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Apr 26, 2024

Backflow Preventers: How CFPUA Customers Protect Our Community’s Drinking Water

Sponsored Content provided by Jennifer Adams - Chairwoman, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority

More than 200,000 people in New Hanover County depend on Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for safe, reliable drinking water. This is a 24/7 focus of CFPUA staff.

At the same time, though, customers have crucial roles to play as well. In particular, homes and businesses with features such as irrigation systems, pools, or manufacturing equipment connected to the public water system are required by law to have a properly functioning, recently tested backflow prevention device, or backflow preventer. If the drinking water line loses pressure, a backflow preventer lives up to its name, preventing potential contamination in these connected features from backflowing into the public water system and into the taps of other customers.

Such an event has the potential to be catastrophic. Just ask the residents of Corpus Christi, Texas. Situated on the Gulf Coast between Houston and the U.S.-Mexico border, Corpus Christi is home to approximately 318,000 people. In December 2016, Corpus Christi city officials issued a mandatory “do not drink” notice to its residents after suspecting that an asphalt emulsifier made its way from an industrial site into the city’s drinking water system. Subsequent investigations determined that no backflow preventer had been installed at the industrial site. Corpus Christi residents struggled under the “do not drink” notice for almost four days. News reports described store shelves emptied of bottled water and closed schools. Businesses reported lost revenue, and although no estimates of the cumulative financial harm were noted, our recently completed economic impact study calculated that each day of complete water service disruption at CFPUA could reduce New Hanover County’s economic output by $42.1 million to $55.3 million and cost each household between $650 and $860, depending on the length of the overall outage.

To be clear, the likelihood of our utility facing an experience similar to Corpus Christi’s is remote. Corpus Christi’s experience demonstrates, however, that even unlikely events can happen, with serious, widespread consequences – all because one customer lacked a properly functioning backflow preventer.

North Carolina public water supply rules require CFPUA to have and enforce a Cross-Connection and Backflow Prevention Ordinance. This ordinance protects the public water supply by requiring the installation of backflow preventers on the line between the drinking water supply and potential sources of contamination such as pools, commercial buildings, medical facilities, irrigation systems, and fire sprinkler systems.

Like any mechanical device, a backflow preventer can be subject to failure. By law, they must be tested annually by certified testers to ensure proper functioning. Our program currently manages annual testing and compliance of more than 16,000 backflow preventers in the CFPUA water system. 

Ultimately, though, responsibility for compliance lies with the customer, who owns and maintains any backflow preventer on their property. The CFPUA account holder is responsible for completing annual testing and providing a copy of the test report to CFPUA. CFPUA sends courtesy notices about the need for an inspection 60 days prior to customers’ test due date. We recognize that many of our customers are renters, so every notice we send includes a statement asking tenants to forward the notice to their landlord.

CFPUA staff provided detailed information on our backflow preventer program at our April 10 Board meeting, including some recently implemented improvements that are worth highlighting.

In 2020, staff began transitioning management of our backflow preventer program to a more sophisticated software platform. This included significant cleanup of data migrated from older systems and work to ensure all backflow devices in our water system are included. This process is largely complete, allowing the implementation of several enhancements to reduce manual review and intervention by CFPUA staff and ensure more consistent enforcement of requirements outlined in CFPUA’s ordinance.  

Key improvements include:

  • Automatically resetting the notification workflow if the customer associated with the property and backflow changes at any point.
  • The ability to automate the assessment of the $100 for residential and $200 for commercial civil penalty fee for noncompliance. Rollout of this feature is still underway.
  • Improved query and tracking capabilities for staff.
These and other improvements have increased the rate of testing compliance with our ordinance from 70 percent to 87 percent, a trend staff looks to continue.

You can find more details about backflow preventers and a list of certified testers on our website or by calling CFPUA Compliance staff at 910-332-6558.

This statement makes it sound as if, when a customer changes, a new test due date is established, which could be later than the current test date.  If the owner changes frequently, there could be a case where the test due date continually gets pushed out….   Perhaps just remove the words "and test due date" to eliminate this concern?

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