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Common Distribution System Deficiencies

This article was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of Spigot News, the Ohio EPA's drinking water program newsletter. Many thanks for allowing us to republish it! You may also be interested in the articles Common Source Water Deficiencies and Common Treatment Deficiencies

This article is a continuation of the series on common deficiencies, covering source, treatment and distribution deficiencies. This article covers different aspects of the distribution system, including cross-connection, backflow, depressurization events, water age and infrastructure deterioration. 

Cross-connection
A “cross-connection” occurs in areas of the plumbing system where non-potable water comes in contact with potable water. There are two types of cross-connections: direct and indirect cross-connections. 

Direct cross-connections – the potable system is permanently connected to a non-potable system (for example a submerged inlet pipe for a chemical feed system). 

Indirect cross-connections – there is a potential for a connection of the potable system to a non-potable system (for example, a garden hose connected to an outside hose bid without a vacuum breaker or a bidet with a douche sprayer or jet that fills the bowl below the rim). 

Establish cross-connection control ordinances for municipalities with diligent inspections of new and existing plumbing to prevent possible cross-connection issues. These issues may be identified during a sanitary survey or when real estate is bought and/or sold within the municipality. 

Backflow and Backsiphonage
A “backflow event” is when non-potable water is forced by pressure into the potable water supply due to a direct cross-connection. All distribution systems must maintain a minimum pressure of 20 psig and a 35 psig working pressure during all water demands including fires. Distribution systems that fall below these minimum pressures may experience a backflow event if an overpowering pressure differential is experienced by a competing cross-connection within the system. 

A “backsiphonage event” is when water flows backward in the water distribution system from a vessel or other contamination source because the distribution system has lost, created or reduced pressure. 

Backflow devices (backflow preventers, double check valves, testable reduced pressure zone device, etc.) are required on certain businesses that pose the most threat to a potable water system, but municipalities can require all businesses and homes within their jurisdictions to install and inspect backflow devices every 12 months. Another preventative measure may be to conduct a hydraulic assessment of the distribution system to identify those areas at most risk of a backflow event. Once identified, these areas can be targeted for improvement.  

Depressurization Events
System-wide depressurization events are rare but can occur when mains break or electrical power is lost. When an event occurs, it is strongly recommended to issue a boil alert to those affected. Public water systems can issue a boil alert without consulting Ohio EPA, but boil alerts that affect a major portion of the distribution system must be reported within 24 hours. The municipality may lift voluntary boil alerts after the system is pressurized and the designated operator clears the system for providing drinking water. (Editor's Note: Please see your state agency for reporting requirements that affect you.)

The best way to avoid a depressurization is to keep the water and power flowing. When all power is lost through the electrical grid an alternate source of energy that will run the treatment plant and the distribution system critical components, such as a generator, is an excellent choice. 

Water main breaks are resolved by isolating the break quickly while maintaining water pressure to the rest of the system. This approach works well when all valves are accurately identified and working properly. A valve exercising program identifies the valves and keeps them working correctly in case they are needed. 

Water Age
The issues related to water age are directly attributable to water quantity and quality needs. These vital needs are always in conflict because quantity objectives dictate excessive storage issues while quality strives to minimize storage time while maintaining appropriate disinfectant residuals. Public water systems must strike a balance to minimize water age, effectively limit the formation of disinfection by products (DBPs) such as HAA5s and TTHMs, and keep disinfectant residuals within regulatory limits. 

A Distribution System Optimization Plan (DSOP) offers a mix of options for public water systems to meet quantity and quality standards by optimizing treatment and storage capabilities. OAC Rule 3745-81-78 (Note: This is now a rescinded Ohio regulation.) details the DSOP requirements and options. For more on sanitary surveys for small water systems, read Preparing for a Sanitary Survey for Small Public Water Systems.

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