Agriculture and food processing operations across the American West are scrambling to find new water sources amid a record drought. And although their water problems continue to be seen as a mostly regional issue for many in the industrial refrigeration industry, there’s no mistaking that water scarcity will loom larger in the years to come.

As the cost of water – both to use it and dispose of it – begins to rise, several factors determining the availability and environmental feasibility of water as a resource for industrial refrigeration are already narrowing possibilities and informing design and operational decisions.

“Everyone is looking for ways to save water because it is getting much harder and more expensive to use it as we always have,” said Jay Kliewer, P.E., president of California-based contractor, California Controlled Atmosphere. “It’s not only the aquifers here in California that are being depleted, shortages are beginning to happen in the Midwest and other places, and this [as an issue for refrigeration] has the potential to snowball. It could very well be what we are all facing in the next decade.”

While many in the industry look to California as a model for problems to come, comparisons are already being drawn between the industry’s past focus on energy efficiency and a future focus on water usage as the most important factor governing day-to-day operations.

“Water shortages are beginning to affect agriculture, and that’s obviously a serious problem for the refrigeration industry,” said Gary Dunn, president of Applied Process Cooling Corp. “The optimization of water usage in our industry is something that has as much focus now as energy conservation has had in the past.”

CCA’s Kliewer agreed, saying, “We’re seeing the pendulum starting to swing in the direction of water over energy when it comes to the major issues our industry is facing.”

And as with energy conservation, the cost and a drive towards environmental sustainability will be behind an increased focus on water usage as an issue.

A facility “may have abundant water, but the sewer and treatment bill is what can get you,” said Steve Heidenreich, regional sales manager for Johnson Controls, Frick, Food and Beverage Division. He said that many customers are seeking ways to mitigate water usage simply because the twin costs of water supply and water treatment after its use are growing.

“I think water is going to be something that companies look at environmentally, but also from a cost savings standpoint. The cost of water is really jumping in California – in some cases it’s ten times or more what it was years ago. For the foreseeable future, water is going to be a predominant issue. People are really starting to look at what they can do to save water now.”

One company already focused on reducing bottom line utility costs by controlling water usage is WalMart. And for the nation’s largest retailer, those costs can be massive.

Jeff Cato, Senior Manager of Material Handling Equipment at WalMart said the company’s average site utilizing evaporative condensing will consume between 600 to 800 thousand gallons of water per month in the summertime across roughly 40 sites. Cato has been tasked by the company to find new ways to dramatically decrease water consumption across its fleet of evaporative condensers.

“This is a bottom line issue for us,” he said. “The benefit of reducing water usage is that at the same time, we’re reducing sewage wastewater, which typically runs between two and three times per gallon the cost of raw water. If we’re operating at the industry standard of four cycles of concentration, eliminating just four gallons of water will eliminate one gallon of sewage.”

“Being the largest retailer in the U.S., when there is a call to action like tightening water supply, the first to feel it [and look for ways to address it] is typically WalMart,” said Cato. “With a lot of issues nationwide, and especially in California, tightening water supply has caused us to take the long look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it” when it comes to water.

While companies like WalMart are actively looking for ways to dramatically reduce their water usage across the board, many others are just starting to look at the issue.

“The end user and design engineer are concerned, or at least they are evaluating the water issue, but that focus hasn’t yet reached the level where water is driving change in the industry,” said Joe Mandato, Senior Vice President, Evapco Inc. He added that one exception is where a lack of water availability in certain areas forces a facility owner to make an immediate change.

“Much of the industry has not grasped the concept yet that water availability will be a serious concern in the future,” said Mandato. “We’ve seen some customers being progressive and attacking the problem now. But as an industry, we need to be looking out ten years, selecting equipment and making operational decisions based on what water supply is going to look like.”

So what will it take to push the industry to that level of change? According to Mandato, three scenarios will begin to move water to the forefront of the industry’s issues as they gain momentum.

First, for reasons driven both by environmental sustainability and cost, more and more companies may follow WalMart’s lead in instituting corporate philosophies to utilize existing water reduction technology immediately, where that technology results in reduced water consumption.

Second, a growing number of project sites – where existing facilities are located or planned – may face water scarcity or shortages in the future. And those shortages will require designers, owners and builders to consider the use of new technology to bring consumption into line with sitespecific water projections.

And finally, the use of water may be regulated more by local and state government and various municipalities, as local codes and regulations are developed to force any water using industry to measure and monitor its water.

“All three of these scenarios are likely to directly impact our industry at some point in the future,” said Mandato. “We’re definitely seeing the first and second scenarios happening now.”

And as with energy, California may be the first place to look to see how new regulations will shape water usage in the years to come. “In California, further regulation of water use is becoming more of a focal point,” said CCA’s Kliewer. “Regulations are on the horizon surrounding water. We think there will be a focus on recycling. Facilities will need to show that they are recycling water where and when they can. Whatever form new regulations take, they will include some recycling component, whether directly related to refrigeration or other processes that reduce wastewater.”

For many in the industry, where new technology investments like air cooled condensing, adiabatic condenser cooling or hybrid condensing units may be prohibitive, the answer to the question of how to prepare for impending water shortages and regulations may be to take a simple, practical approach: measure water usage and look for ways to reduce it within the scope of normal operations.

“We’re getting as many or more calls from customers for help with reclaiming water and finding new ways to conserve it – as we have in the past for energy savings,” said Dunn. “One way to minimize water use is to try to find water that has already been used in a plant but is not too difficult to clean. We’re talking to several facilities about where to find opportunities for reclaiming the water in their plants that isn’t too difficult to clean up and prepare for use as condenser water makeup.”

Of course, measuring water usage in the first place is one obvious step that many facilities may not have been paying attention to until recently.

“Facilities do a certain amount of monitoring now,” said Kliewer. “But we [as an industry] need to know exactly how much water we’re using to begin with. Most facilities don’t know exactly how much water they’re using. With load variations, it’s always a guess, so the first step is to look at where we’re starting from and then make changes and monitor how well those changes are doing.”

For Doug Scott, president of VACom Technologies, measuring water usage is the logical first step for an industry faced with impending water usage problems.

“In the past, water usage has not been a big enough element to quantify, but it’s worth quantifying now,” he said. “Just like electricity in the days before our focus on energy efficiency – water is not always measured separately. As an industry, we have got to learn how to do this if we’re going to prepare for shortages in the years to come.”

“It’s an important cost to get accurate if people are going to be making more and more financial decisions around water,” he added. “We’ve been doing that analysis for energy for the last fifteen to twenty years. For water, we’re just starting to look at quantifying [its use].”