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Evaluating the Impacts of Sustainable Water Use Measures on Drinking Water Microbiology and Chemistry

posted on 29.07.2021, 18:32 by Christiane J LeyChristiane J Ley
This dissertation focused on examining the potential unintended consequences of sustainability on drinking water quality at the tap. The rising trend in water conservation awareness has given rise to the use of water-efficient appliances and fixtures for residential potable water systems. The first study (Chapter 1) characterized the microbial dynamics at a water-efficient residential building over the course of one year and examined the effects of water stagnation, season, and changes in physicochemical properties on the occurrence of opportunistic pathogen markers. When rainwater harvesting is utilized as an alternative water resource in buildings, a combination of municipal water and rainwater is typically required to meet water demands. However, altering source water chemistry can disrupt pipe scale and biofilm and negatively impact water quality at the distribution level. The second study (Chapter 2) in this dissertation evaluated the potential water quality consequences of using intermittent supplies of municipal water and rainwater within building plumbing systems. Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes are considered by some to be more sustainable than copper pipes and are commonly installed in building plumbing. The goal of the third study (Chapter 3) was to better understand chemical release from commercially available PEX pipes, to characterize toxicological characteristics of the contact water, and to compare microbial growth potential among the three pipe types. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many commercial and office buildings were closed for extended periods of time, allowing water age to increase over the course of several months. Heightened water age is often associated with an increase in chemical and microbial contamination. The objective of the fourth study (Chapter 4) was to evaluate the impacts of an extended COVID-19 related building closure and stagnation on water quality. The goal of this study was to evaluate the efficacy of flushing and shock chlorination remediation strategies on water quality at the tap.

This dissertation contains four chapters and each chapter is a single manuscript. The first two chapters have been published.

“Drinking water microbiology in a water-efficient building: Stagnation, seasonality, and physiochemical effects on opportunistic pathogen and total bacteria proliferation.” (Chapter 1) Utilizing a residential building that had been retrofitted with low-flow fixtures, the unintended water quality consequences of increased stagnation in low-flow plumbing were evaluated over a year long period. The study results indicated that microbial growth and potential opportunistic pathogen markers, Legionella and Mycobacterium spp. were detected at higher levels within the home as compared to the municipal water main. Reduced water usage induced longer stagnation times and longer stagnation times were correlated with an increase in Legionella spp., Mycobacterium spp., and total cell counts.

“Impacts of Municipal Water−Rainwater Source Transitions on Microbial and Chemical Water Quality Dynamics at the Tap.” (Chapter 2) Altering source water chemistry can disrupt pipe scale and biofilm and negatively impact water quality at the distribution level. Still, it is unknown if similar reactions occur within building plumbing following a transition in source water quality. To date, no prior studies had evaluated the water quality impacts of transitioning between rainwater and municipal groundwater sources in low-flow plumbing. The study revealed that influent water chemistry impacted rates of metal release from plumbing. Because of differences in source water treatment and water chemistry, rainwater and municipal water uniquely interacted with building plumbing and generated distinctively different drinking water chemical and microbial quality profiles.

“Contaminant Leaching and Toxicological Assessment of Drinking Water in Contact with Cross-linked Polyethylene (PEX) Pipes.” (Chapter 3) Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) plastic water pipes are increasingly being installed instead of copper pipes for conventional and green building construction. Unlike metal pipe, PEX pipe is easier to install and not vulnerable to corrosion. However, potential health concerns associated with PEX pipe are: 1.) the organic contaminant release that occurs during its service-life, 2.) increased microbial growth compared to metal pipes, and 3.) compound toxicity. Our study goal was to better understand chemical release from commercially available PEX pipes, to characterize toxicological characteristics of the contact water, and to compare microbial growth potential among the three pipe types at varying chlorine concentrations. Results indicated that PEX contact waters did not affect the neurobehavioral development of zebrafish, but affected development in the zebrafish model. Further studies should be conducted to determine how influent water chemistry impacts carbon migration and the water’s toxicity.

“Water quality during the COVID-19 pandemic: The role of flushing and shock chlorination strategies in reducing building water problems.” (Chapter 4) The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread “stay at home” orders across the United States. As a result, many office buildings, schools, and commercial buildings were left empty, allowing water age within the plumbing to increase dramatically. Heightened stagnation and water age can lead to increased metal leaching from pipe walls, as well as increases in microbial growth and opportunistic pathogen proliferation. Water quality in a large school building was monitored after approximately six months of being closed due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Upon sampling the building, chemical and microbial water quality indicators were affected by the initial six month stagnation period. To monitor the relationship between shock chlorination and water quality at the tap, samples were collected at fixtures at different time points to gain a better understanding of the effects of shock disinfection on drinking water chemistry and microbiology. This study raises concerns with respect to the impact of extended building closures on drinking water quality and the best approach to remediate and monitor water quality issues thereafter.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Andrew J. Whelton

Additional Committee Member 2

Caitlin R. Proctor

Additional Committee Member 3

Zhi Zhou

Additional Committee Member 4

Amisha D. Shah