Impact of Flow Rate and Water Age on Opportunistic Pathogen Growth: Implications for Water Conservation, Fixture Design, and Policy
Water conservation efforts have led to a decrease of flow rates in buildings, increasing water retention time (WRT) and sometimes opportunistic pathogens (OPs) growth. A novel experiment with replicated distal pipes operated at commonly used flow rates was designed to evaluate the effects of water age, flush frequency, flow rate, pipe diameter, water temperature, disinfectant residual presence, and microbial regrowth in hot and cold pipes. In cold water, total bacterial regrowth was a function of water age, plateauing after approximately 6 days at cell counts 20 times higher than influent water with minimal disinfectants. In warm (40 °C) water, most regrowth occurred in the heater tank, reducing the relative growth in the pipes. When cold water with ~1 mg/L chloramine was present, cold-water total bacteria regrowth plateaued after about 2 days WRT with cell counts 14 times higher than influent water, but regrowth still occurred in the heater tank. With 1 mg/L chloramine and elevated heater temperature (60 °C), regrowth in the tank was suppressed and cell counts in the pipes increased 82 times above cold-water influent levels at 7.5 days WRT. Legionella spp. and Mycobacterium spp. demonstrated opposite responses to flow rate with chloramine minimization. The highest levels of Legionella spp. (1.7 log higher than influent) were present when flow velocity was >2 feet per second (fps), but the highest levels of Mycobacterium spp. (1.5 log higher than influent) were observed at the lowest flow velocity (0.33 fps). This study highlights the tradeoffs between water conservation and water quality.