Grid Shutdown: Boil Water Advisory

If you have ever had a water main break on your street or any other service disruption to your water supply you may have experienced a Boil Water Advisory or a Boil Water Order. Boil water advisories/orders are the official response from the people running the water system. Below is a brief description of when a system would issue a boil water advisory or order and some general ideas for what should and should not be done as someone under a boil water advisory/order.

Source: districtgov.org

The good news about a boil water advisory is that they are often issued as a precautionary measure. Meaning they are often used in cases where the water isn’t actually dangerous. The system operators issue the warnings so they have done the proper due diligence. The liabilities involved if someone gets sick or dies and the public wasn’t informed are huge. Ok, at this point you may be wondering what sort of situations would require a boil water advisory. Typically any time there will be work on the distribution system requiring lowering the pressure or if the disinfection of the water system is interrupted for a long time.

Boil water orders are more serious. They come into place when large and persistent problems occur. Things like contamination of the source water and major failure of critical treatment equipment can cause boil water orders.

Boil Water Notice From The Regional District Of North Okanagan (source: vernonblog.blogspot.com)

The first thing you should do when you learn about a boil water advisory or order is read the information given to you. It will have instructions for you. It will have essential information for you like the cause if it is known and the expected duration. It will also list acceptable uses of the water, you might need to boil before drinking but washing is fine. Or you may not be able to use the water for gardening if the reason is due to chemical contamination. If you actually read the notice you will appear to have inside knowledge because in my experience very few people will ever read them. It will also list sources for alternative drinking water supply. Watch how fast the corner store sells out of water. In my experience, people only let this happen once. Then they start keeping a supply.  The written notice will usually only talk about “drinking” but the list of activities that require boiled water include food preparation, coffee makers (some don’t boil the water long enough or hot enough), brushing teeth, making ice, making infant formula and anything going into an immune compromised person.  Veterinarians also recommend that any water given to a domesticated house pet should also be boiled.  Livestock are a different story.  Anything that is already free range is already drinking untreated water and will probably be unaffected by drinking the unboiled water.  However, there is still a limit for bacteria concentrations in water consumed by livestock, free range or not, just like there is for every other animal (including us) on the planet.  Here is a link to the standards for water uses for the Province of British Columbia, use table 1 as a guidline for how to use water during a boil water advisory or boil water order.  If table 1 says “no applicable standard” then it is safe to use the unboiled water. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/microbiology/microbiology.html#toc

The biggest thing you should not do is abandon drinking tap water in favor of bottled water. This is a mistake. If you do this you are still at risk but you are significantly less likely to hear about it if something is wrong. Another thing to avoid doing is panic. This is one of those things where no news is good news. I tell the people that if you stop seeing me and hearing from me then everything is back to normal. This is because I am legislated to tell the public when there is a problem. At this time I also tell them the time line as does the written notice. After two consecutive clean water tests the system and water return to normal. It is also way too time and cost prohibitive to go back door to door and say “everything is fine now”.
If you live in a large city, there will probably be some media coverage of the return to normal situation. Otherwise if you don’t hear anything. After the date on the notice your water is fine. If there is still a problem they are legally required to tell you again about the problem.  Neither a boil water advisory or boil water order is something to panic about it is not time to call a well driller and go off the water system completely (if that is even an option where you live). It is time to start using your preparations and your backup water supplies.

If you don’t want to or can’t boil your water then you can always use an alternative form of disinfection.  Either ultraviolet radiation, sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite are acceptable alternatives.  Be careful of using these alternatives for highly turbid water sources.  The floating debris in the water can hide pathogens, cryptosporidum is highly resistant to chlorine as is girarda adding enough chlorine to kill these two microorganisims will make the water unsafe to drink.  Turbidity can also react with the chlorine to form hazardous chemical byproducts. Remember turbidity is removed from the water by setteling and filtering before disinfection to avoid these two problems. You may want to install a water filter in your home or purchase a portable water filter as a backup.

All that is left is what needs to be done after the boil water notice or order is lifted and everything returns to normal.  Flush all water-using fixtures like faucets and showers for at least one minute. Drain and flush all ice-making machines in your refrigerator. Run water softeners through a regeneration cycle.  Drain and refill hot water tanks set below 45 C (normal setting is 60 C). Change any filters either under sink style, on the faucet style and the ones in a jug in the refrigerator, regardless of the type of filter.  Filters that are designed for untreated water will not need to be changed unless they are used up.

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What To Do When Your Backup Water Is Contaminated

Storing water in case of an emergency is a good idea. Having a reserve enables people to weather emergencies and minor service disruptions. A backup source of water is essential for emergency preparedness, three days without water will lead to death from dehydration, but serious and lifelong complications can occur well before you die from dehydration. Did you know that water sometimes needs to be retreated because clean water becomes contaminated? Water typically gets re-contaminated as people use water and they aren’t careful enough to prevent re-contamination, think about when you are washing up, hands are dirty and that leads to contamination of your stored water. Also a lot of stored water is stored for a long time “in case of emergency”. The problem with long term storage is the disinfectant residual deteriorates with time, reducing the water’s ability to prevent bacterial growth.

Preventing contamination is easier than removing contamination. Leave your stored water is a sealed and preferably airtight container. This physical barrier will stop bacteria in the environment from coming into contact with your drinking water. Next is to only open your reservoir with clean hands. Preferably washed with soap and water. It is better to pour the water you need for clean up before you make a mess. This is actually very important when you go to the bathroom, microscopic pieces of fecal matter on your hands will transfer to everything you touch, including the spigot/lid of your reservoir. Bacteria in that fecal matter will travel up the spigot into the water, it will only be a matter of time. Clean hands and routinely cleaning the exterior of your water storage tank/bottle/container/reservoir are essential to prevent contamination.

Another way to help prevent contamination is Continue reading

Water Quality Myths

There is a lot of misinformation available about water quality.  If taken as true in the wrong situation they could be very costly, they might even cost you your life.

The first myth I want to mention is the belief that ground water is pure. See my article on why I dislike the term “purify” when it concerns water.  I have heard this over and over again, “if we were all drinking ground water we wouldn’t need all these chemicals and we would all be healthier”.  This simply isn’t true.  Ground water does contain bacteria, it is usually free from pathogenic organisms, but that is not guaranteed, and if your system isn’t used to the specific bacteria in the ground water they may still make you a little sick.

The second myth I want to squash is the idea that sunlight, specifically the ultraviolet radiation will kill bacteria.  Let’s think about this for a second.  Using a lack of common sense, sunlight disinfection appears to be true.  UV kills bacteria and the sun emits UV radiation sounds like a win-win scenario.  However with a lot more common sense and some education behind it, it becomes apparent that all the lakes and rivers on the surface of the earth are exposed to sunlight.  If UV from the sun disinfected water, there would be no microscopic life in our water and because this is the bottom of the ecosystem, there would be no ecosystem at all.   Continue reading

Water Quality Is Subjective

Clean water is clean water right? If I don’t get sick when I drink it that means every one can drink it right? The truth is not everyone has the same body chemistry. Everyone has a slightly different tolerance and/or sensitivity to contaminants. This could be an allergy to something in the water but it doesn’t have to be that severe. Children are often more susceptible to contaminants in water, as are the elderly and pregnant women. In the past when water systems have been contaminated, the two populations most likely to get very sick and or die are your children and seniors. Honorable mention goes to people with weakened immune systems which are almost always at greater risk.
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Well Disinfection: What To Do After Contamination Occurs

It is a common misconception that ground water is safe from contamination. This simply is not true. Wells can easily become contaminated if the proper maintenance isn’t taken and even with proper maintenance they can become contaminated during an emergency like a flood. See my article on Ground water and Wells for the proper maintenance of wells to prevent contamination.

Wells can become contaminated two separate ways. The first one is harder to control.  It happens when the entire aquifer becomes contaminated. This can happen when there is an environmental spill of something (anything really) that percolates into the aquifer in or around the recharge area. This could be on your property or a hundred miles away. It all depends on the aquifer.

How Contamination Enters A Well: From: http://www.health.gov.on.ca

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