jim Peterson, president and CEO of Caloris Engineering, which makes evaporators, membrane systems and dryers for process, treatment and water recovery applications.

“A typical meat processing plant is located in a relatively small community somewhere in the Midwest,” he says. “Their discharge would overwhelm the city’s capacity to handle it, so they have their own wastewater treatment facility onsite, which deals with biological waste.”

After this water has been treated, there are regulations governing its use and disposal. In the example Peterson supplies of a plant that would overwhelm its municipality, discharging the water into a river or other natural water source may be possible, but only if the facility has a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. If the facility doesn’t have a permit, or the water is outside the boundaries of what the permit allows, then the water will most likely have to be hauled away, which can be prohibitively expensive.

One way to counteract this is with a treatment program that cleans the water of solid waste sufficiently to allow reuse, Peterson says.

“Sometimes, we look at this as more of a solids management issue than as a water conservation issue,” he says. “Once you take steps to purify the water in your waste stream so that it can be reused, the solids are concentrated up somewhere else and present a tougher disposal problem in a smaller package.”

While those solids have to be disposed of properly, being able to filter them out of water so that water can be reused instead of disposed of can cut down on hauling costs, as well as help save water in areas where purified water can be reused.

Being able to purify and reuse water offers options for plants that have to have a baseline of water consumption. While they may not be able to reuse water in all applications, being able to do so here and there can still have a noticeable effect, and U.S. Water’s Tapper believes that reusing water will be a big opportunity for food processors in the near future.

“There’s a big uptick in wanting to reduce water, but we think the future is in reused water,” he says. “You see a lot of companies just trying to reduce the amount coming into the plant, but we think the biggest growth curve will be in reutilization of water.”

Educational imperatives

As with any initiative that might upset the way things have always been done, water conservation requires some selling to be fully accepted. But in many ways, it’s more complicated than other initiatives.

As previously mentioned, the mindset about energy efficiency has changed drastically over the last couple of decades, because it’s been repeatedly touted not only by the people who manage the building you work in, but by utilities, appliance makers and even advertising campaigns. When someone goes to buy a new refrigerator, the ubiquitous Energy Star label helps bring energy efficiency to the forefront of the decision-making process. Energy-efficiency efforts have actually progressed to the point that, oftentimes, employees are asking companies to implement them, instead of only the other way around.

More efficient processes are a relatively easy sell as well, because people can pretty quickly analyze and understand the effect of automating a process or upgrading a piece of machinery. An operator who’s been using an old, inefficient piece of machinery will welcome an upgrade that allows him or her to do a job more quickly and easily.

But water isn’t quite that simple. While some areas may have public education campaigns about the importance of saving water or even laws and regulations governing water usage, convincing employees of the value of water-saving initiatives can be tricky. The challenge for food processors can be twofold: Water is viewed as a necessity for the processing operation, so some employees may not be convinced that less can be used; on the other hand, while everybody uses electricity somehow as part of their job, not everyone uses water.

Regal Beloit’s Eure describes this challenge as taking on different personas when talking to employees and tailoring your selling points on what will appeal to the self-interest of certain departments.

“If you’re speaking with the plant manager of a facility, he [or she] more than likely is very much pro [on] learning about the new technologies and learning how to run dry,” Eure says. “But if you’re speaking with the maintenance person in a facility, you have to tailor your conversation to ‘yeah, we can reduce water, but we can also help you increase your productivities and efficiencies too.’”

A big part of a successful sales pitch is keeping in mind that there will likely be a lot of different people involved in production processes that are undergoing water conservation efforts, and all of them will need to be educated on the benefits. While it’s a no-brainer that the project managers, engineers and facility managers need to be educated on how a water conservation project can be beneficial, production and maintenance workers will also need that education.

Eure offers the example of a retrofit of a beverage facility in Chicago. Regal Beloit removed all the lubricating lines and converted the facility to a run-dry system. But, two weeks later, Regal Beloit discovered that someone had reinstalled the lubricating lines, and they were running again.

“We failed on our part, because we educated only part of the people in the facility,” says Eure. “We didn’t educate the entire team.”

To combat this, Regal Beloit rolled out a major education program as part of the next retrofit it did in the facility. In addition to educating people involved in production, signs were posted declaring that the lines were to run dry, with no lubrication needed. By doing so, it helped head off anyone who might have taken it upon themselves to once again reinstall lubricating lines.

A thirst for change

Water is a difficult concept to fully grasp in a lot of ways, which makes it hard to maximize your conservation efforts. But regardless of whether it’s due to regulations, sustainability programs or simply looking to save money, food processors need to have water on their radar as an area of focus.

Even in water-intensive food and beverage processing plants, there are ways to reduce and reuse water. Whether it’s by cutting down on consumption, finding ways to reuse water in different applications or eliminating the need for water entirely in certain applications, processors have options they can pursue based on what best fits their needs.

While it may be a hard sell, it’s a necessary one, because while water may still be relatively cheap now, there’s no guarantee it will remain so—or be as readily available as it is now. By implementing what can be done now and keeping water top of mind in the future, processors can keep themselves from being flat-footed when water conservation goes from a goal to a necessity.

“If you don’t take any steps,” says Caloris’s Peterson, “at some point it’s going to be cost prohibitive to catch up and make your organization viable.”


For more information:

Brett Robison, U.S. Water,
866-663-7633, brobison@uswaterservices.com

Steve Tapper, U.S. Water,
866-663-7633, stapper@uswaterservices.com

Tom Eure, Regal Beloit,

Jim Peterson, Caloris,
410-822-6900, info@caloris.com