Though the water we drink from the tap, use for our morning coffee or take a shower with is tested and we feel it is generally safe, it does contain bacteria and other microorganisms that can be harmful at times. We usually don’t think about this except for very brief experiences we have with unclean or possibly untreated water.
For instance, if you’ve ever moved into an apartment that has been vacant a while, you may have been told to run the water before you use the tap or take a shower. Similarly, you may think about the quality or safety of your water when a water main breaks or water quality testing is done by your city and a boil water advisory is issued.
Even when water quality is good, the potential for bacteria and fungi to take advantage of the moist environment in the pipes at water treatment plants could mean that water quality may fluctuate over time. These organisms can even threaten the health of those who drink from infected pipes. Italian based startup, Alvim Srl designed a water detection system to lead the fight against such infestation by detecting the presence of microorganisms that grow in pipes, water tanks, heat exchangers and in other devices at water treatment plants.
Their devices are made to monitor the growth of biofilm in real time and prevent the most significant waterborne disease in the US (Legionellosis or Legionnaires disease). Their detection takes place in industrial plants, ensuring that water doesn’t reach the pipes in our homes and businesses already contaminated by potentially deadly or harmful bacteria and other common microorganisms.
Biofilm is a layer of microorganisms (like bacteria, diatoms or fungi among others) that grows on surfaces which make contact with liquid, like the inner walls of pipes that are in contact with water. When the term is used, it usually refers to bacteria, however. Biofilm can even develop in extreme conditions. Perhaps the most well-known threats of biofilm are Legionella contamination and Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC).
Legionella, which mentioned before causes the illness and hospitalization of thousands in the US each year, even causing death in some cases as well. Legionella pneumophila is the bacteria that causes the disease though the presence of other benign bacteria can create a better environment for *Legionella pneumophila *to grow.
MIC is a serious problem in many industrial water plants due to the constant presence of various bacterial communities. It’s considered aggressive and when very bad can lead to pipe failure but it isn’t easy to eliminate. If it’s not completely eradicated in one area, it can reinfect cleaned pipes.
So what does Alvim Srl do to monitor this and why isn’t traditional water testing enough? The ALVIM system works by making sure plants can prevent and detect their biggest problems before they become their biggest headaches. Their system tracks the bioelectrochemical signal that is emitted by bacteria themselves. Since the signal is linked to the spread and presence of bacteria only, it will not falsely detect other things in the water like mineral deposits or proteins.
Plants can detect major problems immediately and smaller problems can be caught before the biofilm matures and is harder to treat. Alvim Srl provides free support and assistance interpreting data but they insist that users are able to manage the systems independently after a few weeks of use.
Water samples and tests in labs are used to assure quality, however, once bacteria settle on the surface of the water, the biofilm will continue to grow in other places. This means that it can be hard to detect its presence. Furthermore, with a lab test, approximately 99% of all bacterial species tested for will not grow in laboratory culture meaning that these test can fail to detect the actual level of bacteria in our water.
Unlike similar sensors on the market, the ALVIM device detects only biofilm, has an extremely high sensitivity (catching biofilm development, even in its initial phases) and provides an early warning system before biofilm growth gets too bad.
So far Alvim Srl is used worldwide by the technical staff in sanitation plants to detect the growth of biofilm and prevent or treat bacterial problems that can compromise water integrity. Since the water supply we have on this planet is fixed and finding clean, drinkable water is vital to our existence, tests that help keep the water we do have clean and safe are big businesses. Startups like Alvim Srl are proving once again that big and mainstream doesn’t mean you’re getting the best solution and that small and entrepreneurial doesn’t mean you have to settle.