About a month ago, I published an article on Wesley Hall’s Water Quality, answering the question, “Is Something Wrong With the Water in Wesley Hall?” Three days later, on Jan. 21, I received an email from Renee Harlow, Albion’s economics and management department secretary.
Harlow said she was concerned about the water in the first floor of Robinson Hall. The offices had “black, smelly water” coming from their taps, she said via email.
We spoke about the issue three days later. She gave me an old cherry preserves jar with about an inch of sulfur-smelling water swimming with dark particles – the dirtiest sample she’d collected.
“I’m in my nineteenth year here, and I’ve never had anything like this,” Harlow said.
The next day, I sent a vial of the sample to Kinetico, a free water quality testing service provided through Home Depot – the same one used to test Wesley’s water.
While waiting for the results, I reached out to Jim Diaz, director of maintenance operations on campus. He and another facilities team member had been visiting the offices in Robinson Hall every morning, running hot water to flush out the affected water.
Diaz explained the events leading up to the problem, and the thought process behind the solution.
He said that a new water softening system had recently been installed in Robinson Hall. Historically, Albion’s water is extremely hard and the sample from Robinson’s first floor returned as 10.5 grains per gallon. According to a scale sent via email by Vice President for Marketing and Communications Cathy Cole, soft water is between about one and three and a half grains per gallon, and the scale maxes out at 10.5 and above.
Per an email with Cole, on Nov. 30, the city’s water runs at about 24 grains per gallon.
“If you didn’t soften the water here, eventually the minerals would just make the pipe smaller and smaller and smaller,” Diaz said. “The pressure’s gonna build up so great that you’re gonna have some burst pipes along with other issues.”
So, Albion’s water needs to be softened, how does the college manage that on the scale necessary to supply all of its buildings?
The answer lies with the massive water softeners in the basement of the facilities building.
“We spend a lot of money on salt because the salt goes into the water softeners,” Diaz said, “That’s really the only conditioning we do.”
And what does this have to do with the black, smelly water in Robinson Hall? Diaz said that the new water softening system in Robinson had been a shock to the individual water heaters in the offices on the first floor, like Harlow’s. The magnesium rod in the heaters, designed to lower the severity of hard water, reacted with the new system.
“A lot of those water heaters had never felt soft water, and it started to break down that magnesium rod, and it smelled like sulfur,” Diaz said.
The color on the other hand, is likely the particles of minerals built up in the pipes by the hard water, broken down in a similar way.
The Kinetico test revealed that the water from the initial sample was deficient in terms of drinking quality at 400 parts per million (ppm). For context, 0-50 total dissolved solids in ppm denotes good drinking water; 303 ppm was the shocking value from Wesley’s tap; 400 ppm is a new high, or more accurately, low.
This is likely the product of the new system breaking down the minerals in the pipes from years of hard water, explaining why the disturbing color was only present in the first couple of samples from the Robinson office.
Diaz said that running the water would address the problem.
“You have to do it for a long time to get rid of the smell,” Diaz said “It’ll go away.”
Culligan Water’s website attributes the sulfur smell in water to dissolved hydrogen sulfide and sulfur bacteria – not inherently dangerous, but “unpleasant.” It can corrode pipes and fixtures and make the water unpalatable.
As of now, the water in Harlow’s office is less murky though the smell remains. Problems like this are not uncommon. They reflect the fragility of drinking water infrastructure in Albion, and why clean water is not something to be taken for granted.