In October, the Albemarle County Service Authority included a notice with each water bill it sent to the 71,000 people in the urban system around Charlottesville and the 11,213 clients in Crozet. The insert had a link that opened to a survey, where customers could express their opinions, not only about the quality of the water, but also about cost and customer service. The surveys have been sent out before, but there’s no set schedule, said Tim Brown, the environmental compliance specialist for the authority: “We like to assess how we’re doing from time to time.”
Nearly 700 people completed the survey, and 28 had a complaint or two. A few were about water quality. They mentioned orchids that died, grit on the faucet aerator, algae in the reservoirs, mold in the toilet, a chlorine taste in the drinking water. Those kinds of complaints—there were five of them—went to Brown; others regarding cost structure or billing procedures went to other departments. “Everyone with a concern got a personal call back from the responsible person, depending on the complaint,” he said, “except those who chose to remain anonymous.”
Brown, one of more than 75 employees who work for the service authority, supervises a small staff charged with monitoring the quality of water that flows into residences, commercial businesses and new construction sites that rely on hydrants. They don’t wait until there’s an issue, he said, but constantly monitor water by weekly sampling at a number of sites.
Crozet’s water is tested separately from the rest of Albemarle County, because it’s served by Beaver Creek Reservoir rather than the Rivanna Reservoir. Fifteen times every month, specialists sample water from Crozet’s treatment plant and then move on to testing sites at the Field School, the Lodge at Old Trail, the Grayrock subdivision, and Harris Teeter, each having an established tap for regular testing.
That’s not all they do, of course. Brown’s staff is also responsible for lead and copper sampling of water in older homes identified to have copper pipes, inspecting the grease traps and disposal protocols in restaurants, and monitoring the backflow preventers that are required for all commercial and institutional buildings, for irrigation and fire suppression systems, and for “strip malls” where several businesses are typically behind the same water meter.
Although those who responded to the latest survey identified difficulties with online bill payment and water and sewer pricing much more often than complaints about water quality, people from Crozet get in touch with Brown all year with one major concern.
About two-thirds of the complaints from Crozet homes are about the mold that lurks in the water flowing through the faucets, shower heads, drains and toilets. Brown explained that the housekeepers of Crozet tend to blame the water authority for the constant scrubbing, swiping and bleaching necessary to keep the gunk at bay, but it’s actually something that happens after the water enters our homes. To prove this, Brown tested water at a number of homes in areas with complaints, both to identify types of mold and to confirm that the water is fine before it gets to our faucets. He collected swabs from toilets, faucet aerators, washing machines and even bath mats, and found several types of common molds, none of which were found in the pipes outside the home. He also found that none of them were the dreaded “black mold” especially feared by home buyers.
What happens here in Crozet that makes it more of a problem? Brown explained that we have a kind of “trifecta” that encourages the growth of mold. Landscapers choose the look of heavily-mulched beds in our subdivisions, and anyone who regularly observes those areas can spy a number of exotic expressions of mold. Constant development is another factor, exposing acres of bare soil while construction is underway. This, added to the plentiful moist air flowing down from the mountains, creates an invisible storm of spores. It’s frustrating, Brown said, for water quality to be under attack, when the culprit is the air-borne particles resulting from these conditions. Spores enter our homes on our shoes, in our clothes, and with our pets, and settle in places that stay moist. Repeated tests show that, although unsightly, the affected faucets and shower heads do not pose a health risk. He’s often asked why the chlorine in the water fails to kill the mold, but chlorine is volatile and soon disappears into the air, just as the airborne spores are settling into their new, moist home.
Brown believes the types of mulch used may play a role, but as yet doesn’t know which ones are the major contributors. Meanwhile, he’s developed a list of housekeeping strategies that homeowners can use, including soaking aerators and shower heads in a bleach solution, cleaning toilet rims and sink faucets often, leaving shower curtains open, making ample use of exhaust fans, and disinfecting water dispensers.
Brown said he’s available to talk to anyone concerned about water quality or mold, or who would like to receive a fact sheet with testing results and specific steps for in-home mold abatement. Reach him at 434-977-4511.