How things have changed in the water treatment industry

How things have changed in the water treatment industry over the last 30 years

Like all industries, the water treatment industry has experienced its fair share of changes over the years. Who better to explain these changes than one of our senior design engineers, Ray O’Leary, who’s been in the industry for more than 30 years.

Q: When you first started in the water treatment industry what was the first type of plant you worked on? 


A: It was an old drumskin RO seawater desalination plant. You pumped water at it until the skin blinded then you took the drum skin off and dumped it in a bucket of acid to descale it.

I used this particular plant on a ship, as I was a marine engineer back then. I was stationed on an auxiliary ship that fed the bases in the Falkland Islands. I then worked as a plant engineer at a large multinational and it was there that I designed my first RO.

Q: What was the industry like ‘in the beginning’ for you and how did it evolve?

A: I worked for a UK company called Housman, that was located on the banks of the Thames and made boiler chemicals for steamships. They then sold Permutit off to Thames Water and started their own pre-treatment branch to enable more independence. The old Permutit guys were really well trained and went on to set up their own companies – including Excel Water!

Nowadays, there’s more online competition selling basic plant, such as off-the-shelf water softeners and ROs etc. Unfortunately, this is giving the water treatment industry a bad name as these systems aren’t sized correctly and most of them don’t last very long. Also, people now want things instantly and don’t double-check their water quality with a water analysis when buying online.

There will always be a place for expert engineers, who know what they’re doing and have the insight and experience to overcome issues and problems, not just simply provide off-the-shelf solutions – because that isn’t what our industry’s about!

Q: What do you think the biggest change in the industry has been over the space of your career?

A: My designs have changed over the years and I now stick to the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle. Over time, the recovery rates on ROs have improved greatly, 40% recovery was all the first ones could achieve. I can now build 90% recovery systems due to the modern membrane technology that’s available these days.

Back when I first started out, we mainly worked on softeners and Demin plants. Softeners haven’t changed much apart from voltage. I can remember the old, Brunner Softeners, being a nightmare to service though.

However, Demin plants have evolved slightly, but mainly in relation to the controls. The design of our EX Power Demin plants is particularly impressive due to their industry-leading qualities and results.

The industry shifted from Demin to RO because of health and safety and COSSH implications in the mid-90s. However, prior to that, Demin ruled! During the early 2000s, effluent became a bigger issue so the focus seemed to change to reverse osmosis. However, substantial changes in other membrane technology, such as ultra-filtration and the quality control on membranes, is a lot better.

Q: What do you think are the traits of a good water treatment engineer?

A: Patience, having a methodical mind, product knowledge and being a multi-skilled engineer (electrical/industrial chemistry).

Q: What makes the plant you design better than other companies?

A: All plant will produce good quality water if it’s been designed properly.

I build mine in a very efficient and uncomplicated manner, which makes it easier to find faults. This means problems are less likely to occur. Using good quality parts helps keep things simple and manufacture plant that’s guaranteed to last.

Q: What do you think the future of the industry holds?

A: I feel that the future for the water treatment industry will move towards de-salination, as the population is growing and there’s not enough water to cater for everybody.

I envisage there will be 90% recovery systems, especially on larger sites. Grey water treatment, which involves recycling water from the waste bath, sink and washing water, will also be a major thing of the future too.

Boreholes are also another big thing coming up on the horizon, given their cost-saving abilities plus, the privatisation of the water authorities has and will continue to generate greater interest in them.

For more information or to discuss your water treatment requirements with us, contact us on 0113 232 0005 or We’ll book a free site visit to assess your situation and recommend the best system based on your requirements.

In the meantime, for more insight on why it makes sense to use a commercial water treatment system, read this blog, ‘The top three benefits of commercial water treatment systems – revealed’