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!