Drinking Water Distribution Maintenance to be held throughout the month of March

Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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Suffolk Public Utilities is taking steps to maintain the water quality of the city’s water distribution system.

During the Feb. 1 City Council meeting, Suffolk Director of Public Utilities Paul Retel reported on a new drinking water distribution system maintenance procedure that will take place over a three-week period, March 8-29. 

“This is a South Hampton Roads regional effort, it’s not just a Suffolk effort that involves the conversion of the water disinfectant we currently use in our drinking water system to another form,” Retel said.

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Ahead of the upcoming procedure, Retel explained the process so that the public can better understand and be prepared and informed about the procedure.

“The water distribution system is required by law to have a disinfectant in the water system, and that is to reduce the amount of pathogens in the water system,” he said. “The water distribution systems in most public drinking water systems in the United States use a chlorine-based disinfectant. So prior to the year 2000, the South Hampton Roads communities  — Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, used chlorine. Just chlorine — it’s called ‘free chlorine.’”

Retel discussed further how in 2000, there was a conversion to a new chlorine-based disinfectant called chloramine.

“Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia. And the reason the region wants that is chloramine is a much better disinfectant in a variety of different ways – one is it lasts longer in the system,”  Retel explained. “So it lasts longer to the farther reaches of the distribution system. So it’s put in the water, at the water treatment plants, where we treat the water.” 

He said the City of Suffolk is served by two water treatment plants, one in Chuckatuck off King’s Highway called the G. Robert House Water Treatment Plant, and its connection to the Portsmouth Water Treatment Plant, which is the Lake Kilby Water Treatment Plant on West Washington. 

“Both of those plants have chlorine and ammonia on site,” he said. “They combine them, they add them to the water before it goes out into the system, so that’s chloramine.”

Retel said chloramine is a better disinfectant.

“One of the things with chloramine though is since it has ammonia in it, ammonia has nitrogen in it, the system can tend towards what’s called nitrification in the system,” he said. “That makes the disinfectant reduce in its effectiveness. So every so often, we will go and do this program, it’s a maintenance program where we will do at the treatment plants is turn off the ammonia. So we’re feeding only free chlorine. And what that does, as it moves through the system in the three week period that we’re going to do this, it eliminates that nitrification. But after the three-week period is done, we turn the ammonia back on, we’re back in chloramine, and we’re off again.”

Retel noted what the public needs to be aware of prior to the procedure.

“Number one, it’s safe. It’s approved by the Virginia Department of Health Office of Drinking Water,” he said. “There’s no adverse health effects. What they will notice though, some people might notice if they’re more sensitive to it, they might notice more of a chlorine odor, more like a bleach odor — swimming pool odor.”

Retel said Sometimes it’s more predominant when they’re drawing hot water out. “So say, they’re in a shower and there’s steam, they might notice that,” he said. “That’s totally normal and that was the way this was before the year 2000. Totally normal, totally safe.”

Finally, Retel discussed the focus of providing better water quality to the public.

“This procedure is meant to enhance the water quality in the piping system. So as that nitrification is reduced, especially during the summer months when the water is warmer in the pipes, nitrification can become a problem,” he said. “As we look forward to the summer months, there will be enhanced drinking water quality.”

For more information or for any technical, water supply questions, call the Suffolk Public Utilities Water Quality Laboratory between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. at (757) 514-7040. For inquiries during after hours, call (757) 514-7034.

Editor’s note: Updated first and second quotes at 9:21 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 15 to reflect correct spelling.