UBC asks residents to not drink the hot water

Notices have been posted at the 52 building complexes on UBC’s Vancouver campus using a certain type of heat exchanger, advising building users to not consume any of the hot water. This notice followed the discovery that five heat exchangers had failed and were leaking a diluted anti-corrosion chemical containing nitrite into the hot water supply — those at the Friedman Addition buildings, SCARFE, and Place Vanier buildings Robson House and Sherwood-Lett. 

The notice says that individuals should not use the hot water “to fill kettles, for the preparation of beverages or for drinking,” but that this is only out of “an abundance of caution” and that hot water can still be used for other purposes such as washing dishes and showering. Because it runs on a separate system, the cold water at all of these buildings has not been affected.

“These heat exchangers are certified for use in domestic hot water. They’re designed for exactly the application we’re using them for. But somehow, water from the district hot water loop had progressed through the heat exchanger and had allowed some of the materials in the district heating water to transmit into the domestic or the drinking hot water in the building,” said Karyn Magnusson, managing director of UBC Building Operations.

According to Magnusson, the issue dated back to January 23, when building operations received a complaint that there was foul-smelling water in the Friedman Addition building, leading to the hot water being turned off.

According to a report from The Vancouver Sun, the complaint was made after Jamie Baudru, a senior clinical programmer at the Friedman Addition building, got sick from drinking the building’s hot water.

“Since it was cold and flu season anyways, it was very difficult to determine whether or not the symptoms were related to the hot water that she had drunk from the hot water tap,” said chief risk officer Ron Holton. “No students or staff from the Vanier buildings or SCARFE have reported any ill health at all, and we have continued to advise anyone who felt that they may have been exposed to let us know and to consult a doctor.”

After the hot water was turned off, the system at Friedman was flushed before water samples were taken. Once the contamination was discovered, UBC checked all of the heat exchangers on campus that were of a similar model beginning on January 30, and found that there were three other buildings where the heat exchangers were transmitting district water into the buildings’ hot water systems. As a result, the heat exchangers were replaced in six Place Vanier buildings, a process which would have required the water to have been turned off for some time.

“The students were absolutely made aware that the hot water was turned off, but any reason that the hot water was turned off was communicated formally from student residence administration later that month,” said Magnusson.

According to UBC’s Risk Management Services website, other heat exchangers have failed in other locations, including Walter Gage, but did not leak into the building’s hot water supply. The hot water quality is also being monitored daily in many buildings across campus.

In The Vancouver Sun article, it was stated that an email was sent to the occupants of the Friedman Addition buildings on March 7 outlining possible health issues, 44 days after the problem was discovered.

“The communications [were] definitely layered in Friedman Addition ... but the first email that was specifically directed to all occupants in the building did go out in March,” said Magnusson. 

“I think we’ve learned a lot about how to communicate directly with the occupants. The university has now taken the approach that we will provide timely information to all building occupants when we discover these things happening.”

There was also a complaint on Twitter from UBC mathematics professor Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub, pointing out that UBC had just spent $150 million on converting the steam system to the current hot water system.

Magnusson disputed this, and said that the steam system was at end of life and needed to be replaced, which would have also cost $150 million.

“The project in total was $87 million. So not only was it a more effective and efficient way of distributing heat around campus, it was a lot cheaper then replacing the whole steam system,” said Magnusson.

Going forward, UBC has hired third-party experts to help determine what the root cause of the failure is, and is continuing with daily monitoring of the heat exchangers that they are concerned about.