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Getting More out of Biosolids With Better Data

Aerial view of wastewater treatment plant and farm land

“We used to have a plant manager who would say he’d put it on a Triscuit and eat it. I don’t know that I’d do that, but it certainly wouldn’t harm you.”

That’s what Ryan Cerrato, an employee at New York-based composting company WeCare Organics, told a Vice journalist about his company’s compost in a recent documentary.

WeCare makes compost from biosolids—human waste that has passed through sewage treatment—which it then sells to farmers, nurseries, and gardeners as high-quality fertilizer. While most American consumers might not know it, biosolids are becoming an increasingly important part of our water treatment and agricultural systems. 

As wastewater utilities face growing pressures to find cost savings while also increasing environmental outcomes, improving the quality of biosolids is becoming more important than ever before. 

So how exactly can treatment plant managers get more out of biosolids while spending less? It’s a question that might very well come down to data.

What are biosolids?

Biosolids are solid waste that have been treated and reclaimed from the water system. 

About half of all biosolids produced in the U.S. today are recycled and used as fertilizer. But not all biosolids are recycled: of the roughly 4.75 million dry metric tons (dmt) the country produced in 2019, a little under half ended up incinerated, landfilled, or stored as waste. With the right treatment processes, all of that waste could be put to more beneficial uses. 

That’s where the question of biosolids quality comes in.

What are Class A and Class B biosolids?

The EPA’s 40 CFR Part 503 is the guiding star for wastewater operators and other processors looking to gauge the quality of their biosolids. This framework breaks biosolids down into two classes:

Class A biosolids have been treated and tested for pathogens and deemed safe enough to use in agriculture, gardening, and landscaping. They’re the kind that companies like WeCare buy from utilities, process, and resell: good for the environment and crucial to creating a closed loop, zero-waste system.

Class B biosolids are any that don’t make Class A. They might be safe enough to use in some applications, but they also contain detectable pathogens and/or high concentrations of metals like arsenic, chromium, and mercury that might make them unsuitable for growing food or soil remediation. 

While Class A biosolids are an asset, Class B are expensive to dispose of and transport, and might pose a health risk for people working with them. So getting that B grade up to an A is worth more than just extra credit.

How to test biosolids

Most wastewater treatment plant operators have their eye on three different kinds of data when they make decisions about what to do with biosolids:

  • Sampling results, which are conducted at various stages of the treatment process and analyze water and biosolids for pathogens, drugs, metals, and other contaminants.
  • Continuous monitoring data from certain pieces of plant equipment for variables like temperature and pressure.
  • End product data, like class (A/B), weight, water content, transportation and disposal cost, etc.

For decades, plant operators have relied on legacy infrastructure to monitor this data and make decisions in the biosolids treatment process. But modern cloud-based platforms are giving operators the ability to view and analyze this information, so they can spot trends and act sooner. 

Systems like Klir merge real-time data from sources like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to reveal opportunities to improve the product quality while managing harmful contaminants from the outset. 

The risks of lagging data in biosolids processing

Working in spreadsheets and SCADA systems can feel a bit like pulling teeth. They’re slow, opaque, unintuitive, and often few people at an organization have the ability to pull reports.

These delays mean that operators are often reviewing the data long after it was processed—sometimes a month later, and have little means of intervening in the biosolids treatment process until it’s too late.  

These lagging data sources aren’t just an annoying time suck: they can also pose a genuine threat to your operation. 

Those risks include:

  1. Releasing contaminated biosolids 

When there’s a lag between the time a sampling test is completed, and the time that an operator can manually query and interpret those results, there’s a lot that can be missed or go wrong, including the possibility that those solids leave the plant before the test results come back. 

Those kinds of mistakes can be costly—nine agencies received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from the EPA in 2019 for approving contaminated biosolids.

  1. Reporting and record-keeping errors

Using Excel to deal with ever-larger data sets opens you up to the possibility of data loss, which can cause major reporting problems.

Filing a false report, even by accident, carries a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 2 years in prison. Meanwhile, willful violations carry a criminal fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation and up to 3 years in prison. 

  1. Data access problems

Your organization’s data should belong to the organization. But if team members are constantly creating their own workarounds to address the limitations of legacy software and spreadsheets, that can create problems around data ownership, especially if one of those team members is absent or leaves the organization.

How real-time data analysis drives better biosolids 

For treatment plant operators, intuitive platforms like Klir are making it easier to access and display vital data and make decisions quickly. 

The result? Treatment plants save on transportation costs, while minimizing biosolid waste. 

Here are the key ways that water & wastewater analytics software help drive better outcomes:

1. Reduce costs and improve product quality

Biosolids are heavy, and the more water a treatment plant can extract from them, (known as “cake dryness”) the lower their transportation costs. With real-time data analytics, plant operators can take the right actions to lower transportation costs and identify efficiencies that might otherwise be invisible.

Real time data lets you:

  • Proactively influence the product outcome with an end-to-end view of operations
  • Develop key insights into product grading
  • Perform ongoing weight vs. cost analysis
  • Set budgets to meet cost and quality goals

2. Better report design and data collection

Displaying data in a format that is easy to understand and ‘ready to go’ decreases the amount of time workers must spend processing and understanding their data while also encouraging and rewarding better data collection.

3. Stay in compliance and predict problems before they happen

Data analytics dashboards help operators and managers identify any failures or problems that might come up, cutting down on costly compliance errors. 

Quicker and more up-to-date sampling results also mean that plant operators can focus on forecasting trends and anticipating problems rather than constantly working backwards to trace where a contaminant came from. The result? Treatment plant teams can:

  • Stay compliant with real-time quality monitoring 
  • Receive automatic warnings when contaminants approach or exceed limits
  • Proactively triage issues and intervene before contaminated product leaves the facility

4. Increase efficiency

Automated data analysis frees plant managers from data detective work, and gives them new insights on how to continuously improve their processes, allowing them to:

  • Analyze sampling data in real time, no queries required
  • Spot problems before they happen
  • Ensure monthly and annual reports are always consistent
  • Perform reporting work in a fraction of the time

5. Break down data silos

Providing plant operators and employees with clear visuals and a holistic data view can help dismantle a culture of reactivity by de-siloing information. The result is a holistic picture of operations across the plant.

With transparent and interactive dashboards, managers and employees can:

  • ‘Slice and dice’ data to meet their business needs
  • Confidently depend on a single source of truth
  • Create an open forum for communication 

6. Futureproofing

Wastewater organizations that move to cloud-based systems to manage data across their plants are in a better position to anticipate future changes to biosolids regulations and industry standards. That’s because they can easily add new reporting criteria and scheduling requirements, merge in new data sources, or add in new parameters to instantly spot troubling maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). 

Improve your biosolids with Klir

Klir’s treatment plants module is designed to help wastewater treatment operators access real-time insights, so they can reduce the cost of managing biosolids and effluents while improving their environmental performance.

Interested in learning how Klir can help your facility improve its performance? Talk to one of our experts.