The Water Audit: a Tool to Manage Operational Costs and Performance

Food and beverage plants generally focus strongly on two objectives: Producing high-quality product in an efficient and well-run production facility and reducing/controlling costs in the process, while maintaining effective investment planning.

The latter includes investment avoidance where this is the best strategy. There is also an interrelationship between the various processing systems in most food plants. The same careful planning that goes into plant processing and water treatment must include the financial costs and implications that these operations will have on the handling or treating of plant effluent. High wastewater surcharges, or the need to construct a wastewater treatment plant, can often be eliminated or reduced, based on changes in the type of water treatment technology used; modifications to equipment operation and sanitation procedures; and addressing water minimization, reclamation and recirculation techniques.

It is important to make sure that any changes in operation will improve plant performance and further protect product quality.

This article will address the use of production facility audits to evaluate and quantify the impact that plant water treatment technologies and water management practices have on the following critical functions in a food processing and packaging plant. Included are case study examples that are primarily related to water treatment technology, with secondary emphasis on wastewater treatment and water reclamation.

What is an “Operational Audit?”

Are we truly safe from all organic and inorganic risks associated with the water supply? Foods must be able to withstand storage environments and maintain excellent shelf-life quality. Water treatment technology must resist fouling and avoid microbiologic vulnerability. A good audit will aim for a multiple barrier protection system for product water and often a total plant barrier where a pathogen such as Cryptosporidium is even a remote possibility.

Many plants pay twice for the water they use – once when they use it, and again when they dispose of it to the drain. The main disposal cost is usually the organic load in the water. Therefore, simply reducing the volume of water has a minimal effect. An audit can address changes that significantly reduce sewer surcharges, or establish a pre-treatment alternative to reduce costs by 50 percent or more.

Food plants rarely dispose of wastewater that contains serious contaminants. Plant operating practices can often be changed so that the wastewater volume and loading are far from being classified as a serious contributor to a municipal system.

There are a number of ways to look at an audit. It can be cast in the same light as a survey or a study. It can be an accounting of operational facts or it can be an audit with an ulterior motive.

That’s the audit we are discussing today – the audit with an ulterior motive. The motive can range from “are we ok?” to “are we missing an opportunity to do this job better?” The audit measures how the facility operates and identifies alternatives that either improve quality and performance, or keep the operation within regulatory compliance. The audit can be a troubleshooting tool, or can target cost savings or investment avoidance.

An audit should not be merely a checklist that includes use of observations alone. It must be based on data. Individuals or a team that has process system expertise should perform the audit. They should also have knowledge of the plant’s products, production standards, operating guidelines and start-up/ shutdown protocols. Where relevant, testing at the site should be performed, including analytic and microbiologic parameters.

Operational Audit Mind-Set

First, you must understand why you require an audit and what you hope to discover or accomplish. Secondly, who, or what team, will perform the audit?

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