Summary: Very few things are more important to a water treatment dealer than having his/her products and services certified by a reputable laboratory. So, what should you know? There are many factors to consider and the author points out a few here.
You’re out on a call. The field tests performed by you aren’t yielding results conclusive with the physical symptoms noted with the water system. You could try several treatment technologies and see how they fare, but trial and error is really not the way you want to do business.
Or maybe your situation is that you’re working with a small utility or bottled water company on their treatment systems. They’re very pleased with your services and want you to handle all aspects of their water quality. They’ve asked for your input on meeting their regulatory requirements for water sampling and testing. You don’t want to turn down the additional business, but do you have the expertise or resources to help?
So, where do you turn? What do you do to solve the problem? You’ll usually have to send a sample out for a complete water analysis, but how do you choose a quality laboratory that will be able to provide the answers and solutions that you’re seeking? Partnering with the wrong laboratory could lead to the loss of a customer and possibly even your reputation.
Questions to ask
In choosing an appropriate laboratory, there are some very important questions that need to be addressed:
- Can the laboratory perform the analysis that you need, or do they have the resources available to sub-contract the testing you need to a partner laboratory? Many laboratories may only be specialized in very few types of analysis such as microbiological testing or limited capabilities for some simple metals analysis and inorganics. If choosing to use a laboratory like this, you may not be able to obtain some of the required elements or “unknown” answers you’re seeking. Be sure to choose a laboratory with a wide range of capabilities if that’s what’s needed for a particular situation.
- Does the laboratory have the technical support and resources needed to assist you? When guidance is needed to know what to test for in relation to specific problems, it’s important to work with an experienced technical staff that can offer advice of what to test for based on the symptoms. In the case of testing to meet regulatory needs, it’s especially important to work with a laboratory knowledgeable about specific regulatory requirements that you’re trying to meet. After all, working with a knowledgeable staff can save you significant testing costs or fines in the long run.
- Will the laboratory offer you appropriate assistance with the sample collection process or materials for proper collection? A good laboratory will supply you with all of the needed bottles and clear, concise directions for the collection procedure. If not supplied with the right direction and collection supplies, results may be compromised or incorrect. For many analytes—or the parameter being tested for—there are very specific procedures to follow including, but not limited to: special bottles like glass, plastic, sterile or airtight containers; preservatives that may be necessary to stop any reduction or reaction of the analyte, and awareness that the sample may need to be chilled or delivered to the laboratory within a certain number of hours from the collection time to be valid. This time period, also known as the sample holding time—if not met—is one of the key reasons a sample may need to be recollected. It’s critical the laboratory convey to you the holding times you need to meet to avoid costly resampling and to gain valid results. Holding times may vary from as little as six hours to as much as six months depending on the parameter. Keep in mind, some analytes can only be analyzed as they’re drawn with equipment in the field for results to mean anything.
- Does the laboratory hold the appropriate certifications for the testing to be performed? This is one of the most critical questions to ask the laboratory, especially if the results will be used for submission to a regulatory body such as a local, state or federal agency. Whenever a local, state or federal agency requires testing, it’s imperative testing be done with a certified test based on those requirements. It’s wise to have the laboratory review requirements and provide written documentation that the testing it’s recommending meets those requested requirements. A copy of the laboratory’s certificate would also be a wise request. It’s very important to verify the laboratory isn’t only certified, but also certified for the particular analyte or analytes needed as certification is granted on a per parameter basis.
The certification process
Different types of laboratories may require different certifications, i.e., environmental labs, wastewater labs and drinking water labs. What follows focuses largely on laboratories that specialize in or utilize drinking water methodologies.
To become certified in a particular state, one must first contact the certifying authority to find out how a particular state certification process works. This may be done by phone, but most states have information on their websites with downloadable application forms. There are two basic types of certification—direct certification via either state or Nation-al Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference (NELAC), and recognition certification where a state will accept documentation from a laboratory’s home state or NELAC certification in place of an on-site audit. Lets look at each of these certification processes more in depth.
Direct lab certification
Direct certification means the state being applied to handles all aspects of the certification process. To start this process, the laboratory fills out an initial application for certification. Most initial applications require the following information from the laboratory: the official name of the laboratory, location, shipping and billing addresses, name of the laboratory director(s), name of the compliance officer, the program that certification is being sought under (in the case of potable water, this would be the Safe Drinking Water Act), and the methodologies being used for testing. Each state, however, may require additional information and supporting documentation deemed important to its certification program.
Once the initial application has been received by the state, an on-site audit is scheduled. The length of the audit is determined by how documentation needs to be reviewed. The following is a list of some items reviewed to substantiate validity of the laboratory during the on-site audit. Some states require this documentation before the on-site audit is scheduled:
- The laboratory’s Quality Assurance Manual (QAM).
- Method detection limits (MDLs) for each analyte by the method(s) used by the laboratory.
- Initial demonstrations of abilities/capabilities (IDOAs/IDOCs) for each analyst by the method(s) they’re conducting.
- Performance evaluation results for all the methodologies and analytes that are reported by the laboratory.
- Documentation that the laboratory staff meets the education and experience requirements set forth.
- Review of laboratory “data packs” for the methods the laboratory is performing to ensure that they meet all quality assurance criteria.
- Review of the laboratory’s “sample log-in” and custodial procedures.
- Review of the laboratory’s data-handling procedures including raw data, records retention, data entry, transcription reviews and reports.
- Review of the laboratory’s methodologies to ensure the correct methods are being used and performed in an acceptable manor.
Please note that it’s not unusual for customers to also request some of these items be provided as part of a quality assurance package or additional verification of the laboratory’s credentials.
Summary report & follow-up
Once the on-site inspection is completed, the accrediting authority writes an on-site audit summary report that lists all of the observed deficiencies and recommendations for improvement being made to the laboratory. The laboratory usually has 30 days to respond to the on-site audit summary report with a corrective action plan, which documents if all of the deficiencies have been corrected, or outlines the steps being taken to correct the deficiencies with a completion date.
Upon receipt and review of the laboratory’s corrective action plan, the accrediting authority determines if all deficiencies have been adequately resolved. If the accrediting authority determines all of the deficiencies have been adequately resolved, a certification is issued. If the accrediting authority, however, determines all of the deficiencies haven’t been adequately resolved, a new deficiency report is issued and the process repeats itself.
If outstanding deficiencies are present after the laboratory’s second corrective action plan and depending on their severity, the procedures that contain these deficiencies are either removed from the certification, or certification isn’t issued. Should a deficiency affect a sample in process, the laboratory would need to notify the client or make arrangements to send the sample to another lab that has certification. Other than in this circumstance, customers are rarely aware of any deficiency reports as long as they’re corrected and certification is issued.
The NELAC certification process follows the same general format, but is conducted following the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (NELAP) rules and regulations. These are set forth to make the certification process uniform for all parties involved. States are granted approval to be primary accrediting authorities for NELAC. They in turn conduct audits using a standardized checklist based on NELAC rules and regulations.
As previously mentioned, recognition certification is where a state will accept documentation from a laboratory’s home state or NELAC certification in place of an on-site audit. Generally, state certifying programs set up agreements with other states that they believe have comparable programs to cut down on “parallel work.” NELAC was set up for this purpose. Once NELAC accreditation has been granted by one of the primary accrediting authorities, it can be used to obtain secondary accreditation in other states that participate in NELAC.
It’s important to make sure to choose a laboratory that can offer the scope of analysis that you need and is up to the highest quality standards. Having the knowledge of what goes into this process allows you to ask the right questions to make the decision for a resource partner. A reputable laboratory partner can be a valuable resource for a water treatment professional. Advantages may include additional income opportunities, the resource of an independent third party, and adding credibility to servicing your customers’ needs. An independent analysis, when performed correctly, can become a powerful sales tool by demonstrating quality, thoroughness and professionalism to the customer.
About the author
Tami E. D’Amico, technical support and accounts manager with National Testing Laboratories Ltd. (NTL) since 1997, works with companies such as water treatment equipment manufacturers and dealers, well drillers, contractors, engineers and consultants in the water industry. D’Amico has bachelor’s degrees in biology and general science studies, serves on various Water Quality Association committees, and has authored several articles for industry publications. Based in Cleveland and with labs in Michigan, Florida and Vietnam, NTL has served the water industry with quality analysis for informational and compliance testing requirements for over 18 years. D’Amico can be contacted at (800) 458-3330 ext. 222 or email: [email protected]