Three months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to close their doors. Without students, faculty or staff washing their hands and drinking from fountains, plumbing went almost as unused as buildings themselves.
This is problem. Stagnant water in buildings made long free by problems with the coronavirus is health risk.
“Plumbing is for use,” said Andrew Welton, associate professor of civil engineering at Purdue University in Indiana.
When plumbing is not used, water gets into pipes where the level of leached metals and colonies of harmful bacteria can increase.
When students, teachers and staff return to campus and water starts to flow again, these contaminants can get into water bottles and shower heads, adding another health problem to campuses that are already struggling to minimize the impact of COVID-19 .
Universities are not alone in these issues. But campuses are especially vulnerable.
Beyond the walls of each building, a complex network of pipes, pumps, tanks and heaters supplies water for an equally complex collection of drinking fountains, bathroom sinks, toilets, ice makers, sprinkler systems and much more. Use, age, and architecture affect how water moves around the building.
For hard and soft water, different water lines are required. In buildings that have 10 floors, plumbing differs from those in which one or two floors. And new buildings can be designed with water conservation in mind.
Even the sources of water can be different. The University of Iowa has its own water supply system; The University of Wisconsin-au-Claire operates outside the city system.
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Due to the sheer number and variety of buildings, managing water on campuses is challenging and precludes a unified approach to maintaining water quality after long vacancies.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Releases guidelines to minimize risks in water systems for Legionella – bacteria that cause legionnaires’ disease. The guidelines recommend the use of running water and be sure to clean pools and water taps when buildings are busy again.
But Welton noted that legionnaires’ disease is not the only health problem. Higher levels of copper and lead can occur in stagnant water, and the amount of disinfectants in the water can drop, which will allow colonies of other bacteria to grow.
Moreover, Wilton said there were no studies of the quality of water for water that had been in the pipes for several months at a time, and the CDC guidelines were not adapted to specific plumbing systems, which could vary greatly.
In previous studies of how water quality changes when it stagnates in pipes, Wilton watched how three or seven days of stagnation affect water quality. According to Wilton, whenever he and his team did this research, they got a rollback that their approach was “unrealistic” and “no drinking water or water supply system will ever stagnate for more than three days.”
But then COVID-19 arrived.
Now, in the absence of evidence on how best to maintain water quality during long stops, universities will have to think about the measures they are taking to ensure the safety of water in their buildings.
And the clock is ticking. Some staff are already returning to campuses, including researchers and student athletes, Some schools plan to open in August, and many others – albeit in limited numbers – will open by early September.
Each school seems to have developed its own answer.
In mid-March, staff at the University of Wisconsin at Clare realized that the campus was closing. According to Michael Rindo, assistant chancellor for infrastructure and university relations, they immediately recognized the potential for water problems.
Over the past three months, day after day, a team of workers passed through 33 buildings on the upper and lower campus.
They flush every toilet. They run hot and cold water in the sinks. They include showers in dormitories. They run water fountains.
And with each test, they keep their eyes and ears open for any color or smell that may be a warning.
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Mohammad Attalla, executive director of facilities and services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recalls the “marathon meetings” on March 21 and 22 to plan the game plan for his department. Twice a week, water station employees flush the main water supply lines and manage all water sources in 507 campus buildings.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Meredith McGlone, a university spokeswoman, said they follow CDC guidelines, and washbasins and toilets in toilets are flushed “at least once a week.” When people return to buildings, they recommend that people give tapping for a few minutes to clean them.
David Jackson, assistant director of facility management at Iowa State University, said water flushing in “sinks, drinking fountains, and toilets” will begin in early June and will continue “about once a month,” until buildings become more crowded.
Officials from the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota Twin also noted that buildings with low congestion regularly flush.
The diversity of university responses reflects the overall refrain over the past three months.
“We’re all new to this part,” said Andrew DeViz, program manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The University of Wisconsin-A-Claire and the University of Illinois have developed their own domestic water management plans. UW-Madison McGlone says the university follows CDC guidelines. At Iowa State University, water flushing began in June, not March.
And no matter what they do, no one is sure that is enough. According to Attalla, even when washing twice a week, water use at the University of Illinois decreased by 20%.
Juggling many other issues
IN article published online June 16 at AWWA Water ScienceWilton and his colleagues from seven other research institutes talked about the problems that control buildings face in the process of ensuring water quality.
In the article, Wilton made several recommendations:
Develop water management plans that match the specific needs of each building.
Flushing is good, but remember that it is not yet clear how many flushes are required and how often the systems should be flushed.
Regularly check for leaks and other damage.
Check the water quality for several possible contaminants.,
Adjust plans as building occupancy changes.
Inform residents of the building about the risk and possible changes in water quality.
All this happens when universities solve dozens of questions, preparing for the opening.
Rindo said the University of Wisconsin-au-Claire has purchased fogging machines that can be used to disinfect large rooms at night after lectures.
At the University of Illinois, Attalla says they are reducing campus space to maintain social distance. Campus labs produced 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, which will be distributed across departments.
At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the water fountains in the student accommodation have been changed so that they are only water stations, and staff are considering making the stairwells “one-sided” so students cannot pass each other.
“We never had a summer vacation,” said Frank Bartlett, executive director of the University of Housing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “For us, this is absolutely uncharted territory.”
This article originally appeared on Sentinel in the Milwaukee Journal: Coronavirus: colleges opening in autumn worry about water safety