The modern way to test water

March 4, 2014

Analytical testing methods like colorimetry and spectrophotometery are key to any water treatment business. After all, if you don’t know what’s in the water, you …

Analytical testing methods like colorimetry and spectrophotometery are key to any water treatment business. After all, if you don’t know what’s in the water, you can’t prescribe a proper remedy to your customers and in the municipal and industrial arena, you can’t effectively comply with government regulations for contaminant levels and disposal.

While most water treatment professionals are familiar with the traditional technologies for testing, we caught up with industry experts to find out about the latest upgrades to these methods and what customers are looking for in a testing product today.

If it works, don’t fix it

“The fundamentals of analytical testing (colorimetry, spectrophotometery and titrations) haven’t changed since the 1950s,” says Peter Sauerwein, product manager for Hach Company.

These basic technologies are the building blocks for all of today’s test kits, according to Sauerwein, but updates have come in precision, convenience, sensitivity, consistency and efficiency, essentially perfecting the original methods.

“Modern methods are almost all based upon either light detection technology or electrochemical technology,” says Geoff Douglas, FCMI, general manager of DelAgua Water Testing Ltd. “The sensitivity of modern equipment to measure light absorption at various wavelengths or electrical difference between two electrodes has improved by orders of magnitude over the last three to four years and as a result the ability to detect extremely low levels of contaminants is now commonplace even with inexpensive equipment.”

Upgrades in precision and convenience

The changes Douglas describes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recent upgrades to these tried-and-true technologies. The basic technologies are easy to understand because they are familiar, but “there have been major improvements in sensitivity, accuracy and precision in analytical instrumentation and other test equipment,” according to Charlie Gloyd, market manager for water conditioning at LaMotte Company.

“For many tests electronic meters can offer greater sensitivity and can eliminate the ambiguity of visual comparison methods. User error is always a possibility, no matter what the test method or collection protocol is followed. It behooves the user to understand the test kit, proper sampling technique and testing limitations,” Gloyd adds.

One of the biggest changes in the past 10 years has been the switch from analog to digital tests. This has resulted in a host of small improvements that add up to major convenience for everyday testing. For example, methods can now be programmed in instead of arriving in booklets, according to Sauerwein. And, electronic software and smartphone apps have replaced desktop units for communication of results, according to Mike McBride, marketing, IT and social media manager for Industrial Test Systems Inc.

McBride also listed other small changes that have corrected a host of previous issues with testing methods: “Filament lamps were replaced with LED, solid-state light sources that make the new instruments reliable for a longer period of time; light detector vacuum tubes replaced with light sensors, allowing smaller instruments; battery operation allowed portability; waterproof meters made meters durable and increased field-testing; glass testing cells replaced with plastic cells, reducing breakage.”

Perhaps the most important upgrades to traditional technologies are these small added conveniences. For most tests today, anyone is capable of understanding them, regardless of whether they have advanced degrees in chemistry or certifications in water treatment. Picture and multi-lingual instructions, simplified procedures and training videos have reduced the amount of thinking required by users and also reduced the margin for human error, according to Gloyd and Douglas.

While the technology is much simpler to use and more convenient, the results it delivers are also more precise, a winning combination for consumers, according to manufacturers.

“The big difference is sample preparation, testing procedures and advances in technology and materials — which increase consistency from sample to sample and reduce false positive readings. Manufacturing controls which limit differences between reagent lots also play a role in increased consistency and allow low-range readings,” says Sauerwein.

McBride adds, “Modern tools like the use of portable field colorimeters has expanded as device electronics have improved with higher quality materials at lower prices. Reagents used with the photometers have also made improvements that offer faster and easier testing methods.”

Government regulation and emerging contaminants

As any water treatment dealer servicing commercial, municipal or industrial clients is acutely aware, government regulations play a huge part in the type of tests they need, the amount of accuracy required and the number of tests or testing materials required each month or year. As McBride points out, water-related crises like the recent chemical spill in West Virginia spur the government to act quickly to protect citizens against sometimes unfamiliar contaminants with new regulations, and manufacturers of water tests need to react quickly to make sure consumers have the ability to do field lab quality testing and verify that water is safe to drink.

“Very simply, if you can’t measure it, you can’t regulate it,” says Gloyd.

“Analytical testing has a complicated relationship with the regulatory environment and the U.S. EPA. Often regulations drive testing, such as the regulatory requirement for testing residual chlorine in drinking water. A new testing method may take years for EPA approval, even while our customers use emerging methods to optimize their processes for cost savings and energy efficiency. The key is anticipating future regulations and ensuring there are products in the pipeline to help customers comply with new regulations,” says Sauerwein.

What do customers want?

While it is often obvious what customers need — greater accuracy and tests that allow them to comply with government regulations — dealers and manufacturers must also be aware of the little things that make their work easier on a day-to-day basis.

“We’ve seen a large increase in demand because consumers want to test water. Our customers want three main things: Fast, simple and easy water quality tests,” says McBride.

Ease-of-use, quick results and less expensive solutions are all major selling points, according to manufacturers. All-in-one solutions that don’t require any extra component parts are also popular, according to Sauerwein, allowing for immediate and long-term use with minimal replacement portions.

With all the different features available with testing equipment, however, many customers aren’t even sure what they want, according to Gloyd. An important part of a dealer's or manufacturer’s job, then, is to educate customers on the features they really need.

“Knowing the advantages and limitations of a testing method is important when looking at and comparing testing results,” Gloyd explains. “Test methods should be chosen that reflect the requirements of the application. Cost and lead time also need to factor in to the decision. While accuracy is important, there are some test factors that may not justify the added expense of greater sensitivity. For example, EPA guidelines for Drinking Water pH are between 6.5 and 8.5. Do you really need to know if the pH is 7.58017?”

Further, some customers believe they need testing that ensures their water is 100 percent pure, devoid of any natural minerals and nutrients. Water like this, Gloyd says, does not exist and no amount of testing and filtration can create it.

“Savvy users are looking for up-to-date methods that offer accuracy, sensitivity and repeatability as a tool for their sales force. Products and services that offer them a competitive advantage and professional image are important. Today’s homeowner is more likely to respond to organizations that offer clean, courteous and professional presentations,” adds Gloyd.

The features people look for and require in testing kits also depend on where they are testing water and in which applications.

“Developed countries want speed of data acquisition and remote sensor technology to reduce labor costs,” explains Douglas. “This is congruent with the fact [that] developed countries have a far greater incidence of laboratory facilities, meaning there is less and less need to test at source. Less developed countries have far fewer laboratories and as a result, testing at point of source is far more important. As a result, lightweight and simple technologies with more manual recording methods are employed as standard.”

In the end, water testing has come a long way. While the basic technologies have not changed, manufacturers have been able to tailor the tests to their customers' needs while keeping up with regulatory requirements. And, according to Sauerwein, the technology continues to move in the direction of convenience and accuracy.

"Demand for water analysis products will always be strong," says Sauerwein. "Equipment manufacturers … do their best to provide quality tools for a modern and sophisticated customer, who [is] demanding increasing levels of connectivity in their equipment. Imagine technicians in the field with instruments which can instantly beam results back to a central control system which adjusts dosages automatically, or kits which can capture previously complicated test results in a single step — this is where water analysis is headed. It's an exciting time for the industry."

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