Archives : 2012 : October

Hurricane Sandy: Water Quality Issues are One of East Coast’s Biggest Scare this Halloween

October 31st, 2012

With the recent arrival of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast of the US, millions of Americans are now beginning to understand how natural disasters can severely impact their daily lives. Drinking water supplies were some of the first supplies to be completely depleted from the stores when the public was scrambling to prepare for this “storm of the century”. It seems almost ironic that despite the fact that in a region being inundated with water through rainfall and storm surge, hurricanes have an enormous impact on not only water quality but availability as well.


Empty shelves in the water bottle aisle in an Ocean City, NJ grocery store, October 27, 2012.

We typically associate high winds and heavy rainfall with hurricanes. This extremely heavy rainfall overwhelms underground pipes, streets, and drains that normally carry away storm water leaving behind contaminated standing water. In combined sewer systems that collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater, the flooding will result in untreated sewage overflowing into local water bodies and contaminating local drinking water supplies. Wells also risk contamination from malfunctioning septic tanks leaking sewage and runoff contaminated with surface chemicals soaking into the ground. Currently, residents of many of the states affected by Hurricane Sandy are encouraged to disinfect their wells prior to use for these reasons.

Power Outages

The lack of electricity can also lead to contaminated water and low water availability. Municipal water systems often use pumps to move water and sewage through force mains to the treatment plants. If these pumps operate on electricity, they will be disabled in a power outage which can cause sewage backups and overflows. Many municipal water districts now have back-up generators but whenever generators are the sole power source, water conservation is required. For example, water suppliers like New Jersey American Water are currently asking customers to discontinue non-essential water usage for bathing, watering, and cleaning until further notice.

Rural areas usually rely on electricity to pump water in the home and may experience water shortages during a power outage. Most drinking water wells have electric pumps that will not work without electricity. If the power outage is extended for a longer period of time, water will stagnate and sediment will likely settle in the well and distribution lines. When the power is restored, the well water may be discolored due to the sediment and, while it is usually not harmful, the well may require disinfection to eliminate any disease-causing bacteria or other pathogens.

Solution: Prepare in Advance

Unfortunately, many of the current victims of Hurricane Sandy must either temporarily relocate or rely on relief workers for their water. It is best to prepare in advance for a natural disaster in order to avoid being in a situation where water is either contaminated, in limited supply, or altogether unavailable. It will also help to avoid fighting over the last container of water at a packed grocery store the day before the storm is predicted to arrive. FEMA and CDC recommend storing at least a three-day supply of water, enough for at least one gallon per person per day. See our blog about emergency water storage for more information. It is also a good idea to stockpile a portable water filter. Many of these filters now have the capability to remove contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, and other potentially harmful pollutants, making water from any source drinkable. These filters can substitute storing water or can serve as a back-up if the water supplies are depleted.

Hurricane Sandy is a good example of how a natural disaster can limit the basic necessities that we take for granted. It is important for everyone to learn from this event and be better prepared.


Zombie Apocalypse, Pandemics, and Emergency Preparedness

October 24th, 2012

The concept of the zombie apocalypse has had a major impact on pop culture recently. Hollywood has capitalized on this idea, creating numerous popular movies and television shows about the eventual collapse of society due to an infectious agent that transforms people into undead corpses with a voracious appetite for human flesh. If you spend a few minutes searching on the internet, you will find a wealth of information available to help prepare for and survive a zombie apocalypse. Though most of us do not think a zombie apocalypse is possible, it’s not a bad idea to  incorporate the basic concept into your emergency preparedness plans.

In most scenarios, zombies are typically the end result of a pandemic which is an outbreak of an infectious disease that has spread throughout the human population of a country or even the entire world. While a zombie-producing infectious disease is not expected to ever occur, pandemics like influenza and tuberculosis have occurred in recent history with devastating effects and continue to pose a threat. For instance, the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, known as the “Spanish Flu”, infected approximately one-third of the world’s population, killing 675,000 in the US alone and 50 million people worldwide. Nearly half of the total deaths were in the age group of 20 to 40 years. If another pandemic of the same magnitude and severity were to occur now, scientists estimate that 51 to 81 million people would die. While scientists would attempt to develop a vaccine, there is no guarantee that proper treatment will be available.

In the event of any type of pandemic, you will need to be completely self-reliant. To avoid getting sick, you will want to stay inside your home which will limit your access to supplies. A spreading disease that is infecting a large portion of the population will also halt production and supply of basic necessities. Basic utilities like water and electricity will probably not be available in this situation either. Being unprepared in a situation such as this could have serious, even life-threatening, consequences. Adopt emergency preparedness practices and start planning for a pandemic now. Below is a list of the basic essentials especially important for a pandemic. This list is based upon recommendations from CDC and FEMA.

  • Water is necessary for survival.  If possible, have a 2 week supply of at least one gallon per person per day. A water filter that allows you to create drinkable water from any source is also good to have as a back-up in case your water supplies run out.
  • Non-perishable food items like rice, pasta, crackers, and dried fruit. A 2 week supply is preferable.
  • Prescription drugs
  • Non-prescription drugs such as pain relievers, fever-reducers, cough and cold medicines, etc.
  • Vitamins
  • Thermometer
  • Hand soap and sanitizer
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Hand crank radio or battery-powered radio
  • Extra batteries
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • N95 dust mask for filtering contaminated air
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with charger, inverter, or solar charger
  • Emergency blanket
  • Copies of personal documents (birth certificates, passports, important medical information, insurance policies, etc.)

More emergency preparedness supplies and tips can be found on our previous blogs about emergency preparedness kits, emergency water storage, and emergency preparedness applications for your mobile phone.  A pandemic is a serious threat that could have devastating effects. Whether you are preparing for zombies, influenza, or other infectious disease, the basic supplies are very similar and will help you survive any situation.


Rainwater Harvesting: Pros and Cons

October 17th, 2012

Rainwater harvesting is becoming increasingly popular among US residents. If you are considering rainwater harvesting, read below to learn more about some of the pros and cons associated with having a collection system in your home.


Multiple Uses

Rainwater can be used to water indoor and outdoor plants, as well as lawns and gardens. Obviously, this is a more natural process than using water from a municipal water supply which means that it will likely be of a better quality and improve the health of your plants. It can also be used for drinking water and other household purposes as long as it is properly filtered and treated.

No Municipal Water Contaminants

Rainwater harvesting eliminates a lot of concern about many contaminants your water. The newly captured rainwater does not contain common municipal water contaminants like salts, minerals, disinfectants like chlorine, and additives like fluoride. Also, the pH of rainwater is almost neutral which most people find desirable.

Reduced Utility Bill

Many of us are all too familiar with the increased water bills in the summer months, especially if you live in a dry climate. By using harvested rainwater, you can reduce your municipal water usage and save money since rain is free! If you use rainwater for other household purposes like cleaning, washing, cooking, or even drinking, you will save a substantial amount of money throughout the year.

Alternative Water Source

When your usual water source is limited or not available, rainwater is a good alternative. If you live in a rural area with no other water supply than a well, consider harvesting rainwater to serve as a back-up if contamination or drought conditions occur. Residents of the state of Texas are subject to drought conditions and frequently promote rainwater harvesting in the news. Many rainwater harvesters enjoy the self-reliance that comes with having an emergency water supply.

Decreased Run-off

By diverting the flow of rainwater, you will reduce the amount of run-off on your property. This helps to reduce erosion, low level flooding, and flow to storm water drains. If your property is part of a combined sewer system, which collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe, heavy rainfall can cause overflows of untreated sewage into local water bodies. By harvesting rainwater, you are helping in a small way to prevent non-point source pollution.


Initial Expense

It is important to plan for an initial expense. The cost of the system will vary based upon the complexity. Simple systems frequently used to collect non-potable water (for gardens, etc.) primarily consist of a catchment surface, plumbing fittings, and something as simple as a garbage can to hold the water. If you are interested in connecting the water to your home, you may need to contact a professional. Furthermore, if you require larger storage, your largest expense by far will be the storage tank. Cisterns can vary in cost based on the material (polypropylene, fiberglass, wood, etc.) and by size. More expensive cisterns will cost several dollars per gallon. Other components you will need to purchase for a larger system include screens, filters, and pumps.

Operation and Maintenance

Unlike municipal water, you will have to take steps to operate and maintain your system. If you are using the rainwater for drinking water you will need to filter it. You will also need to maintain the pumps and clean the system regularly. It is recommended that you inspect the system twice a year to ensure that it is working properly.

Water Quality

While the rainwater lacks contaminants commonly found in municipal water systems, it has been found to contain trace amounts of air pollutants such as arsenic and mercury which are absorbed from the atmosphere. Since the rainwater is usually collected from your roof, the water can have feces, bacteria, dust, and other material that is small enough to pass through the initial screens. If you will be drinking this water, you will want to use a water purifier that can remove all biological and chemical contaminants.

Unpredictable Rainfall Amounts

Careful planning is necessary to avoid using more water than what you collected. You will need to be especially careful if you live in an area with dry spells because you will consume saved water rather quickly. Just remember that rainfall amounts are unpredictable so plan accordingly.


Some regulations may prohibit rainwater collection. For example, in Colorado the state claims the right to all moisture that falls within the state border. Consequently, a Colorado resident cannot divert rainwater to be used for a specific purpose unless there is a surplus of water in the river system, or if the individual has an older water right or is a domestic well-owner that meets specific conditions.

If, after reviewing the pros and cons, you decide that collecting rainwater is a good option and you would like more information, read our previous blog about rainwater harvesting.


IsTotal Dissolved Solids the Best Water Quality Indicator ?

October 10th, 2012

Those of us who are concerned with the quality of our drinking water frequently turn to the total dissolved solids (TDS) measurement to determine whether our water is contaminant-free or not. But do we all really understand what total dissolved solids are and what this measurement tells us about drinking water quality? It seems worthwhile to dig a little deeper and discover what TDS is all about.

What is TDS?

The term, total dissolved solids (TDS), is used to describe the amount of materials dissolved in water. Most of these materials are dissolved salts or ions that are naturally occurring like calcium, magnesium, sodium, carbonate, bicarbonate, and so on. For example, molecules like calcite (CaCO3) are present in some types of rock, like shale, and dissolve easily into calcium and carbonate ions when coming into contact with water. Unfortunately industrial waste, sewage, urban and fertilizer runoff, and countless other sources may also contain many materials like lead, arsenic, or nitrates that easily dissolve in the water and contribute to TDS as well.

How is TDS measured?

There are several different ways to measure TDS but the most common method usually used by household TDS meters is based on conductivity which is the ease with which electric current flows through the water. As the concentration of ions increases, the conductivity increases as well. The conductivity measurement is converted to a concentration measurement which is usually described by parts per million (ppm).

What can the TDS reading tell us?

Any TDS reading greater than zero ppm indicates that ions are present in the water however we cannot conclude from this reading alone that the water poses a risk to human health since we do not know the type of ions present. The reading could simply be due to a healthy mineral such as calcium which can actually improve the taste of the water. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that water with up to 300ppm TDS, consisting of healthy mineral ions, was rated as having excellent taste by study participants. Furthermore TDS levels are not even regulated in the United States. The EPA instead only recommends these levels do not exceed 500 ppm to avoid aesthetic issues like color or unpleasant taste.

Nevertheless, a high TDS reading raises concerns with many people. If you are getting an elevated reading, it is possible that harmful contaminants are contributing to TDS as well. It is best to think of TDS as a “screening test” that informs you that something is in your drinking water. From this point, the Colorado State University (CSU) Cooperative Extension System and WHO recommend that you have the water tested to identify the specific ions that are causing the elevated TDS reading.

If you would like to read more about TDS, the CSU Cooperative Extension System website and the WHO report about total dissolved solids in drinking water are very useful.


The Facts About Coliform Bacteria in Your Water

October 3rd, 2012

Occasionally, municipal water suppliers will report that coliform bacteria are present in the drinking water supply. Many of us wonder, though, exactly what are coliform bacteria?


Coliform bacteria are actually a group of bacteria that naturally occur in soils, surface water, and on plants but can also be normal inhabitants of your digestive system as well as the digestive systems of most warm-blooded animals. Most of the members of this group cannot make you sick.

Coliform bacteria are an indicator of water quality. Testing for all types of disease-causing bacteria is very time-consuming and costly. A much faster and more cost-effective approach is to test for the presence of all coliform bacteria, or total coliforms. This serves as a screening process for all coliforms as well as any disease-causing organisms. If  coliform bacteria are detected in your water supply, environmental contamination has occurred.  It is possible that disease-causing bacteria, viruses, or parasites may have also entered the system. The likelihood that you will get sick is relatively low but your water supplier must notify you within 30 days of the contamination. Your supplier will also then test for fecal coliforms.

Fecal Coliforms

Fecal coliforms are a sub-group of coliform bacteria. This microbe group, which includes the well-known bacteria, E. coli, is found in human and animal digestive tracts and feces. While many species of fecal coliforms are harmless, certain strains can make you sick if you ingest contaminated water. Usual symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, and headaches which will typically last for five to 10 days. E. coli O157:H7 is a particularly troublesome strain that causes severe, often bloody, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Small children and adults with weakened immune systems may even experience kidney failure.

If fecal coliform are detected in your water supply, it is likely that feces or sewage waste has contaminated the water system which is a concern for human health. If this occurs, your water supplier must notify you within 24 hours and you will be instructed to boil any water prior to cooking or drinking, or to only use bottled water, until the contamination issue is addressed.

Are Coliform Bacteria in Your Water?

If you would like to know whether any coliform bacteria were detected in your municipal water supply, you can view your Consumer Confidence Report which is released annually. For more information about discovering what is in your tap water, read our blog about drinking water quality. If you have a private well, the CDC recommends that you have your well tested for total coliforms every year.