40 years of water treatment change

This is a light hearted look at how water treatment has changed since I joined a water treatment company in the opening days of 1980.

For a start haircuts were an embarrassment…

Back then my company car was a Ford Cortina handed down from a more experienced salesman. It didn’t have a radio, there were no head restraints, all doors locked individually, and you had to open your windows with a handle!

Company cars are not the only things to have changed in water treatment. It is fair to say there is a lot less emphasis on training today than when I started.

I had a 6 week initial training course spread over 3 months covering all aspects of water treatment with on-site learning in between the classroom training.

In 1980 the water treatment world was changing from adding solid chemicals, whether they were powders, tablets, “balls”, or waxy lumps to the more “modern” liquids that were easier to manage and dosing provided greater accuracy.

Gone were the days of throwing lumps of chemicals from the boiler house floor up to the feed tank and hoping there wasn’t a lid on the tank!

This was the era of the white/green/ blue wall of chemicals (choose the appropriate colour depending on the company you worked for).

Dosing and control equipment improved in leaps and bounds from a simple pump and switch to sophisticated devices controlling pumps, solenoid valves and chemical probes.

Interestingly the world has come full circle and now solid chemicals are once more in vogue with more accuracy, a better environmental footprint and ease of dosing amongst the various claims made.

The chemistry of chemicals changed as complex molecules were created and blends of chemicals led the change from single component, simple products.

Test kits in the early days of the 1980’s were simple affairs. My company used tablets and it was a simple matter of adding tablets to the required sample size until a required colour change was reached, counting the number of tablets used and then multiplying that number by a factor, with all instructions on the bottle. Testing for TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) involved putting a stick into the water and noting the reading it settled at! If you were lucky you were given a new fangled TDS meter.

Now test kits are complex with the use of equipment that in the 1980s would have only been the domain of a PhD student.

Lateral flow would have been science fiction compared to simple dipslides. The likely meaning then would have been “water flowing in a straight line!” not a device for counting pathogenic bacteria in the time it took to test for a cooling water scale and corrosion inhibitor.

Taking samples from steam boilers was extremely hazardous with very few sample coolers in place. It involved getting your adjustable spanner out and undoing the connection at the bottom of the gauge glass and then collecting the water/steam from the gauge glass (at boiler temperature and pressures). Then you had to find a way to cool the sample to allows tests to be carried out.

Understanding water treatment by the customer was in its infancy so educating the customer was a large part of the role of a water treatment service engineer. I remember having a conversation with a member of staff in a laboratory who didn’t want me to add biocides to the cooling system as it would kill the nematode worms she had found living there. On another site I had to recommend that a tree growing in the cooling tower should be removed as it would interfere with biological control.

At a large coking works I used to enjoy carrying out the water treatment tests in the laboratory (with all my tablets) because it was warm and dry.

The chemical lab staff were always very friendly and used to make me cups of tea served up in a 500ml glass beaker taken from the shelf especially for me.

Cups of tea in a 500ml beaker!

During the 1980s, a now infamous bacteria, was starting to be noticed.

Initially, to identify the bacteria live guinea pigs were injected with water and those showing signs of illness were killed and parts of their bodies ground up to identify the bacteria. Our company had an animal house at Head Office. All of this was to identify Legionella bacteria. It is no wonder that the cost per sample in the 1980s was 5-10 times what it is now, and that’s not accounting for the change in the value of money.

The 1980’s were a time of massive growth in the water treatment industry, not least because of inflation of about 15% per year. It was an exciting time with new products being invented, knowledge improving and company cars getting better.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in this industry and want today’s staff to embrace the subject and learn something new every day like I did (and still do). Today’s rate of change is much quicker than in the 1980s, so much so it is difficult for one person to know everything, but it is still fun trying to learn it

Collaton Consultancy provide water treatment training, consultancy, Authorising Engineer (Water) and Expert Witness services. Contact us on general@collatonconsultancy.com.

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