Aqua labs: Going above and beyond to keep Aqua water clean

By Aqua Laboratory/Research Manager Charles Hertz, Ph.D.

August is National Water Quality Month, which is the perfect time to teach about what Aqua does to provide our customers with water of the highest quality.

I work out of Aqua’s primary lab in Bryn Mawr, PA, where I oversee a team of chemists and microbiologists with lab and water quality backgrounds, who test Aqua’s water supply. Lab employees are also stationed at water treatment facilities across Aqua’s service territories to complete additional, local testing.

 

Aqua’s labs are accredited in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia. That means that its test results are deemed acceptable by each state for compliance testing. The laboratories in Pennsylvania’s Roaring Creek and Shenango water treatment plants are also state-certified for specific testing, primarily for coliform bacteria.

In addition to the tests run in the Bryn Mawr laboratories, there is additional testing done at the water treatment plants, which have online continuous monitoring instrumentation that tests for turbidity (cloudiness of the water), chlorine and pH levels. That data is complemented with spot checks conducted by plant treatment operators every two hours. Process-control bacteria sampling is conducted at the treatment plants after filtration and disinfection testing of the finished water is completed to ensure the water is properly disinfected before leaving the plant.

Among the most important testing done at all of our water treatment plants is taste and odor testing. Beyond knowing that the water meets all environmental regulations, what our customers want most is to know that their water looks, smells and tastes good. They want it to be absent of color and flavor, and these operational tests done at the treatment plants ensure that is what we’re providing.

While various tests are required by law to ensure that Aqua’s water meets federal and state drinking water standards, we voluntarily complete thousands of additional tests each month to further ensure the safety and quality of our water. In total, we conduct about 250,000 tests on about 30,000 samples annually.

The frequency for compliance testing varies by constituent. For instance, certain radionuclide testing is required every three years, compared with bacteriological sampling, which is required each month. Coliform bacteria must be tested in the distribution system after the water leaves the treatment facility. The number of bacteriological samples tested each month depends on system size.

One potential issue that is carefully monitored, particularly in the warm summer months, is the presence of algae in source water. Algae blooms can create organic compounds in water, which can lead to earthy or musty odors and tastes. This water is not harmful, but its taste and odor make it unpalatable to many. There are some people who are hypersensitive – compared to most – and can taste these compounds when present in parts per trillion, which makes Aqua’s job particularly difficult.

Beyond testing water throughout the treatment process, Aqua’s labs also play an important role in crisis situations that arise due to environmental or ecological issues that impact water quality. When certain contaminants are found in a given area, we increase our water testing beyond what is required by regulations. Additional testing can include watershed and groundwater samples. Recently, Aqua purchased additional technology to ensure accurate and timely test results for PFCs, unregulated chemicals that are currently receiving a lot of attention in Southeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

The regulatory tests are a snapshot in time, but we test more frequently to determine what our water quality is on a regular basis and to provide context to our compliance testing, which helps us stay on top of things. Most of what is in water is just that – water. Everything else is measured in trace amounts of one part per million or less.

There is no magic bullet that will ensure high quality water. Good water quality is a combination of many things and there isn’t one test that will tell water professionals or our customers if the water is drinkable or if it is safe. Compliance testing, continuous operational testing and monitoring, and treatment adjustments when and where necessary, are what we will continue to do to ensure that our customers are getting quality water that meets or outperforms environmental regulations. 

Chuck's interest in water testing started at a young age!

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6 Ways to Improve Water Quality Right In Your Backyard

August is National Water Quality Month, which is a great reason to remember that clean water is an invaluable resource to our communities both big and small. Aqua is committed to ensuring water quality. Our efforts to update and maintain infrastructure are one way Aqua helps make a difference, but we like celebrating the simple ways individuals can make a difference, too.

Here are six easy ways you can stand with us in our pledge to protect the water in our communities.

Wash the Days of Disposing of Chemicals in Your Sink or Toilet Down the Drain

If you need to get rid of paint, chemical cleaners or any other questionable liquids, do not dispose of them in your sink! Some of the chemicals in these products can be toxic, so you do not want them to get into your water supply. Instead, it’s easy to find a proper way to dispose of these hazardous waste materials by searching Earth911 or by contacting your local sanitation, public works or environmental health department.

Additionally, non-biodegradable objects such as baby wipes, feminine hygiene products and medicines should never be flushed down the toilet as a method of disposal. Instead, dispose these items in their proper trash receptacles or see if your local pharmacy has a take-back program to safely get rid of pills.

Hit the Road with Improper Car-Washing Techniques

You might think washing your car at home is a no-brainer, but you may be surprised to know that because many car-washing soaps contain mixtures of various chemicals, you could be unknowingly contaminating your water supply.

When you use cleaning products inside your home, the used water goes straight to a treatment plant through sanitary sewer systems. The leftover water from washing a car outside, however, often goes down storm drains and ends up in water supply systems without undergoing proper treatment.

Instead, consider getting your car washed at a commercial business designed to handle all the watery runoff. Professional car washes tend to use 60 percent less water than at-home methods, too. If you prefer to wash your own car, make sure to invest in biodegradable and phosphate-free cleaners. Wash on an area that absorbs water, such as gravel or grass, and use a trigger nozzle on your hose to conserve water. 

Put Your Banana Peels To Good Use

 

Common lawn chemicals such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides are often used to care for gardens and yards. When they aren’t used correctly, though, they can enter into streams where they can harm critters and contaminate drinking water.

Instead, consider using compost as a natural fertilizer. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a helpful guide to how to get started. Composting adds nutrients and organic matter back into soil without relying on harmful chemicals found in synthetic fertilizers. 

Make Picking Up Your Pet’s Number Two Your Number One Priority

When you don’t pick up your pet’s waste, you put yourself and your water supply at risk. During rain storms, a lot of this waste runs straight into storm drains that—you guessed it—do not get treated to ensure water quality.

Did you know you can make it a priority for your neighborhood to clean up after its four-legged friends by coming together to install a community waste bag station? Consider fundraising to buy a ready-made waste station, or rise to the challenge building your own.

Throw Litter For a Loop

Litter on streets, sidewalks and parking lots easily washes into our water systems. Even if you would never dream of littering, it’s important to note that it still happens all the time. People are less likely to litter when it isn’t the norm, so instead of relying on others to pick up trash, challenge yourself to lead by example. 

Organize a Community Clean-Up 

The most effective way to protect water quality in your community is to go straight to the source. Enacting a community clean-up of your local watershed can do wonders for your local ecosystem and water supply. There are plenty of existing toolkits that make it as easy as possible for community members to organize clean-up efforts at local rivers or streams.

You can also search for established clean-up projects in your area. Most groups are always looking for volunteers and would be happy to include you in their efforts.

Clearly, a great deal of planning goes into a community clean-up, but a commitment to water quality in the long-run is beneficial to all.

There are so many ways to protect the water in your community. Together we can ensure that the quality of our water remains a priority for ourselves, our families and generations to come. 

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