How to safely flush plumbing systems and re-open facilities after shut-down

by Jeremy Overmann, Chemist & Water Treatment Specialist
ISTC Institutional Water Treatment services group

The domestic plumbing systems in any building or part of a building that has been shut down or has experienced reduced use due to COVID-19 policies are at risk for causing disease and death due to the effects of increased water age, including corrosion and growth of bacteria. Before re-opening any such building, take steps to minimize these risks and include consultation with a licensed plumber.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has a general guidance document for returning these systems to regular use. In Attachment B (Section II, Step 2. b), IDPH recommends setting the water heater to at least 120 degrees F prior to flushing the domestic hot water plumbing.

We recommend a higher temperature of at least 142 degrees F as this will kill Legionella bacteria in the heater within 30 minutes. However, do not use water at this temperature for flushing if the building’s drain waste vent (DWV) materials and/or plumbing system components cannot handle this higher temperature.

WARNING: 142 degree F water can cause third degree burns in seconds. Note that Legionella bacteria can continue to grow at temperatures up to 122 degrees F.

The Environmental Science Policy and Research Institute has written a useful guidance document, Reducing Risk to Staff Flushing Buildings, which offers best practices for flushing building water systems in a way that keeps facility staff safe.

Use the IDPH guidance in conjunction with your facility’s Legionella Water Management Program (WMP). If none exists, we recommend writing a remediation and/or recommissioning plan, then later developing a full WMP. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a free training program on how to write a WMP and a toolkit to assist in developing a WMP.

Additional recommendations

Drinking Fountains: If these were shut off and/or not used for a period of time, they should be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s instructions before being used again for drinking.

Chlorine levels: The Illinois EPA requires a minimum of 0.5 parts per million Free Chlorine or 1.0 parts per million Total chlorine (also called Combined chlorine) in drinking water, unless a facility has been given an exemption (this is rare, but applies in some cases to facilities supplied with clean well water).

After re-opening, we recommend maintaining 142 degrees F or higher in all domestic water heaters and storage tanks, and 124 degrees F or higher in all recirculating domestic hot water systems for the purpose of reducing the risk of Legionnaire’s Disease. Note that delivered water at fixtures must meet local and state plumbing codes for maximum safe temperature to prevent scalding. The best way to achieve Legionella risk reduction and anti-scalding is to maintain high temperature in tanks and recirculating systems and employ thermostatic mixing valves just prior to point of use fixtures.

Finally, we recommend documenting all actions you take to prepare facilities for re-opening.

For more information

About the Institutional Water Treatment services group

The Institutional Water Treatment (IWT) services group, a unit of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois, provides unbiased, professional water treatment advice to facilities equipped with industrial water systems including cooling towers, chillers, boilers, etc. If you need assistance with addressing system start-up due to COVID-19 or other related services, including legionella monitoring, please contact Jeremy Overmann  or Mike Springman.

Expert viewpoint: Could Legionnaires’ bacteria lurk in idled buildings?

Editor’s note:  To contact Jeremy Overmann, email joverman@illinois.edu.

How can I help influence the takeout containers restaurants are purchasing?

Have a question about living a greener life? Joy Scrogum's work focuses on food waste, waste reduction, and reuse. Ask her anything about being more sustainable. We'll post her answers next week.This is the first in a periodic series of Ask Me Anything (AMA) posts where ISTC features a researcher on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts and solicits questions from our followers. We post the answers on the original platform and also aggregate them into a wrap-up blog post. Our first featured researcher is Joy Scrogum.

Question (from Facebook): I like to order takeout food from the many amazing restaurants in my neighborhood, but cringe at all the waste this generates. Some of this serveware I can compost and recycle, but some of it I cannot.  How can I help influence the takeout containers restaurants are purchasing?

Joy: I’m glad you’re thinking about this. consumers really have more power than they tend to think. First of all, let me note that during the current pandemic, we all have to make allowances for the takeout containers being used by our local restaurants. It’s fabulous that they’re open and delivering. It’s important to support them during this difficult time and recognize that exploring new packaging is, of course, not a priority for them now. One thing you can do when ordering takeout is remember to ask a restaurant to not include unnecessary disposable items with your order (e.g. plastic utensils, napkins, condiment packets, plastic straws, etc.). That will not only prevent waste, but also save them a little money and reduce the opportunity for contamination as we practice social distancing.

When we’ve gotten past this pandemic, the easiest thing you can do is voice your concerns about packaging to the manager of a restaurant, along with your reasoning (e.g. polystyrene foam, aka Styrofoam, its persistence, difficulty/inability to recycle in your area, etc.). Always start on a positive note by letting them know what you enjoy about their food and service, if you’re a long-time customer, etc., and then tell them what’s troubling you, so the conversation doesn’t seem like an attack.

It’s also important to bear in mind that businesses, especially small ones, are making decisions based on costs. So when you speak or write to someone with your concerns, acknowledge that price is an issue for them and be prepared to provide some tools that might help them choose “greener” options available at similar or better prices than what  they’re currently using. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) has developed the Foodware Cost Calculator, which allows restaurants or other foodservice operations to compare the costs of their currently used disposable products to reusable options (e.g. plastic utensils vs. real silverware) or alternative disposable items (e.g. recyclable, compostable, made with recycled content, etc.). PSI also has a guidance document that can help businesses reduce their plastic footprint, and understand the benefits, called 3 Steps to Reduce Plastic & Benefit Your Business. You might also point out examples of preferable packaging used by other businesses in your area or elsewhere to help make the case for what is possible. A few examples that come to mind include Just Salad, which uses reusable to-go packaging, and Farmer’s Fridge, which operates fresh-food vending machines using recyclable and reusable containers. 

You can always use existing consumers ratings mechanisms, such as Yelp, Google, or Facebook, to express support for businesses using greener packaging or dismay at a restaurant with great food but problematic to-go packaging. An interesting new app from developers in Colorado is called PlasticScore. It allows you to provide feedback to restaurants on single-use plastic, as well as see waste-related ratings of nearby restaurants so you can support businesses practices that align with your values. It’s pretty new (just launched in March 2020), so you might not find a lot of information applicable to your area right now, but you could certainly contribute your own feedback to help expand their database.

Another thing to keep in mind related to compostable packaging is that sort of packaging only degrades properly in commercial composting operations (e.g. services that pick up compostables from a business or via residential drop-off or curbside composting programs). Backyard compost piles don’t attain the proper temperatures or other conditions to effectively break down those items. So before asking a restaurant to switch to compostable items, check to see if commercial composting is available in your area. It’s unfortunately true that such service is not available in many areas of Illinois.

I’m a proud member of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC), which is working to expand food scrap composting in our state. Check the IFSC’s online list of haulers and compost processors to see if commercial food scrap composting exists in your area. If so, you can let your favorite restaurants know, and also point out that if they decide to start composting their food scraps and compostable packaging, they could receive recognition through IFSC’s We Compost program.

Finally, you can influence restaurants and other diners through your own example. When we’re all able to dine-in at our favorite restaurants again, consider taking your own reusable food storage container or foil from home for packing any leftovers, instead of asking the restaurant for a box. When people see you doing this, it can spark conversation about packaging and may inspire someone else to do the same. Many coffee shops offer discounts for folks who bring in their own reusable mug. Be sure to ask if your favorite shop does this, so they know there is interest, and remember to take advantage of such incentives where they exist.

Note: ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

COVID-19 and Facility Water Systems Management

ISTC’s Institutional Water Treatment (IWT) program has developed a set of recommendations for facility managers to help them maintain their water systems in light of new federal, state, and local COVID-19 policies that change building use patterns.

If you have questions or need assistance, contact:

  • Jeremy Overmann: joverman@illinois.edu or (217) 333-5903
  • Angie DiAscro: DiAscro2@illinois.edu or (217) 300-3882
  • Cameron Dillion: dillion2@illinois.edu or (217) 244-0179
  • Jenn Tapuaiga: jenn210@illinois.edu or (217) 300-0084
  • Mike Springman: springma@illinois.edu or (618) 468-2780

Biochar project set to improve ag sustainability

By Lisa Sheppard

A newly developed system in the lab could become a boon for farmers in the field. Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) scientist Wei Zheng and colleagues are creating a designer carbon-based biochar that captures phosphorus from tile drain runoff water and recycles it in soils to improve crop growth.

Zheng hypothesizes that this is a win-win strategy that will lead to increased crop yields and less nutrient runoff into water from agricultural fields.

Fertilizer phosphorus applied for plant growth tends to dissolve and leach out through field tile lines, so it promotes algae growth in nearby waterways. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) appear in lakes in the summer and die off once the growing season ends, contributing to oxygen-depleted waters, which result in fish kills and other adverse effects on aquatic life.

The yearly HAB prompted development of Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which aims to reduce phosphorus in Illinois waters by 25 percent by 2025.

A sustainable, novel approach

Zheng and his colleagues at the University of Illinois (U of I), the Illinois Farm Bureau, and other groups believe their strategy will address this problem. By installing a bioreactor in the field with a biochar-sorption filter, water that runs through the tile system is filtered to remove nutrients before it reaches lakes and streams.

The filter holds biochar—a biomass product that looks like charcoal and is made mostly of carbon with high calcium and magnesium—which traps fertilizer nutrients. The biomass is made into small pellets that won’t block water flow.

In the lab, Zheng is studying different types of designer biochars made from sawdust, grasses, or crop residue pretreated with lime sludge, for example, to find the one that is the most effective in capturing phosphorus.

“We have generated some designer biochars that have extremely high capacities for holding dissolved phosphorus,” Zheng said. “Our previous studies have shown that biochar can not only strongly adsorb nutrients such as phosphorus, but also has a high sorption capacity for other contaminants, such as pesticides and antibiotics.”

This year, Zheng and his collaborators will scale up their technology to develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel system for a field trial on a commercial farm in Fulton County. In the second year of the project, the team will establish a bioreactor system that is able to treat drainage water received from a 12-acre field. Water testing will confirm how successful the system is at reducing phosphorous runoff.

An additional part of the project, also slated for next year, is to remove biochar pellets from the channel after fertilizer season and apply the phosphorus-captured biochars to the fields where they will slowly release phosphorus and other nutrients into the soil. As a result, producers can keep fertilizer costs down and increase crop yields when applying the biochar pellets at optimal times in the growing season.

“The goal in adopting this technique is to keep applied phosphorus in the agricultural loop and prevent it from leaching into waterways,” Zheng said.

Benefits of a research team-organization collaboration

Wei Zheng demonstrates his bioreactor at Fulton County Field Day in July 2019.
Wei Zheng demonstrates his bioreactor to local farmers at Fulton County Field Day in July 2019.

Illinois Farm Bureau is involved in this project at the state and Fulton County level to foster interactions between farmers and U of I researchers. Their participation helps to ensure that the research is focused on applicable, realistic practices for Illinois farmers, according to Lauren Lurkins of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau helps identify producers who are willing to participate in research and in funding and outreach opportunities, such as field days.

“Research including Wei’s can help to add practices to or update the science behind existing practices in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy,” Lurkins said. “PRI has a lot of researchers and resources that our farmers utilize. They cover everything from groundwater for rural area consumption to weather monitoring, which are all important to agriculture.”

Results from the project are expected in 2023. It is funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council.

In late 2019, Zheng was appointed Vice Leader of the American Society of Agronomy’s Biochar Committee for his research in various projects on biochar. Several project descriptions are available, including: Using Biochar as a Soil Amendment for Sustainable Agriculture,  Sorption Properties of Greenwaste Biochar for Two Triazine Pesticides, and Carbon Sequestration Using Biochar.

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Media contacts: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276, weizheng@illinois.edu; Lauren Lurkins, llurkins@ilfb.org; Prairie Research Institute Communications Team, news@prairie.illinois.edu

New publication: Salvage Yard Environmental Guidebook and Self-Audit Checklist

ISTC’s  Salvage Yard Environmental Guidebook and Self-Audit Checklist helps salvage yard operators better understand the environmental issues, comply with state and federal environmental regulations, and implement best management practices to minimize risks and liabilities.

The manual details best management practices for safely managing all types of waste found in salvage yards, including spent air bags and lithium-ion batteries, as well as pollution prevention options.

If you operate a salvage yard and would like assistance with improving your environmental performance and bottom line, contact our technical assistance program.

ISTC delivers Contaminants of Emerging Concern Report to Illinois General Assembly

In 2018, Illinois’ governor signed House Bill IL-HB5741, which amended the University of Illinois Scientific Surveys Act. The bill directed the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) to conduct a scientific literature review of contaminants of emerging concern in wastewater treatment plant effluent. It also requested that PRI compile a listing of the specific actions recommended by various state and federal agencies to address the environmental or public health concerns associated with these chemicals.

The final report was filed with the General Assembly earlier this week. It reviews the current state of scientific knowledge about contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), discusses concentrations of CEC in WWTPs, and reviews existing treatment technologies and U.S. federal and state laws.

The report is available in IDEALS.

Institutional Water Treatment program now tests facilities for bacterium causing Legionnaires’ disease

By Lisa Sheppard

With the start of a new year, ISTC’s Institutional Water Treatment (IWT) program is offering a new service to test water sources for Legionella, the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, to decrease exposure for clients with weak immune systems.

Legionnaires’ disease is caused by inhaling water mist containing Legionella. The bacterium can grow in showerheads and sink faucets, cooling towers, and large plumbing systems. Legionella is inhaled, most commonly when showering, according to Mike Springman, manager of the IWT program.

“As long as the temperature of the stored water is hot enough, at 140 degrees, and is hot enough when used, at 120 degrees, and the chlorine is adequate, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Springman said. “Older systems and systems that are not well maintained are more at risk.”

Vulnerable populations, including older adults and others with compromised immune systems, are more susceptible to exposure. Legionnaires’ is a serious type of pneumonia, and symptoms include fever, cough, chills, and muscle aches.

The IWT services group gives advice on controlling corrosion, mineral scale formation, and biological growth for facilities with institutional water systems. Most of their clients are state-operated facilities, such as Human Services, Department of Corrections, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and others that often have older facilities that need to be checked periodically and maintained.

Using IDEXX laboratory test kits, IWT field chemists place bottled water samples in sealed trays, minimizing their own exposure to the bacterium. New laboratory testing facilities at the University of Illinois have been equipped specifically to handle water samples to be tested for Legionella.

Previously, Springman received requests from large facilities a few times a year to test for this particular bacterium. Until now, the testing was not cost-effective because it required sending samples to an outside lab.

“I think that Legionnaires’ disease is becoming more prevalent, or at least people are becoming more aware of what it is as time goes on,” Springman said. “The feedback to our announcement of this new service has been positive, and I think it’s going to work well. It’s going to serve our clients, which is what we’re here to do.”

For more information about IWT and to schedule a site visit, view https://www.istc.illinois.edu/techassist/iwt.