Every morning, a Medford Water Commission employee turns on the tap for up to 30 minutes in the Lausmann Annex next to City Hall and runs up to 60 gallons down the drain to get rid of stagnant water in the pipes.
Every evening, before quitting time, a Water Commission employee fills up two coffee pots so they’ll have water in the morning while the lines are being flushed.
The practice has been going on for nearly a year, since last August, when several issues were investigated involving water lines both inside and outside the building.
“There were concerns raised about the metallic taste in the water,” said Sara Bristol, spokeswoman for the Water Commission.
The Water Commission's line-flushing practice surfaced just as commission board members became aware that some pipes containing lead have been found in the Medford water system in recent years. The commission is planning to pay for a thorough analysis of the water to determine if there is a wider problem.
When the Water Commission heard the complaint about the taste in its offices, a test was conducted at the tap for copper levels, which were slightly elevated but still well below federal Environmental Protection Agency limits.
To track down the source of the copper, commission employees went to a fire hydrant outside the building and collected a sample that was sent to Neilsen Research Corporation. Bristol said the city wouldn’t give the commission permission to test the water at the meter, which would have been normal protocol.
“In order to see where the copper was entering the system, we headed outside to the hydrant,” she said. “It’s unusual to do a test like that.” She said she didn't know why the city didn't give permission to conduct the test at the meter.
A test by Neilsen of the water taken from the hydrant Aug. 3, 2015, found lead levels exceeded the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion. The levels found at the fire hydrant were 66 parts per billion. An Aug. 6 test showed level levels dropped below 15 parts per billion, but lead jumped to 44 parts per billion Aug. 23. Other testing showed iron levels also exceeded EPA limits. Tests conducted inside the Lausmann Annex all fell below EPA limits, though copper levels were somewhat elevated.
A connector underground and the fire hydrant were replaced, and lead levels dropped, according to additional tests. Five fire hydrants in the area were also tested, and the readings all fell below EPA limits.
Bristol said the fire hydrant issue is separate from lead connector pipes called pigtails that have been found in the Medford system. However, she said, it does seem to point to other sources of lead from various connectors that could be found in the system.
High lead levels can cause health problems, including neurological development issues for young children.
In the morning flushing ritual, the commission typically runs the tap for 20 minutes during weekdays and for 30 minutes after a weekend. The Lausmann building has oversized copper pipes, installed originally to support an addition to the building. As a result, it can take up to 49 minutes to flush the building's pipes to bring residual chlorine levels back up.
When water sits in the pipes too long, chlorine dissipates and microbe levels could go up, but tests done by the Water Commission determined no bacteria was found in the water.
The Water Commission recommends that homeowners flush their lines for 30 seconds to two minutes, or until water runs cold, to remove stagnant water. Flushing a toilet or watering plants with the water can accomplish the same results.
Bristol said the Water Commission has always recommended flushing the lines but acknowledged it hasn’t been emphasized for a long time.
“The whole issue fell off the public radar until the Flint thing,” she said. “It’s not something we’ve been as vocal about until recently.”
Flint, Mich., has been in the headlines recently because of high lead levels in the water. Residents in Flint are also encouraged to flush their lines. Unlike Flint, Medford's water routinely falls well below the levels established by the EPA as potentially harmful.
Bristol said the country, including Medford, typically has good water, and everyone has gotten used to the idea of not flushing out the lines.
She said while sending water down the drain seems to run counter to conservation efforts, drinking water makes up only a small fraction of overall water usage, with far more used for flushing toilets, taking showers and watering yards.
The Water Commission also routinely flushes out stub lines in the system so the water doesn’t become stagnant, Bristol said.
Following the discovery of several lead pipes and fittings recently, the Water Commission is preparing to conduct an analysis of the entire water system in Medford, particularly about 4,000 houses built before 1950. The commission also plans to conduct a separate study on corrosion of the pipes in Medford's water system.