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Data Management for Backflow and Cross-Connection Control Programs

How better data management can help water providers build safer, more responsive and more reliable cross-connection control programs.

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Key takeaways:

  1. Backflow and cross-connection control programs generate a lot of data. Organizing and ensuring that data gets delivered to the right people—inspectors, customers, collaborators or regulators—on time is critical.
  2. As the amount of backflow data administrators are responsible for increases, storing and retrieving that data using paper and spreadsheet-based systems is becoming increasingly difficult.
  3. New data management technologies like Klir can help backflow prevention programs cut down on errors, automate away the most repetitive aspects of cross-connection control and help utilities achieve better and safer drinking water outcomes.

Residents in a Connecticut town knew there was something off about their washing machines, sinks and toilets: Hissing, bubbling noises were coming from the inside, while faucets sputtered out small streams of water mixed with a mysterious gas.

When they complained, city officials asked hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes and businesses. The gas was propane.

That same day, workers at a local propane storage facility had purged a tank in need of repair using water. That water came from a hose they attached to a city fire hydrant, and because the air pressure in the tank was higher than the one in the public water system, 2,000 cubic feet of propane gas backflowed into the city’s water supply over the course of 20 minutes. By the time city crews could respond, fires had broken out at two homes. At another home a washing machine exploded.

Backflow: An Enduring Challenge

Although no one ended up hurt, this is just one horror story out of many. Besides propane, substances reported in backflow incident reports have included pesticides, creosote, and even human blood. Backflow, if it isn’t controlled, can seriously harm or even kill the people relying on a utility’s potable water supply. And while the Safe Drinking Water Act and decades of new backflow and cross-connection control programming have helped to curb it, backflow is still an issue. One 2010 study found that backflow occurs in 5% of all homes with backflow-sensing meters.

Why Good Data Management Is Key to Backflow Prevention

As a water supplier, it’s your responsibility to maintain, monitor, and manage the systems that prevent backflow.

To achieve that goal, most cross-connection control programs must, at minimum:

  1. Install and maintain backflow prevention systems chosen according to level of hazard.
  2. Train and prepare water system personnel, including operators and inspectors.
  3. Periodically inspect and test backflow prevention systems.
  4. Maintain compliance with state and municipal plumbing and building codes.
  5. Educate customers and the general public about backflow risk.

Satisfying those goals involves collecting, managing and sharing backflow prevention data with numerous internal and external parties, including:

  • Customers
  • Plumbers
  • Local health agencies
  • Local building or plumbing departments
  • Other state and municipal authorities
  • Commercial stakeholders, including developers and contractors

One essential piece in your toolkit: An accurate, comprehensive record keeping and data management system that allows you to monitor and maintain the effectiveness of your program.

Your Cross-Connection Control Program, Streamlined

The sheer amount of data generated by backflow prevention programs might seem daunting and difficult to manage using paper and spreadsheets.

Thankfully, software-based platforms like Klir are making it easier than ever to retrieve and understand backflow data with powerful dashboards, asset mapping and project management automation capabilities. Learn more and request a demo today.

Data Management for Cross-Connection Control Programs: An Overview

According to the AWWA, most cross-connection control programs in the United States fall into one of four categories. 

Which one your organization implements will determine your responsibilities as a water supplier, your data management needs, as well as the outside parties you’ll need to report to and collaborate with.

1. System Protection

Also sometimes called Containment, Service Protection or Premise Isolation, under this kind of program each customer is evaluated (with a cross-connection risk assessment, covered below) on the level of hazard they present to the water system as a whole. 

Customers that present a significant hazard to the system have their connections contained from the rest of the system with a containment assembly installed at the meter or service connection to the water user.

What kind of protection does it provide? 

A system protection program only prevents on-site contamination from getting back into the water distribution system. The customers are ultimately responsible for what happens in their internal plumbing.

Whose responsibility is it? 

Usually it’s the local water suppliers, be they a public or private water department, and any system protection assemblies that are installed usually come under the control of the State Administrative Code.

2. Internal Protection

Under this kind of program, internal protection assemblies are installed to protect the quality of the drinking water within the water user’s building by protecting a specific piece of water-using equipment.

Property owners are responsible for implementing backflow protection according to guidelines set by the water supplier. That water supplier investigates to make sure effective prevention systems are in place, but does not inspect or test backflow preventers.

What kind of protection does it provide? 

An internal protection program protects the quality of the water within the facility.

Whose responsibility is it? 

In some cases it’s the local health agency, plumbing department or building department, and assemblies installed this way come under the control of the local Plumbing Code.

3. Comprehensive Programs

Popular with large city-run water utilities, these programs combine containment and isolation into one ‘comprehensive’ program. 

What kind of protection does it provide? 

These are considered to be the safest kind of program because there are two levels of protection: customer-side backflow preventers are the primary means of protection, and containment devices on the supplier side form a second line of defense. 

Whose responsibility is it? 

These are most common when the city or town is also the water supplier. Their jurisdiction and the fact that they control enforcement of the building code allows them to operate and enforce a comprehensive program.

4. Joint Programs

Private water suppliers without the jurisdiction that city-owned water suppliers enjoy might implement a joint program, which demands the cooperation of the water board, building inspection authorities, the fire department, and other responsible customers and users (such as secondary water suppliers.)

Such a program recognizes the standards and requirements of each authority involved, and aims to serve all their needs in order to deliver safe potable water.

Record Keeping For Cross-Connection Control: The Basics

Regardless of whether your program is focused on system protection, internal protection or both, it will likely generate a wide range of backflow-related reporting and correspondence, including:

  1. Cross-connection risk assessments
  2. An inventory of all backflow preventers
  3. Inspection and testing reports
  4. Backflow incident reports
  5. Correspondence with customers, utility personnel, and local authorities

Let’s take a closer look at each one, and also how and why you’ll want to organize and make those records available to internal and external users.

1. Cross-Connection Risk Assessments

A water supplier must complete a risk assessment for each customer in its water system. The assessment includes a water use questionnaire completed by the customer, as well as a cross-connection survey report.

The supplier should keep copies of both the initial assessment (completed when the cross-connection is initially established) and all subsequent reassessments (completed periodically according to the supplier’s cross-connection control program).

Water use questionnaire

A water use questionnaire collects information on how occupants of a premises use their water supply. That may include information about:

    • Any commercial activities in the building that could potentially impact the potable water supply during a backflow event (such as waste disposal or the use of industrial cleaning agents)
    • The presence of any storage tanks containing water that could make it into the water system during backflow
    • The presence (or absence) of backflow preventers, including their make, model, and service history

Cross-connection survey report

Completed by water supplier personnel, a cross-connection survey report includes information on:

    • Which cross-connections were surveyed
    • The hazard levels of the cross-connections surveyed
    • Any backflow preventers that were tested (and when, and by whom)
    • The testing kits used to test backflow preventers
    • Any violations detected during the survey

Cross-connection hazard levels

A cross-connection survey report includes information about the hazard level of each cross-connection surveyed, which will fall into one of three categories:

Low-Hazard (Pollution)

Potential backflow could pollute drinking water. The color, smell, and taste of the water could be affected, but there would be no adverse health effects to the people drinking it.

High-Hazard (Contamination)

Potential backflow could contaminate the drinking water. People drinking the water could become ill.

Lethal Hazard

This applies to radioactive material or raw sewage. A backflow event could result in death. In the case of lethal hazards, the only acceptable means of preventing backflow is an air gap. Mechanical backflow preventers should never be used for lethal hazards.

2. The Backflow Preventer Inventory

What are all of the assets that your backflow prevention program is responsible for? Your backflow preventer inventory should tell you.

It will include an entry for every customer in a water system, providing essential information on the backflow preventer installed at the cross-connection, including:

  • The location of the backflow preventer 
  • A description of the hazard being isolated, and its rating
  • The date the device was installed
  • The type of backflow preventer 
  • The make, model, capacity, and serial number of the preventer

Manage Assets and Plan Inspections With Klir’s Powerful Backflow Dashboard

Software systems like Klir can also display the status of your assets by location on a map, allowing personnel to plan routes and inspections visually and decreasing the chances that an asset will fall through the cracks. Book a demo to learn more today.

3. Backflow Inspection and Testing Reports

All backflow devices in a system must be inspected and tested on an annual basis. Each time, inspectors must file a report with the water supplier.

A water supplier’s collection of backflow inspection and testing reports helps to guarantee all devices are being monitored and maintained, minimizing the risk of failure and the likelihood of backflow events occurring.

The sample field test form from the Manual of Cross-Connection Control gives a good idea of what an inspection and testing report looks like before it is filled out. Generally, every report should include:

  • The name and phone number of the inspector/tester
  • The inspector/tester’s registration or license number
  • The date of inspection and the date of testing
  • Whether this was the first time the backflow device was tested, or whether it was an annual test
  • The results of the test
  • The device’s size, make, model number, and serial number
  • The device’s repair history
  • The device used for testing, including its make, model, serial number, and date of calibration
  • The name and phone number of the building contact

4. Tracking Backflow Incident Reports

In the event a backflow incident occurs, it’s essential to make sure it has been reported in as much detail as possible. You can get a sense of what is included in a backflow incident report from the reporting form used by the Pawtucket Water Supply Board.

Generally, an incident report should include:

  • Where the backflow originated from
  • The pollutants or contaminants (may include a chemical analysis)
  • Where pollutants or contaminants were distributed
  • The effects of pollution or contamination (including any adverse health effects)
  • The source of the pollution or contamination
  • The cause of the backflow
  • Corrective actions taken to restore water quality
  • Actions taken to prevent backflow from occurring again
  • The type of backflow preventer in place at the time

5. Correspondence 

Any time a water supplier communicates with external parties about cross-connections and backflow, it must keep copies of all correspondence. By doing so, it can track existing or recurring issues, or provide evidence in case of disputes. 

Additionally, any communications with personnel regarding the installation, inspection, or testing of backflow preventers should be saved.

When planning how to maintain records of correspondence, the following should be of highest priority:

  • Current service agreements with customers
  • Instructions for the installation of backflow preventers
  • Instructions for testing backflow preventers
  • Fines, warnings, and notices sent to customers
  • Communications with state and local administrative authorities

Why Good Data Management Makes Bulletproof Cross-Connection Control Programs

From the initial risk assessment to the moment a backflow incident report is filled out, good record keeping is crucial to almost every step of a healthy cross-connection control program. But why is managing and organizing that data in a centralized system so important? 

1. It’s the Law

As recommended by the AWWA, water suppliers must, at minimum, inform local regulators of:

  • The water supplier’s requirements, including the parameters for installing and maintaining backflow preventers in all premises
  • Results of the water supplier’s surveys of premises, including violations and any corrective actions taken
  • The receipt of any customer complaints that may indicate a backflow incident

In the event a state or local agency audits a water supplier, it may be legally necessary to present this information in order to avoid fines. Keeping those records in one place can save administrators a lot of time, stress and money.

2. It Makes Collaboration Easier

Any cross-connection control program initiated by a water supplier requires buy-in from a variety of outside parties, including customers, local authorities, plumbers and plumbing regulators, etc. 

When information needs to be exchanged, having it tied up in closed or outmoded systems—paper files, or local computer files that have to be sent as email attachments, for instance—naturally creates more work for everyone.

A comprehensive record keeping system makes it easy to securely store and share all records electronically, reducing hours of work and ensuring no important documents get lost in transit.

3. It Cuts Down on Risk, Paperwork and Administrative Overhead

Automatic alerts for scheduled events like inspection and testing or maintenance of backflow devices reduces the likelihood of errors.

Less Firefighting, More Peace of Mind

Integrated record keeping systems like Klir let you set up automatic alerts, so nothing ever slips between the cracks. Request a demo today to learn more.

4. Digital Records Are More Secure Than Paper

A digital record keeping system hosted on an external (ie. out of office) server is the most secure way to store, access, and share records for your organization. 

Water suppliers that rely on paper records for managing their cross-connection control program do so at their own risk. Paper records are more prone to damage, theft, and tampering than digital records. That puts the efficacy of your control program—and the safety of your customers—at risk.

5. It Makes Creating a Backflow Incident Response Plan Easier

A tidy digital record keeping system that lets you quickly and efficiently access your organization’s accumulated knowledge is a huge asset. The more information you have compiled about particular

  • Premises
  • Cross-connections
  • Contaminants and pollutants
  • Backflow preventers, and
  • Past backflow events,

the easier it is to create an effective backflow incident response plan. It also means less work for personnel—and fewer opportunities for errors—when determining the cause of a backflow incident and measuring its impact.

6. It Makes Dealing With System Growth Easier

As your water system grows, there are bound to be some bumps along the way. But a digitized record keeping system is able to meet the challenge, and scale with any growth on the horizon. 

Files stored locally on staff computers, or paper records that haven’t been digitized, all pose a risk to any water supplier aiming to smoothly scale. When you don’t have a central database to track your backflow preventer inventory, inspection and testing reports, and incident reports, it’s difficult to create standardized, repeatable processes and clearly defined workflows.

A digital records system fixes that by making sure you have all the information in one place, so your team can repeat what works, and improve on what doesn’t.

Conclusion

A cross-connection control program is essential for limiting the number of backflow incidents, conforming with federal, state and municipal monitoring requirements, and protecting the health of your customers. 

One of the most effective ways to manage your system and avoid errors is by using a centralized, digital records system that allows you to easily share information both within your organization and with outside parties.

Take Control of Your Cross-Connection Data

Klir’s cross-connection control module helps utilities schedule, organize, and run cross-connection control programs. Most importantly, it gives organizations the means to keep comprehensive digital records on all their cross-connection activities. Learn more and book a demo today.

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