Water treatment is any process that improves the quality of water to make it more acceptable for a specific end-use. The end use may be drinking, industrial water supply, irrigation, river flow maintenance, water recreation or many other uses, including being safely returned to the environment. Water treatment removes contaminants and undesirable components, or reduces their concentration so that the water becomes fit for its desired end-use.

Treatment for drinking water production

Treatment for drinking water production involves the removal of contaminants from raw water to produce water that is pure enough for human consumption without any short term or long term risk of any adverse health effect. Substances that are removed during the process of drinking water treatment include suspended solids, bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi, and minerals such as iron and manganese.

The processes involved in removing the contaminants include physical processes such as settling and filtration, chemical processes such as disinfection and coagulation and biological processes such as slow sand filtration.

Measures taken to ensure water quality not only relate to the treatment of the water, but to its conveyance and distribution after treatment. It is therefore common practice to keep residual disinfectants in the treated water to kill bacteriological contamination during distribution.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines are a general set of standards intended to apply where better local standards are not implemented. More rigorous standards apply across Europe, the USA and in most other developed countries. followed throughout the world for drinking water quality requirements.


Empty aeration tank for iron precipitation
Tanks with sand filters to remove precipitated iron (not working at the time)

A combination selected from the following processes is used for municipal drinking water treatment worldwide:

  • Pre-chlorination for algae control and arresting biological growth
  • Aeration along with pre-chlorination for removal of dissolved iron when present with small amounts relatively of manganese
  • Coagulation for flocculation or slow-sand filtration
  • Coagulant aids, also known as polyelectrolytes – to improve coagulation and for more robust floc formation
  • Sedimentation for solids separation that is removal of suspended solids trapped in the floc
  • Filtration to remove particles from water either by passage through a sand bed that can be washed and reused or by passage through a purpose designed filter that may be washable.
  • Disinfection for killing bacteria viruses and other pathogens.

Technologies for potable water and other uses are well developed, and generalized designs are available from which treatment processes can be selected for pilot testing on the specific source water. In addition, a number of private companies provide patented technological solutions for treatment of specific contaminants. Automation of water and waste-water treatment is common in the developed world. Source water quality through the seasons, scale and environmental impact can dictate capital costs and operating costs. End use of the treated water dictates the necessary quality monitoring technologies, and locally available skills typically dictate the level of automation adopted.

Constituent Unit Processes
Turbidity and particles Coagulation/ flocculation, sedimentation, granular filtration
Major dissolved inorganics Softening, aeration, membranes
Minor dissolved inorganics Membranes
Pathogens Sedimentation, filtration, disinfection
Major dissolved organics Membranes, adsorption

Polluted water handling

A sewage treatment plant in northern Portugal.

Wastewater treatment is the process that removes the majority of the contaminants from wastewater or sewage and produces both a liquid effluent suitable for disposal to the natural environment and a sludge. Biological processes can be employed in the treatment of wastewater and these processes may include, for example, aerated lagoons, activated sludge or slow sand filters. To be effective, sewage must be conveyed to a treatment plant by appropriate pipes and infrastructure and the process itself must be subject to regulation and controls. Some wastewaters require different and sometimes specialized treatment methods. At the simplest level, treatment of sewage and most wastewaters is carried out through separation of solids from liquids, usually by sedimentation. By progressively converting dissolved material into solids, usually a biological floc, which is then settled out, an effluent stream of increasing purity is produced.[1][2]

Industrial water and wastewater treatment

Two of the main processes of industrial water treatment are boiler water treatment and cooling water treatment. A lack of proper water treatment can lead to the reaction of solids and bacteria within pipe work and boiler housing. Steam boilers can suffer from scale or corrosion when left untreated. Scale deposits can lead to weak and dangerous machinery, while additional fuel is required to heat the same level of water because of the rise in thermal resistance. Poor quality dirty water can become a breeding ground for bacteria such as Legionella causing a risk to public health.

With the proper treatment, a significant proportion of industrial on-site wastewater might be reusable. This can save money in three ways: lower charges for lower water consumption, lower charges for the smaller volume of effluent water discharged and lower energy costs due to the recovery of heat in recycled wastewater.

Corrosion in low pressure boilers can be caused by dissolved oxygen, acidity and excessive alkalinity. Water treatment therefore should remove the dissolved oxygen and maintain the boiler water with the appropriate pH and alkalinity levels. Without effective water treatment, a cooling water system can suffer from scale formation, corrosion and fouling and may become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. This reduces efficiency, shortens plant life and makes operations unreliable and unsafe.[3]

Domestic water treatment

Water supplied to domestic properties may be further treated before use, often using an in-line treatment process. Such treatments can include water softening or ion exchange. Many proprietary systems also claim to remove residual disinfectants and heavy metal ions.[citation needed]


Saline water can be treated to yield fresh water. Two main processes are used, reverse osmosis or distillation.[4] Both methods require more energy than water treatment of local surface waters, and are usually only used in coastal areas or where water such as groundwater has high salinity.[5]

Field processes

Living away from drinking water supplies often requires some form of portable water treatment process. These can vary in complexity from the simple addition of a disinfectant tablet in a hiker's water bottle through to complex multi-stage processes carried by boat or plane to disaster areas.

Ultra pure water production

Some industries such as the production of silicon wafers, space technology and many high quality metallurgical process require ultrapure water. The production of such water typically involves many stages, and can include reverse osmosis, ion exchange and several distillation stages using solid tin apparatus.


Early water treatment methods still used included sand filtration and chlorination. The first documented use of sand filters to purify the water supply dates to 1804, when the owner of a bleachery in Paisley, Scotland, John Gibb, installed an experimental filter, selling his unwanted surplus to the public.[6][7] This method was refined in the following two decades, and it culminated in the first treated public water supply in the world, installed by the Chelsea Waterworks Company in London in 1829.[8][9]

Society and culture

Developing countries

As of 2006, waterborne diseases are estimated to have caused 1.8 million deaths each year. These deaths are attributable to inadequate public sanitation systems and in these cases, proper sewerage (or other options such as small-scale wastewater treatment) that must be installed.[10]

Appropriate technology options in water treatment include both community-scale and household-scale point-of-use (POU) designs.[11] Such designs may employ solar water disinfection methods, using solar irradiation to inactivate harmful waterborne microorganisms directly, mainly by the UV-A component of the solar spectrum, or indirectly through the presence of an oxide photocatalyst, typically supported TiO2 in its anatase or rutile phases.[12] Despite progress in SODIS technology, military surplus water treatment units like the ERDLator are still frequently used in developing countries. Newer military style Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units (ROWPU) are portable, self-contained water treatment plants are becoming more available for public use.[13]

For waterborne disease reduction to last, water treatment programs that research and development groups start in developing countries must be sustainable by the citizens of those countries. This can ensure the efficiency of such programs after the departure of the research team, as monitoring is difficult because of the remoteness of many locations.

Energy Consumption

For many cities, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, having a total of 30-40% of the cities' energy consumption.[14][not in citation given] More than 4% of the nation's electricity goes towards moving and treating water and wastewater.[15] Cost of these energy is consumed in the flocculation basin for drinking water treatment plants and in the aeration basin for wastewater treatment plants. High amount of energy is needed to mix the large volume of water to allow sedimentations to flocculate together. There are current technologies that may aim to reduce this amount of energy. These include optimizing system processes by modifying and improving pumping and aeration equipments.The effectiveness of such technologies are still under discussion as they take up a lot of energy.

Notable examples

A notable example that combines both wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment is NEWater in Singapore.[16] NEWater is a technology practised in Singapore that converts wastewater to potable water. More specifically, it is treated wastewater (sewage) that has been purified using dual-membrane (via microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies, in addition to conventional water treatment processes. The water is potable and is consumed by humans, but is mostly used by industries requiring high purity water. The total capacity of the plants is about 20 million US gallons per day (75,700 m3/day). Some 6% of this is used for indirect potable use, equal to about 1% of Singapore's potable water requirement of 380 million US gallons per day (13 m3/s). The rest is used at wafer fabrication plants and other non-potable applications in industries in Woodlands, Tampines, Pasir Ris, and Ang Mo Kio.

Failures of water treatment plants

When water treatment plants fail, the impact reaches a large group of people. These water treatment plants may fail due to a variety of reasons. They include poor maintenance, power shutdown or the plant may simply not be able to withstand and treat such a high influx of water. This is why engineers often employ safe margin and design for a larger volume than expected. There are a few ways in which citizens can deal with a water treatment plant failure. This includes buying water filtration systems or water filtration tablets.

Regulation by the US government

Drinking water

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set standards for drinking water quality in public water systems (entities that provide water for human consumption to at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year).[17] Enforcement of the standards is mostly carried out by state health agencies.[18] States may set standards that are more stringent than the federal standards.[19]

EPA has set standards for over 90 contaminants organized into six groups: microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals and radionuclides.[20]

EPA also identifies and lists unregulated contaminants which may require regulation. The Contaminant Candidate List is published every five years, and EPA is required to decide whether to regulate at least five or more listed contaminants.[21]

Local drinking water utilities may apply for low interest loans, to make facility improvements, through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.[22]


EPA and state environmental agencies set wastewater standards under the Clean Water Act.[23] Point sources must obtain surface water discharge permits through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Point sources include industrial facilities, municipal governments (sewage treatment plants and storm sewer systems), other government facilities such as military bases, and some agricultural facilities, such as animal feedlots.[24]

EPA sets basic national wastewater standards:

These standards are incorporated into the permits, which may include additional treatment requirements developed on a case-by-case basis. NPDES permits must be renewed every five years.[27] EPA has authorized 46 state agencies to issue and enforce NPDES permits. EPA regional offices issues permits for the rest of the country.[28]

Financial assistance for improvements to sewage treatment facilities is available to state and local governments through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a low interest loan program.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Primer for Municipal Waste water Treatment Systems (Report). Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency. 2004. EPA 832-R-04-001. .
  2. ^ Metcalf & Eddy, Inc. (1972). Wastewater Engineering. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-041675-3. 
  3. ^ Cicek, V. (2013). "Corrosion and corrosion prevention in boilers". Cathodic protection: industrial solutions for protecting against corrosion. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118737880. 
  4. ^ Warsinger, David M.; Mistry, Karan H.; Nayar, Kishor G.; Chung, Hyung Won; Lienhard V, John H. (2015). "Entropy Generation of Desalination Powered by Variable Temperature Waste Heat". Entropy. pp. 7530–7566. doi:10.3390/e17117530. 
  5. ^ Lienhard, John H.; Thiel, Gregory P.; Warsinger, David M.; Banchik, Leonardo D. (2016-12-08). "Low Carbon Desalination: Status and Research, Development, and Demonstration Needs, Report of a workshop conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in association with the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
  6. ^ Huisman, L.; Wood, W.E. (1974). "Chapter 2. Filtration of Water Supplies". Slow Sand Filtration (PDF). Geneva: World Health Organization. ISBN 92-4-154037-0. 
  7. ^ Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with genius: the Scottish enlightenment: Edinburgh's moment of the mind. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060558888. 
  8. ^ Frerichs, Ralph R. "History of the Chelsea Waterworks". John Snow. Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved 2016-07-09. 
  9. ^ Christman, Keith (September 1998). "The history of chlorine". WaterWorld. Tulsa, OK: PennWell. 14 (8): 66–67. 
  10. ^ "Safe Water System" (PDF). Fact Sheet, World Water Forum 4 Update. Atlanta: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 2006. 
  11. ^ "Household Water Treatment Guide". Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, Canada. March 2008. 
  12. ^ "Sand as a low-cost support for titanium dioxide photocatalysts". Materials Views. Wiley VCH. 
  13. ^ Lindsten, Don C. (September 1984). "Technology transfer: Water purification, U.S. Army to the civilian community". The Journal of Technology Transfer. 9 (1): 57–59. doi:10.1007/BF02189057. 
  14. ^ "Water-Energy Connection Region 9: US EPA". www3.epa.gov. Retrieved 2017-05-07. 
  15. ^ "Energy Costs of Water in California". large.stanford.edu. Retrieved 2017-05-07. 
  16. ^ PUB. "PUB, Singapore's National Water Agency". PUB, Singapore's National Water Agency. Retrieved 2017-05-07. 
  17. ^ United States. Safe Drinking Water Act. Pub.L. 93–523; 88 Stat. 1660; 42 U.S.C. § 300f et seq. 1974-12-16.
  18. ^ "Primacy Enforcement Responsibility for Public Water Systems". Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. Washington, D.C.: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015-11-09. 
  19. ^ Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act (Report). EPA. June 2004. EPA 816-F-04-030. 
  20. ^ "Table of Regulated Drinking Water Contaminants". Your Drinking Water. EPA. 2017-03-21. 
  21. ^ "Basic Information on the CCL and Regulatory Determination". Contaminant Candidate List. EPA. 2017-04-26. 
  22. ^ "Drinking Water State Revolving Fund". EPA. 2017-05-02. 
  23. ^ United States. Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. Pub.L. 92–500 Approved October 18, 1972. Amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977, Pub.L. 95–217, December 27, 1977; and the Water Quality Act of 1987, Pub.L. 100–4, February 4, 1987.
  24. ^ "National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System". EPA. 2017-01-15. 
  25. ^ EPA. "Secondary Treatment Regulation." Code of Federal Regulations, 40 C.F.R. 133
  26. ^ "Industrial Effluent Guidelines". EPA. 2017-05-04. 
  27. ^ "NPDES Permit Basics". EPA. 2017-01-23. 
  28. ^ "NPDES State Program Information—State Program Authority". EPA. 2017-02-06. 
  29. ^ "Clean Water State Revolving Fund". EPA. 2017-03-17. 

Further reading

  • Eaton, Andrew D.; Franson, Mary Ann H. (2005). Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater (21 ed.). American Public Health Association. ISBN 978-0-87553-047-5. 

External links