By Thomas A. Burke

What do you think of when you hear the terms boil water alert, boil alert or boil advisory? Do you think the city or town you live in really needs to update its infrastructure? Are you frustrated that perhaps another break in a water line has been caused by construction near you? If you use well water, do you check to make sure a storm hasn’t allowed floodwaters to flood your pump? Many readers will most likely have drinking water filtration systems installed at their homes and businesses. But what about your prospects? I suggest when you hear news announcing a boil water alert, you should also hear opportunity! Not necessarily opportunity to sell more products, although that is indeed where you are headed. Rather, the opportunity for you should be in staking your claim as your local area’s drinking water expert. You have the knowledge of the market, you have products that will help prospects avoid much of the unpleasantness surrounding boil water alerts and you have yourself to promote as an expert during these occurances, without having to spend a lot of money for ads.

What do people and businesses that do not have drinking water filtration systems need when they are placed under a boil water alert? Information. Many alerts are issued throughout the US and even internationally on a daily basis; however, often little or no information is provided regarding what should be done. For example, as noted in a boil water alert for El Paso, TX,1 the only information is: “EPWU recommends you boil water before drinking it. A loss of water pressure can potentially allow contaminants from the air and soil to enter into the pipes. This should be done until the electricity situation is resolved or until further notice.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But there are several important points that are missing. Specifically, it should cover not just consumption, but any use that might include some kind of ingestion: brushing teeth or washing fruits and vegetables; making sure kids aren’t playing with and drinking water out of garden hoses; ensuring pets have access to clean water; disposing of ice made in a refrigerator; how long to flush water lines once the boil water alert has ended; how long water should be boiled to ensure safety. These are issues people may have questions about, or are situations they don’t even think about when it comes to boil water alerts.

A similar boil water alert for Medina, OH2 states: “The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are asking people to boil their drinking water until the alert ends. The alert will end after the water has been tested and is deemed safe. Officials hope that this will be about 12 p.m. For more updates or questions, residents can go to, call City Hall at (330) 725-8861 or the water department at (33) 722-9081.” What is good about this alert is that it directs people to additional resources. What’s bad is that it does not provide enough information to help people understand how important this issue is and how much they should do to keep their family safe. As for some of those additional resources, visiting the city’s home page (which is filled with all kinds of government information, departments, notices, tax information, etc.) can be quite daunting for the average consumer.

A very common boil water alert for several areas of Kentucky3 just lists cities and towns and posts this statement: “Officials with the Mountain Water District have issued a boil water advisory for the following areas until further notice.” What is most telling about this alert is some of the comments from readers:

Posted by: Mike, Location: Phelps on July 19, 2010 at 11:54 a.m. We are in Phelps when will we have water or be able to get help with water?

Posted by: Shaw, Location: Pikeville on July 19, 2010 at 08:51 a.m. I am not clear on the areas that this effects, so if someone could help me I would be so greatful (sic). I live up towards the Virginia line (on the 4-lane) so would I be included in the boil water area? Thank you in advance.

Also, boil water alerts can be announced in a variety of venues, such as radio, television or signage. See the photo at the beginning of this article for the extent of a boil water alert for one Ohio location. One has to hope that the consumers in the surrounding area drove past this sign in order to be made aware of this alert.

Clearly, consumers want and need information regarding alerts. As drinking water infrastructure continues to age and further degrade—with some systems over 80 to 100 years old—the prevalence of alerts has been increasing, and will continue to increase. Weather patterns, such as drought and extreme storms, can overwhelm both municipal systems and private wells, either through drying ground that leads to cracking pipes and intrusion of pathogens, or floodwater washing over entire systems, or pumps contaminating them with untreated water.

Additionally, information that is shared with consumers can be quite different depending on the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states water should be heated to a rolling boil for one minute (at altitudes greater than 6,562 feet [> 2,000 m]; boil water for three minutes). Wikipedia (many average consumers rely on this online source) claims water should be boiled for several minutes. The city of Bardstown, KY4 states water should be boiled for five minutes. Bardstown also states that bottled water should be used for making coffee and for pets, and boiled or bottled water should be used for brushing teeth.

In reviewing the information provided by the CDC, filtration solutions are noted as an afterthought.5 In fact, the CDC’s first recommendation during a boil water alert, after stating not to serve or consume water or ice or food rinsed with water that has not been disinfected, is to consume commercially bottled water. Only later as part of a note can this statement be found:

Cryptosporidium can be removed from water by filtering through a reverse osmosis filter, an ’absolute one micron‘ filter, or a filter certified to remove Cryptosporidium under NSF International Standard #53 or #58 for either ’cyst removal‘ or ’cyst reduction.’ (see A Guide to Water Filters for more information) However, unlike boiling or distilling, filtering as just described will not eliminate other potential disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses. Ultraviolet light treatment of water is not effective against Cryptosporidium at normally-used levels.”

This information is not completely accurate and not reflective of the current state of technology within the drinking water industry. This should not surprise you. What should surprise you is that the CDC’s first recommendation is to purchase bottled water—much of which is sourced from municipal systems and further processed through various filtration technologies, those very same technologies you may be able to provide to your prospects.

Another concern in these situations is that consumers could rush to purchase a product that does not truly protect their family. Very few average consumers understand the details of certification for drinking water filtration systems. Products may be for sale that offer no protection for consumers, yet carry names they are familiar with and thus, are imbued with a positive association.

Do you now see your opportunity? You have the local presence, which gives you an immediate edge when talking to your community. You are well versed in the drinking water industry and can share detailed information on what consumers need to do when a boil water alert occurs. You can contact your local newspaper, radio or television station and tell them you want to discuss this issue to provide valuable information to the local community. Your opportunity is to set yourself up as the local drinking water expert, the one consumers should turn to if they have questions, the one who can direct them to more detailed information if needed. And of course, once you have established yourself as that local expert, you will provide the solutions that will allow consumers to avoid both boiling water and the effects that caused the alert in the first place.

Keep in mind that you want to present your information in a simple, down-to-earth manner. Average consumers often don’t understand ’government-ese‘, so your ability to translate information from the government and the drinking water industry will be the key that establishes your expertise. Of course, you have to be tuned into your community to be aware of these alerts, as well as the local media sources that you want to contact. If you are not tuned in to what is happening in your community, then you will miss these opportunities.


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About the author
Thomas A. Burke has studied the drinking water industry, issues, regulatory environments, associations, market participants, products and technologies for over a decade. He has a strong passion for helping to further the goals of the drinking water industry, especially dealers and distributors, as the premier experts on all drinking water issues in their local communities. Burke can be reached at [email protected]. On Facebook, visit America’s Boil Water Alert Expert; on Twitter, follow BoilAlertExpert. America’s Boil Water Alert Expert Facebook page was created to be a friendly, simple and helpful resource that dealers, distributors and consumers can use for information related to an issue that will continue to grow in importance based on aging infrastructure, increased regulatory requirements and improved contamination detection methods. Often, information on this topic is not provided or is inconsistent with other sources and may lead to confusion. Average consumers may not be able to locate or understand information provided through government agencies or associations. Consumers need this information, and dealers and distributors should be well equipped to provide it for them.


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