- Pumping and containment – The majority of water must be pumped from its source or directed into pipes or holding tanks. To avoid adding contaminants to the water, this physical infrastructure must be made from appropriate materials and constructed so that accidental contamination does not occur.
- Screening – The first step in purifying surface water is to remove large debris such as sticks, leaves, rubbish and other large particles which may interfere with subsequent purification steps. Most deep groundwater does not need screening before other purification steps.
- Storage – Water from rivers may also be stored in bankside reservoirs for periods between a few days and many months to allow natural biological purification to take place. This is especially important if treatment is by slow sand filters. Storage reservoirs also provide a buffer against short periods of drought or to allow water supply to be maintained during transitory pollution incidents in the source river.
Widely varied techniques are available to remove the fine solids, micro-organisms and some dissolved inorganic and organic materials. The choice of method will depend on the quality of the water being treated, the cost of the treatment process and the quality standards expected of the processed water.
Coagulation and flocculation
One of the first steps in a conventional water purification process is the addition of chemicals to assist in the removal of particles suspended in water. Particles can be inorganic such as clay and silt or organic such as algae, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and natural organic matter. Inorganic and organic particles contribute to the turbidity and colour of water.
The addition of inorganic coagulants such as aluminum sulfate (or alum) or iron (III) salts such as iron(III) chloride cause several simultaneous chemical and physical interactions on and among the particles. Within seconds, negative charges on the particles are neutralized by inorganic coagulants. Also within seconds, metal hydroxide precipitates of the aluminum and iron (III) ions begin to form. These precipitates combine into larger particles under natural processes such as Brownian motion and through induced mixing which is sometimes referred to as flocculation. The term most often used for the amorphous metal hydroxides is “floc.” Large, amorphous aluminum and iron (III) hydroxides adsorb and enmesh particles in suspension and facilitate the removal of particles by subsequent processes of sedimentation and filtration. Aluminum hydroxides are formed within a fairly narrow pH range, typically: 5.5 to about 7.7. Iron (III) hydroxides can form over a larger pH range including pH levels lower than are effective for alum, typically: 5.0 to 8.5.
In water purification plants, there is usually a high energy, rapid mix unit process (detention time in seconds) where the coagulant chemicals are added followed by flocculation basins (detention times range from 15 to 45 minutes) where low energy inputs turn large paddles or other gentle mixing devices to enhance the formation of floc. In fact, coagulation and flocculation processes are ongoing once the metal salt coagulants are added. Organic polymers were developed in the 1960s as aids to coagulants and, in some cases, as replacements for the inorganic metal salt coagulants. Synthetic organic polymers are high molecular weight compounds that carry negative, positive or neutral charges. When organic polymers are added to water with particulates, the high molecular weight compounds adsorb onto particle surfaces and through interparticle bridging coalesce with other particles to form floc.
Dissolved air flotation
After separating most floc, the water is filtered as the final step to remove remaining suspended particles and unsettled floc.
Rapid Sand Filters
To clean the filter, water is passed quickly upward through the filter, opposite the normal direction (called backflushing or backwashing) to remove embedded particles. Prior to this step, compressed air may be blown up through the bottom of the filter to break up the compacted filter media to aid the backwashing process; this is known as air scouring.