Written by Sean Cleary 4:58 pm Backflow Prevention

Planting Trees

Understanding the “hows” and “whys” of backflow prevention

As someone who has the privilege of teaching cross-connection control and backflow tester certification classes in many different areas of the United States (and internationally on occasion), I am, in many cases, the first person to expose individuals in these classes to the topic. I am the one who hopefully educates them on the importance of cross-connection protection and instills a passion for the subject in them. I try to stress the importance of backflow prevention early on so students can understand each part of this complicated puzzle. Hydraulic conditions, degrees of hazard, proper selection of necessary protection, installation requirements, and so many other pieces are all parts of the puzzle.

I spend the first eight hours of a backflow tester class going over the “hows” and “whys” of backflow prevention. We need to look at history. It is important to talk about actual events in the distant past, the recent past, and in present day so that students develop an understanding of the need for comprehensive programs to address the issue. To be a good salesperson, you need to believe in the product you’re selling. If we don’t make our students true believers in the importance of cross-connection control, then they will not become the ambassadors we need in the field, convincing everyone they encounter along the way to install, test, and maintain cross-connection protection throughout water systems and facilities. They themselves need to understand the dangers that exist and understand that without continuous aggressive programs and enforcement, problems will occur and people’s health will be affected.

As we go over documented backflow cases in our training classes, it is not unusual for a student to ask the question, “What are the odds of something like this happening in the future?” This becomes an important teaching moment in any class. In the backflow prevention industry, we do not play the odds. If there is possibility of a reversal of flow in a water system, we must do whatever is necessary to prevent it — it doesn’t matter if the odds are 1 million to one or 10 million to one. Our mission is to put protection in place that makes it as close to impossible as we can to protect the health of individuals using the water system. If we can make this clear to the individuals first entering the industry, then they will understand the importance of continued education and training throughout their careers. They will also work to keep programs in place and ensure that they are managed correctly. This is critical in every section of the cross-connection industry. From designers, installers, and inspectors to water purveyors and contractors, everyone has a role to play.

To have strong comprehensive programs in place, the programs need to be defensible and managed well. We need to ensure that the proper protection is in place for containment (point of service) or isolation (point of use) and maintained. Always err on the side of caution if there are unknown hazards or if potential for system changes exist. If you are not sure of the hazard, consider the cross-connection a high hazard. If it cannot be determined if backpressure or backsiphonage may occur, we must ensure protection against both types of backflow. We install the proper protection that is required after a correct evaluation of the specific and unique connection. If the situation calls for a reduced pressure principle assembly, then that is what should be installed. If the only protection needed is a hose bibb vacuum breaker, then that is what needs to be put in place.

In too many areas, we are not meeting those goals. This is true in urban and rural areas, and in large and small systems. There is a breakdown in communication and understanding across the nation. Decisions are being made based on personal opinions, politics, or other factors that confuse both industry people and end users. In a recent recertification class, a student recounted an issue he had in a new restaurant his company was completing work in. The local county health department inspector insisted that he install a reduced pressure principle assembly on each of the four glass washers being installed. This additional unnecessary protection was going to add significant cost to the facility owner — both for assemblies being installed and the testing and maintenance costs during the life of the facility. The initial installation and testing costs exceeded $2,000. The glass washers being installed had a built in air-gap and required no additional protection.

The plumber asked the inspector for the code section or regulation he was basing his requirement on — the inspector informed him that he would feel more comfortable with the additional protection, and it was his decision as to what was required. The contractor decided to simply pass the cost on to his customer and not argue with the health department inspector. Installing protection that is not needed is counterproductive to the goal we are trying to reach. The industry needs to have clear, defendable regulations that are based on the laws of physics, not past practices or individual opinions.

At times, we have different jurisdictions around the country with vastly different rules and regulations for cross-connection protection on similar systems. In training classes, this is an area where students often ask for an explanation on why this happens. It can be a puzzling question to answer. Take lawn irrigation system protection as an example.

The 2021 UPC states:

603.5.6 Protection from Lawn Sprinklers and Irrigation Systems.
Potable water supplies to systems having no pumps or connections for pumping equipment, and no chemical injection or provisions for chemical injection, shall be protected from backflow by one of the following devices:

  1. Atmospheric vacuum breaker (AVB)
  2. Pressure vacuum breaker backflow prevention assembly (PVB)
  3. Spill-resistant pressure vacuum breaker (SVB)
  4. Reduced-pressure principle backflow prevention assembly (RP)

If high hazard protection is a testable backflow prevention assembly, the code also mandates that it be tested on an annual basis. It would seem that industry consensus exists on this topic at least, but sadly that is not the case.

Even on a statewide level, several large jurisdictions disagree and consider lawn irrigation a low hazard connection. They allow the use of double check valve assemblies, and in some areas even allow non-testable dual checks. They have adopted one of the model plumbing codes but amended regulations to exempt lawn irrigations systems. Some jurisdictions have also removed annual testing requirements for assemblies installed on these systems. Other areas, for some reason, mandate testable high hazard assemblies on lawn irrigation systems at commercial properties and require annual testing on those assemblies, but then do not mandate the same protection and testing for the same irrigation systems at residential properties. It seems like they think the laws of physics are different in a residential setting. All these topics can lead to interesting classroom discussions when conducting cross-connection control instruction.

Getting students to look past regulations and into how and why things occur makes them look at topics in several different ways. It gives them a better understanding of not only what is written, but also how it was developed. This will hopefully push them to look past the focus on specific cross-connections or assemblies and instead look at the entire water system. It can make them understand the hydraulics of an assembly and the components themselves instead of simply memorizing testing steps. It will help make them better technicians who can look past the obvious solution and find the correct solution.

We need the best and brightest minds working in our industry. We need people who are hungry for knowledge and want to be involved. We need individuals looking for a career, not simply a job. If you work in training and education, remember it’s up to us to make that first important impression. Teach our students that what we do is vital to the public health and instill the passion and drive to become more involved in all parts of the industry. An old Chinese proverb states, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” I started training individuals (planting trees) in 1992. That was 30 years ago. I am still planting trees today.

Article first published in Working Pressure magazine

Sean Cleary
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Sean Cleary has been a member of United Association Local 524 Scranton, Pa. for more than 40 years. He has worked in all phases of the plumbing and mechanical industry, and is a licensed master plumber. Cleary is a past president of ASSE International and past chairman of the ASSE Cross-Connection Control Technical Committee. He is employed by IAPMO as the vice president of operations for the Backflow Prevention Institute (BPI).

Last modified: December 19, 2023