Emily Anna Bridges, laboratory manager in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, shares her harrowing experiences when the aged water purification system supplying water to her research building stopped functioning entirely, after months of causing leaks and contamination problems. She emphasizes the need for a good and reliable source of purified water for research use and touts the benefits of the new point-of-use system that the university has installed in all its labs.
Q: What prompted you to upgrade the water purification system that you had?
A: Our building is a part of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and has seven floors with labs belonging to different research departments. Our lab is in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and we study spinal muscular atrophy. We have a large lab with about 30 people, and we have many different things going on in our lab. It’s a very fast-paced research environment, and when you have the water quality compromised in such an environment, it’s very stressful because we cannot afford to slow down.
We pursue a lot of different applications involving biochemical assays, tissue culture, high-throughput screening, protein purification and crystallization, flow cytometry, PCR, and immunofluorescence. A lot of these applications, particularly protein purification and crystallization, require very stringent purity conditions. We need polished water for making all our solutions, buffers, media plates, broths and agars. We also need deionized water for rinsing all our lab equipment after it’s been washed. What we had in the building previously was a centralized system for deionizing water, and when that failed it caused big problems. Now we have multiple point-of-use systems in our lab, almost one at every sink, and that seems to be working well.
Q: Can you share with us the details of some of the problems that you were facing with your old water purification system?
A: The water purification system that we previously had was about 25 years old and was used for the entire building. We used to have frequent leaks, and many times the water became contaminated. Since we had to deal with these problems constantly, we had a water polisher installed just for our lab so that we could get clean water. But that kept failing, too. When we started talking to other labs in the building, we found out that everyone was facing the same problem. Our water filters were always getting clogged and had to be changed frequently, which was proving quite expensive. Eventually the entire water purification system blew up, the pipes burst and one of the cisterns cracked open. According to our facilities management group, it was a “catastrophic failure.” So the centralized deionizing system was deactivated and was later replaced with point-of-use water polishers installed throughout the building. But all this took time. We first started out with just one unit installed per floor, and later these point-ofuse systems were installed in each lab.
Q: How long did it take to figure out that something was wrong?
A: When I joined the lab in 2006 as the lab manager, I realized that we were not changing the filters on our water polisher as frequently as we should. So I got a service contract to get the filters changed every six months or so. That worked well for a couple of years. Then we started seeing the purity numbers drop on our polisher. We initially thought that our polisher had gone bad because we had to change the filters so frequently, but then it stopped dispensing water altogether because it was so badly clogged up. This happened a few times, but before we got around to doing anything, the system cleared itself up. May 2010 was when the purification system for the entire building collapsed. Then systems got installed on every floor for common use, and through the fall of 2010 the point-of-use systems got installed in every lab. Now we get really clean water. We still measure the purity of our water very regularly, but we haven’t had any failures so far. Our deionized water now is almost at the same purity as polished water. That’s been a pleasant surprise.
Q: What are some of the advantages of the new system that you now have in place?
A: One of the advantages of the new system is that you can set it to dispense a fixed volume of water, then go away and come back without having to worry about overflowing and flooding. This saves us a lot of time, money and water too. Also, the maintenance of the water, purification system is all centralized and handled by the Medical School. We have also retired our water polisher in the lab, since the purity of the deionized water is fairly close to that of polished water. So the lab is no longer spending any money from its grant budget for good water. The new water system also saves us a lot of bench space. The tank is installed underneath the sink and sits on one side of the cabinet. So we still have some space to store things, but what really helps is that we now have more work space on the top and around the sink. We have at least 75 percent more space than we used to. The system also has built-in alarms and displays to warn us if anything goes wrong.
Q: Do you have any advice for people facing a similar situation in their labs?
A: Labs that have an aging water purification system need to figure out if they should upgrade their existing purification system or install point-of-use type systems before a major problem occurs. In most labs that work with a centralized water purification system, you don’t have much control over the water quality on a daily basis, and if something goes wrong you are at the mercy of the management. With a point-ofuse system in your lab you can monitor changes, and if one system fails there are other systems in the lab that you can rely on or other labs in the building that you can go to. Perhaps centralized systems were most cost-effective in past years, but now I would recommend that people look into point-of-use systems as a possibility. Since we switched to the new system, there have been no problems. We now start out with clean water and we have water that we can trust. Water affects everything that you do in the lab, and to have the water contaminated is a lab manager’s nightmare, particularly if there is nothing you can do about it. The point-of-use system gives me more control and more peace of mind. There is now one less variable to worry about.
Emily Anna Bridges earned her B.A.in Biology and Music in 1999. She worked as a laboratory technician from 1999-2002 in the Infectious Disease Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass., where she specialized in the development of new vaccine technologies and immunological diagnostics. She relocated to Philadelphia, Pa., in 2002 to pursue her love of music in the form of a doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania, which she finished in 2009. In 2006, during graduate school, she returned to the lab to work as a lab manager for Dr. Gideon Dreyfuss, an HHMI investigator at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. For the past five years, she has managed a large laboratory and contributed to various research projects related to the study of spinal muscular atrophy, an often lethal genetic disease.
If you missed the Ask The Expert webinar “How To Choose The Right Water Purification System For Your Lab”, originally broadcast on TTuesday May 10, 2011, 2010, Click here to watch the archived video.