Water utilities have a primary responsibility to provide safe drinking water to their customers, and any contamination, suspected or confirmed, must be taken seriously. That’s because even low levels of contamination from any number of sources can pose a risk to public health particularly for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.
So, when a water utility suspects a problem, its top priority is to take immediate action to protect the public from harm. Those steps may involve flushing pipes, switching raw water supplies, shutting down the water supply, issuing public health alerts, and working with public health authorities to determine the cause and extent of the contamination.
Contamination can occur at numerous places along the complex supply, treatment, and delivery chain. Some of the common reasons may include:
From the source:
- Contaminated Source Water: The water from rivers and lakes and groundwater sources can be filled with contaminants (both natural and man-made, such as pesticides, fertilizers, or industrial pollutants).
- Poor Water Treatment Processes or Monitoring Controls: Without the right monitoring and corrective actions enabled, water treatment processes can easily become compromised.
- Equipment failure: Plant hardware including pumps, pipes, filters, etc. require constant work and upkeep to function safely and effectively. Poor or missing maintenance can lead to sudden equipment breakdowns or allow for microbial-based biofilms and corrosion over time.
During delivery to customers:
- Aging Infrastructure: As the pipes and distribution systems age, they can corrode or become damaged, allowing contaminants to enter the water supply.
- Cross-Connection: Cross-connection occurs when non-potable water, such as wastewater or irrigation water, enters the drinking water system through a connection between the two systems.
- Backflow: Backflow occurs when water flows in the opposite direction from its intended flow, which can lead to the introduction of contaminants into the water supply.
- Water Main Breaks: Water main breaks can allow contaminants to enter the water supply through cracks and leaks.
- Human Activities: Human activities such as construction, excavation, and illegal dumping can damage pipes and distribution systems, leading to contamination.
- Natural Disasters: Major events such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes can damage infrastructure and cause contamination in the water supply.
As shown here, water utilities must contend with multiple points of potential contamination. As such, water utility teams must regularly monitor water purity accurately at any number of control points before, during and after treatment.
There are Critical Control Points (CCPs), specific points or stages in a process where control measures can be applied to prevent or eliminate contamination—or identify and quantify should something happen—to ensure the safety and quality of a product. In the case of water utilities, CCPs are critical points where water quality can be impacted, and control measures must be applied to maintain safe and clean drinking water. Some CCPs for water utilities include:
- Source water protection: This involves protecting the source of water from contamination through measures such as land-use planning, control of pollution sources, and regular monitoring of water quality.
- Treatment processes: The water treatment process involves multiple steps to remove impurities, disinfect the water, and ensure it is safe to drink. CCPs within this process may include filtration, chlorination, or other treatment methods, and maintaining appropriate pH levels.
- Distribution system monitoring: The distribution system is a network of pipes, pumps, and storage tanks that delivers treated water to customers. CCPs within this system include monitoring for leaks, breaks, and other potential hazards that may impact water quality.
But even if a water utility wants to test at these locations, traditional methods have proven challenging. These include:
- Transport and logistics: Collecting representative samples of water from different locations can be difficult, especially in large and complex distribution networks. Sampling protocols must be carefully designed to ensure that samples are collected properly before sent back to a lab for results.
- Testing Accuracy: Analyzing water samples for contaminants, such as microorganisms, can be complex, time-consuming, and depending on the method used, may provide very inaccurate information about what’s actually in the water. That’s because traditional methods typically depend on bacterial growth and are therefore not equipped to quantify the actual amount of microorganisms that may be present.
- Response Time: Water companies need to respond quickly to any suspected contamination to protect public health. However, traditional laboratory techniques can take hours or even days to produce results, which may delay the response time. This is extremely problematic when there’s suspected contamination. Act too soon, and water utilities face highly disruptive and expensive protocols. Move too late, the net effect could result in dire consequences among those consuming the water.
Water utility companies need more than just a lab-based tool to check for possible contamination. They specifically need a system that is fast, reliable, and most importantly has the portability to allow them to easily bring that diagnostic proficiency into the field for on-site testing.
rqmicro.COUNT does all that, and more.
rqmicro.COUNT is a small, portable and rapid microbiological water analysis instrument that is easily deployable on-site. That means water utilities can easily bring the unit to the area of suspected contamination. This saves valuable time, and negates the additional logistics required to transport those water samples back to the lab for analysis. That’s crucial when the clock is ticking. What’s more, the rqmicro.COUNT itself is fast. It uses flow cytometry which is an optical single-cell counting technology and can provide accurate, reliable results quickly. Some results can be ready in just 30 minutes.
Beyond on-demand testing for suspected contamination, rqmicro.COUNT also can support rapid and reliable information about the actual microbial load in the water for daily and routine monitoring for water utilities.
This can be done through the following kits that work with rqmicro.COUNT:
- Total Cell Count: This kit can quantify the number of total bacteria in up to eight samples in just 30 minutes providing a fast, accurate and effective way for water utilities for testing supplies. This is an important step to ensure water remain safe, and to help inform the proper response should bacterial loads rise above key thresholds.
- Intact Cell Count: Like total cell count, this kit can measure total viable bacteria in water samples. The total amount of live bacteria cannot be accurately estimated in labs using conventional water testing methods, but provides direct insight into the microbial load, into events of potential contamination and into the microbiological dynamic at play throughout the water distribution system. It is a key parameter to watch as part of the quality management and in the interest of public health. Water utilities should incorporate this level of testing into their daily monitoring protocols.