The Greensboro Backflow Incident was Preventable

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About a year ago, Corpus Christi had a major backflow incident. The city water was contaminated with chemicals that never would have entered the public drinking water supply if there were an approved backflow device. Since then, Corpus Christi has had several meetings on how to improve regulation enforcement. Unfortunately, Greensboro is in a similar predicament after last week’s backflow incident. Backflow tests are often neglected in part to the public’s perception of the importance of backflow prevention.

Preventative maintenance is often overlooked

Backflow prevention is one of those things that doesn’t cross your mind until it isn’t working. Preventative maintenance is one of those “I’ll get to it…” things – changing the oil in your car, cleaning out the gutters… all things you don’t really see the worth in doing until you’re facing the consequences. When you don’t see something actively working, it’s easy to ignore it. That notice you get in the mail from your water municipality about backflow testing gets shoved to the back of to-do lists and is quickly forgotten.

Disconnect between the public

You might be surprised at how many end customers call us to inquire about getting their backflow devices tested, and then complain at length about why they don’t want to get their device tested. We don’t even test backflow devices! We’re a software company!

Recently, I had a woman call from Indiana to ask if we could test their backflow device, to which I politely said no. However, it didn’t end there. She went on to complain about how there were leaves in the drainage in the street in front of her home, and that the city should be doing something about that before she should be expected to have her backflow tested. While I explained I don’t work for any government, or any backflow testing company, and that Oregon (where I’m based) is far from Indiana, I recognized something. There’s a severe disconnect between the public’s perception of backflow testing and the reality that it really is a safety precaution. If I had leaves clogging the drains in front of my home, I might be pretty mad that I had to do something “to help the city” too, especially without proper education about it.

This is the reality: backflow devices protect yourself and neighboring homes and businesses from contaminated water entering water pipes. However, the perceived reality is that it’s just one of those mandated regulations that doesn’t really do anything. Maybe that’s how it should appear; if a backflow device is working correctly, there shouldn’t be any evidence that it does much. (If your gutters are cleaned, there’s no spillage – you take it for granted that they work!) It’s when devices fail, aren’t installed where they should be, or aren’t tested, that people realize how important cross-connection control is.

Greensboro

In the case of the Greensboro backflow incident, a car wash did not have a backflow device on a line that was connected to the city’s water supply. This affected about 35 customers. It didn’t have the huge consequences that Corpus Christi faced in December 2016, but a good reminder of how water can quickly be affected by an improper backflow installation or, in this case, one that did not exist at all.

How to change perception

As a water purveyor, how do you change perception about backflow testing? Education is the first step. Provide information! Whether it be informative flyers or emails instead of just a bright yellow notice to have a backflow device tested, this is good place to start. Consider noting recent examples of backflow when a device wasn’t tested or installed – both Corpus Christi and Greensboro are great examples to reference.

Additionally, make it easy to get a device tested. Supply an easily accessible list of backflow testers online, and reference it when you send out annual notices.

Do backflow testers have to supply extra unnecessary information to your municipality, such as an extra location ID? When you require a customer to use a pin number or specific log in for an online log in to record results, that’s just one more thing to irritate an already annoyed customer. Cut that part out if you can. Rely on the backflow testers to supply correct information to the water purveyor.

And while I’m mentioning it… do your part to reduce the friction between yourself and backflow testers. (You’re on the same team!) The most effective cross-connection control programs in cities are the ones where the city trusts that the backflow testers to know what they are doing, and treat them like they do. Make it easy for them to submit backflow reports to you. Are you still relying on snail mail for reports? This is an outdated way to receive reports. If you’re still doing that, consider switching to emailed reports. Seriously. It’s 2018.

Do you require an online tool to have results submitted? Make it easy for testers to submit. Doing double entry isn’t fun for them either, so the more streamlined it is for the tester, the likelier they are to submit results in a timely fashion.

Perception of the importance of backflow testing won’t switch overnight, but providing educational materials to end customers, making it easy for customers to have their devices tested, and relying on backflow testers to provide accurate information are good steps to reduce the likelihood you’ll be the new Greensboro.

Want to give Syncta a try? We have a water purveyor solution that is easy for testers and purveyors to use. Simplify you workflow, today!

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