Hot Water Quality

Due to unexpected equipment failures, HOT WATER quality is being monitored across the Vancouver campus.

Out of an abundance of caution:

  • Please do not use HOT WATER to fill kettles, for preparation of beverages, or for drinking.
  • The COLD WATER has not been affected, as it runs on a separate system.
  • Hot water can—and should—still be used for washing hands, dishes, etc.

If you notice anything out of the ordinary with hot water, call Building Operations immediately at 604.822.2173

NOTE: this webpage will be updated regularly. Please check for the most recent information as it becomes available.
Last update:
June 7, 2018 10:31 am

Current state

There have been no active issues with the hot water system since March of 2017.

In August 2017, the university’s expert consultants completed a comprehensive engineering review of the campus domestic hot water system. A manufacturer’s defect was discovered with a certain production series of heat exchangers on campus and the university is acting to replace all these heat exchangers.

As of January 2018, heat exchangers in 19 buildings had been replaced by units from a new manufacturer, using the available stock of spares. The balance are currently being replaced as new heat exchangers are manufactured and the project plans to be complete the transition by early fall, 2018.

Individual buildings will receive notification as we proceed through the replacement process. Some disruption of domestic hot water is to be expected and we will do everything we can to minimize the impacts on campus users.

All building complexes on active monitoring will continue to be monitored until their replacement is complete. This is seen by our engineering advisors as the appropriate effort to manage the risk and continue to keep our hot water supply compliant with standard water quality standards.

What happened?

As part of UBC’s Vancouver Campus District Energy System (DES), we use hot-water-to-hot-water heat exchangers to heat the domestic hot water in 52 of the 193 building complexes on the academic campus. The majority of these heat exchangers were recently replaced as part of the DES renewal and were expected to have a 15-20 year lifespan.

Five of our heat exchangers were found to have failed in January, February, and March of 2107, leaking a diluted anti-corrosion chemical containing nitrite into building hot water supply at four buildings:

  • Friedman Addition/JBM,
  • Scarfe
  • Residence complexes:
    • Place Vanier Robson House (twice)
    • Place Vanier Sherwood-Lett

The cold water supply in the buildings was and is not affected. Water samples from the hot water supply were taken before the repairs and sent to an independent testing facility. As results can take up to two weeks, we made immediate repairs in the interim.

Further heat exchangers failed in other locations, but did not leak into the building’s hot water supply. A complete list of buildings is being regularly updated on this website.

The problem with the heat exchangers was unforeseeable. The units are certified and specifically built for building hot water systems. They are designed to “fail safe” (i.e., not transfer water from the campus energy system to the hot water supply), so a failure of this type is not one we would anticipate. Simply put, this type of failure, by the design of the heat exchangers, is not supposed to happen.

What is UBC doing to fix this?

UBC takes matters of student, faculty, and staff health and safety seriously. We, too, are concerned about these instances of hot water contamination and it’s important for the wider community to understand what happened and how we are responding.

In the affected buildings, we have been responding immediately with both repairs and information since the first indication there was a concern. We have communicated, and will continue to communicate, directly with individuals who have come forward with concerns as well as with affected building occupants through their Building Administrators and Local Occupational Health and Safety Committees. In all affected campus buildings, signage has been posted at all hot water taps and eyewash stations alerting the campus community to the situation and our best advice.

We began our technical response in affected buildings by conducting visual inspections of mechanical rooms and their heat exchangers, conductivity testing of the hot water to screen for potential contamination, and chemical testing. This ensures we have an active safety program in place until the root cause for the failure can be determined and permanent repairs completed. Our inspection regimen has been very successful at discovering indications of early failure. To date, we have discovered nine early-stage failures and have been able to react quickly to replace the heat exchanger before any contamination could occur, as verified by independent water quality testing.

UBC has completed our work with third-party engineering firms to investigate what caused the units to fail in this manner and we will continue monitoring the system to catch failures as quickly as possible while systematically replacing all affected units.

The risk is to hot water only

Individuals who may have consumed a significant amount of hot water from a hot water tap in an affected building, e.g. by filling kettles etc. regularly from a hot water tap , may have experienced gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. Note that there are many causes for GI symptoms, chemical exposure being one potential cause. Cold water is not affected, as it is supplied by a separate system.

Health Canada guidelines are 1.0 mg/L for nitrite-nitrogen. During the initial phase of shutting down the hot water for the Freidman Addition/JBM buildings, drinking water samples taken after an initial flush of the building’s hot water service showed values ranging from 1.05 to 2.45 mg/L. following this discovery, UBC began a proactive inspection of all heat exchangers on campus. As a result, additional heat exchanger failures were discovered, readings were 0.95 mg/L in Scarfe, 3.17 mg/L in Place Vanier Robson House, and 8.7 mg/L in Place Vanier Sherwood Lett. In all cases after the full hot water system flush and repair, the values for nitrite were less than 0.010 mg/L.

It is important to contextualize; the drinking water standards are to prevent ill effects from regularly consumed water. The Health Canada guideline of 1.0 mg/L for nitrite-nitrogen is based on the most susceptible population, which is bottle-fed infants.

If you did not regularly consume hot water from the hot water taps in these buildings, then you would not have an exposure risk. Post-equipment replacement, all buildings had measurements of <0.010 mg/L nitrite-nitrogen in the hot water, well below the Health Canada guidelines (1.0 mg/L).

What do I need to do?

Out of an abundance of caution, we are posting notices at all buildings on campus that have these heat exchangers. If you notice anything out of the ordinary with your hot water, please call Building Operations immediately at 604.822.2173 so we can identify and repair the issue.