Industrial Water Treatment: Importance, Methods, and Challenges

industrial water treatment

Industrial water is the most essential commodity used in virtually all types of industrial processes. Industrial water is used for processes such as cooling/heating, cleaning, waste treatment, steam production, and more. Industries that manufacture chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, as well as petroleum refining, transportation, electronics industries, and more, all rely heavily on usage of industrial water to operate efficiently.

However, the end product of industrial water use is often characterized by introduction of contaminants and pollutants into the water streams. These contaminants can be harmful to the environment if not treated properly. Polluted water can affect wildlife, plants, and even human health. Industrial water treatment is a critical process used to prevent these negative impacts and ensure that water can be safely reused or released back into the environment without causing harm or pollution. This article uncovers the role of industrial water treatment systems, the methods used for industrial wastewater management, and the challenges commonly faced in these processes.


What Is Wastewater?

Wastewater is any water that has been utilized in a variety of processes or applications, and is no longer fit for sanitary use or release back into the environment unless properly treated. It can come from homes, businesses, and industries alike. In an industrial setting, wastewater is the water that has been used in processes and contains contaminants like chemicals, oils, or heavy metals. This water needs to be treated before it can be reused or released back into the environment.

Types of Industrial Wastewater

There are several types of industrial wastewater, depending on the industry and the processes involved:

  • Chemical wastewater: Contains harmful chemicals used in manufacturing or cleaning processes.
  • Thermal wastewater: Produced by industries like power plants that use water for cooling. This water is often much hotter than the natural water sources it is released into.
  • Organic wastewater: Contains organic materials from many industries, such as fertilizers, detergents, petroleum by-products, dyes, solvents, but also biosolids and human/animal/plant waste..
  • Heavy Metal wastewater: Contains non-biodegradable metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium, commonly found in waste from mining and metal processing industries.

How Does Industrial Waste Cause Water Pollution?

Industrial wastewater can cause pollution in several ways. Chemical contaminants from industrial processes can be toxic to aquatic life and harmful to humans, often changing the water's pH level and making it unsuitable for organisms. Thermal pollution occurs when industries discharge hot water, lowering oxygen levels in water bodies and making it difficult for fish and other aquatic life to survive.

Nutrient pollution happens when wastewater high in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus enters water bodies, causing algal blooms that deplete oxygen and harm ecosystems. Heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, can also be present in industrial waste, posing serious health risks to both wildlife and humans.


What is Wastewater Treatment?

Wastewater treatment is the process of removing contaminants from water that has been used and is no longer clean. This process makes the water safe to reuse or release back into the environment. It involves several steps, each of which is designed to remove specific types of contaminants and ensure pollution-free water at the end of the process.

Preliminary Treatment Large objects like sticks, leaves, and trash are removed from the water using screens. Sand, gravel, and other heavy particles settle out of the water in grit chambers.
Primary Treatment The water flows into large tanks called sedimentation basins. Heavy solids settle to the bottom, forming sludge, while lighter materials float to the top and are skimmed off.
Secondary Treatment Aeration process where the water is mixed with air to promote the growth of bacteria that consume organic matter. Water also goes through biological treatment where bacteria and other microorganisms break down organic pollutants through activated sludge processes, trickling filters, or biofilms.
Tertiary Treatment The water passes through filters to remove any remaining small particles and chemicals like chlorine or ultraviolet light are used to kill harmful bacteria and viruses.
Advanced Treatment If needed, the water undergoes special processes to remove excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to prevent algal blooms in the environment. Additional chemicals could also be introduced to remove specific contaminants, such as heavy metals.
Sludge Treatment  The sludge collected during primary and secondary treatment is processed further. It can be digested anaerobically (without oxygen) to produce biogas, or dewatered and treated for safe disposal or use as fertilizer


Importance of Industrial Water Treatment

industrial wastewater in need of treatment

Industrial water treatment is crucial for several reasons, including regulatory compliance, water conservation, environmental protection, and maintaining industrial systems.

Conservation of Water

Water is a valuable natural resource that needs to be conserved. Industrial water treatment allows for the recirculation and reuse of water within industrial processes. This not only reduces the demand for freshwater but also minimizes the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated and discharged. By recycling water, industries can significantly reduce their environmental footprint and help conserve water sources for future generations.

Environmental Protection

Proper wastewater treatment is essential for protecting the environment and public health. Contaminants in untreated water can seep into drinking water supplies, posing serious health risks to communities. By treating industrial water effectively, we ensure that harmful substances are removed, safeguarding the quality of drinking water. Clean water is crucial for maintaining healthy ecosystems and supporting human life.

Industrial Operations

The quality of water used in processes like heating and cooling is important in various industrial processes and operations. Improperly or poorly treated water that is not free of minerals such as magnesium and calcium can cause serious issues in industrial systems such as scaling, fouling, and corrosion. Scaling occurs when minerals in untreated water can build up inside pipes and equipment, causing blockages and reducing efficiency. Fouling refers to the malfunctions caused by the accumulation of organic materials, debris and contaminant, that can corrode metal parts, leading to leaks and potentially equipment failure. These issues can lead to costly repairs, downtime, and even life-threatening explosions.

Regulatory Compliance

Industries must comply with various regulations that govern the treatment and discharge of wastewater to protect the environment and public health. These regulations ensure that industrial wastewater is treated to remove harmful contaminants before it is released into natural water bodies.

  • Clean Water Act - The primary federal law governing water pollution. It aims to restore and maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing point and nonpoint pollution sources.
  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) - Controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters. Mandates industries to monitor and report their wastewater discharges, ensuring they do not exceed the pollutant limits set in their NPDES permits.
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) - Governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. It includes regulations on the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes, which can be part of industrial wastewater.
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) - Requires the reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and mixtures. Regulates the use and disposal of certain chemicals that may be present in wastewater.


Industrial Water Treatment Process and Methods

industrial water treatment systems

Industrial water treatment involves various processes and methods to remove contaminants and ensure that water is safe for reuse or discharge. Different methods target specific types of pollutants and are chosen based on the nature of the industrial wastewater. Here are some common water treatment methods used in industries:


This process in wastewater treatment uses screens or sieves to remove large debris from wastewater. Screens can be coarse or fine, depending on the size of particles that need to be removed. Screening is typically the first step in wastewater treatment, removing large objects like sticks, leaves, and trash that could clog or damage downstream equipment.


This process involves allowing the water to sit in a tank or basin so that heavy particles can settle to the bottom due to gravity. It is designed to effectively separate solids from the water and is commonly used to remove suspended solids like sand, silt, and other debris. It is a simple and cost-effective method, often used as a preliminary treatment step before further processing.


This method involves passing water through a porous material to remove suspended particles. Filtration is used across various industries to ensure the removal of fine particles, improving water clarity and quality before biological or chemical treatment.

  • Sand Filtration: Water passes through layers of sand and gravel, which trap particles and impurities.
  • Activated Carbon Filtration: Activated carbon filters adsorb organic compounds and chlorine, improving water taste and odor.
  • Membrane Filtration: Includes microfiltration, ultrafiltration, and nanofiltration. These methods use semi-permeable membranes to remove very small particles, bacteria, and viruses


To remove fine particles, this method uses air bubbles to lift residual particles to the water’s surface where they can be skimmed off. There are two types of flotation methods - dissolved air flotation (DAF) and induced air flotation (IAF). In DAF, air is dissolved in water under pressure and then released. The air bubbles attach to the particles, causing them to float to the surface. In IAF, air is introduced into the wastewater by mechanical means, creating bubbles that help float contaminants to the surface.

Flotation is particularly effective when dealing with contaminants such as oils, grease, and other suspended solids. This strategy is common in industries like food processing, oil refineries, and chemical manufacturing.

Coagulation and Flocculation

Coagulation involves adding coagulants (chemicals like aluminum sulfate or ferric chloride) to wastewater. These chemicals neutralize the charges on suspended particles, causing them to destabilize and clump together. It is commonly used to treat water with high levels of suspended solids, such as in municipal water treatment plants and industrial processes.

After coagulation, the water undergoes flocculation, which involves gentle mixing to form larger clumps of particles called flocs. Flocculants (polymers) are often added to aid in this process. This step helps aggregate smaller particles into larger ones, making it easier to remove them through sedimentation or filtration.


Disinfection utilizes chemicals or physical methods to kill or inactivate harmful microorganisms present in the industrial wastewater. This process commonly uses disinfectants such as chlorine, ozone, and ultraviolet (UV) light. Disinfection is crucial for ensuring that treated wastewater is safe for discharge or reuse, particularly in applications like drinking water treatment and food processing.


This process is required to adjust the pH of the industrial wastewater to neutral by adding acids or bases. Neutralization is essential for industries that produce highly acidic or alkaline wastewater, such as chemical manufacturing, mining, and metal plating. Proper pH levels are necessary to protect aquatic life and prevent corrosion in pipes and equipment.


Precipitation involves adding chemicals to wastewater to form insoluble compounds with dissolved contaminants. These compounds then settle out of the water as solid precipitates. Chemical Precipitation uses lime, alum, iron salts, and the like to precipitate heavy metals and other dissolved substances. Another type of precipitation is referred to as softening, where lime or soda ash is added to remove hardness from water. Precipitation is widely used to remove heavy metals, phosphates, and other dissolved contaminants from industrial wastewater.

Oxidation and Reduction

This water treatment process involves adding oxidizing agents like chlorine, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide to convert harmful contaminants into less harmful substances. This strategy is particularly used to treat industrial wastewater containing organic pollutants, cyanides, and sulfides.

Similarly, reduction is the process of converting contaminants into less harmful forms. It is used for specific contaminants that can be effectively treated by chemical reduction, such as certain heavy metals.

Activated Sludge Process

In this process, wastewater is mixed with a small amount of sludge containing bacteria and other microorganisms. These microbes consume organic pollutants, converting them into carbon dioxide, water, and additional biomass. The activated sludge process is widely used for treating municipal and industrial wastewater with high organic content.

Membrane Technologies

More advanced industrial water treatment methods use membrane technologies, such as reverse osmosis (RO), ultrafiltration (UF), and nanofiltration (NF), to separate contaminants from water. These methods are effective for removing dissolved salts, heavy metals, and other small particles and are widely used in industries requiring high-purity water, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals.

To effectively treat wastewater, it is important to understand the concept of chemical oxygen demand (COD). Chemical Oxygen Demand is a critical measure in wastewater treatment that represents the amount of oxygen required to chemically oxidize organic and inorganic compounds in water. It helps identify the level of organic pollutants in wastewater, providing a snapshot of water quality. High levels of COD means a higher concentration of oxidizable pollutants.


Challenges to Industrial Wastewater Treatment Systems

Industrial wastewater treatment systems face several challenges due to the complexity and variety of pollutants, the emergence of new contaminants, and the need for efficient plant design and energy management. These challenges require innovative solutions and tailored approaches to ensure effective treatment.

Complexity of Pollutants and Contaminants

Industrial wastewater can contain a wide range of contaminants, including heavy metals, chemical compounds, petroleum waste, and infectious pathogens. Each of these pollutants requires specific treatment methods to be effectively removed.

Heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium can be toxic and need specialized treatment processes such as chemical precipitation or ion exchange. Chemical compounds, including solvents and pesticides, may require advanced oxidation processes or activated carbon adsorption to be broken down or removed. Petroleum waste, often found in oil and gas industries, needs methods like flotation, biological treatment, membrane separation, or advanced oxidation treatment methods to degrade organic constituents (these are mostly organic as well). Infectious pathogens from certain industries, like healthcare or food processing, necessitate thorough disinfection processes, such as chlorination or ultraviolet (UV) treatment.

Aside from that, modern industrial processes and products introduce new contaminants into industrial wastewater that traditional treatment methods may not efficiently remove. These include pharmaceuticals, personal care products, microplastics, and various polymers.

Energy Expenditure and Plant Design

Many industrial wastewater treatment methods, such as reverse osmosis, advanced oxidation, and certain biological treatments, require significant amounts of energy to operate. This high energy consumption can lead to increased operational costs and carbon footprint.

Effective plant design is crucial to accommodate the expected volume and variability of wastewater to be treated. Industrial water treatment plants must be flexible enough to handle fluctuations in water flow and pollutant load. It is crucial to design a wastewater treatment plant that can efficiently process large volumes of water while maintaining high treatment standards is a complex task. Factors such as space constraints, local environmental conditions, and regulatory requirements must be considered.



What is the main industrial use of water?

Water is primarily used in industries for cooling, cleaning, processing, and as an ingredient in manufacturing products.

What are the methods of treatment of industrial wastewater?

Common methods include sedimentation, filtration, coagulation and flocculation, disinfection, neutralization, biological treatments (like activated sludge and trickling filters), membrane technologies (such as reverse osmosis), and advanced oxidation processes.

Why does industrial waste need to be treated?

Industrial waste needs to be treated to remove harmful contaminants, protect public health, preserve the environment, comply with regulations, and ensure the safe operation of industrial systems.

What are the causes of industrial wastewater?

Industrial wastewater is caused by various industrial processes, including manufacturing, cooling, cleaning, and chemical processing. It contains contaminants such as heavy metals, chemicals, organic waste, and pathogens.

How is industrial water treated?

Industrial water is treated using a combination of physical, chemical, and biological methods. These include sedimentation, filtration, chemical treatments (like coagulation and disinfection), and biological processes to remove contaminants and make the water safe for reuse or discharge.


TRADESAFE is an established American-based and owned company trusted by thousands for industry safety supplies and equipment. We offer Lockout Tagout products, eye wash stations, workplace signs, and more; all precision-engineered to enhance and ensure workplace safety.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.

Author: Lazar Nesovic

Lazar Nesovic, a TRADESAFE representative with a B.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Texas Tech University, excels in process engineering and skin immunotherapy research. His work, including a significant publication on allergen immunotherapy and a provisional patent, has secured over $5 million in research funding. Alongside his academic and professional achievements, Lazar has demonstrated leadership in various roles and is dedicated to community service, including volunteering for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. His expertise greatly enhances TRADESAFE's commitment to safety and development.