Behind on Summertime Water Testing? Here Are 10 Ways to Get Ahead

If your water testing lab is ill-prepared for summer, you may find yourself knocked down when the waves of samples start rolling in.

After all, algae counts are higher. Snow melts. Water parks and pools open. The warmer months can be a productive time for source water. Swim beach managers urgently need bacteriological results to keep recreational bodies of water safe, so it just isn't possible to keep those short hold time tests waiting. And these are popular months for staff members to schedule vacations, meaning a backlog at the lab is almost inevitable.

With that in mind, we asked water lab professionals around the country how they handle the busiest time of the year. Here are their suggestions for getting back on track when you fall behind.

1. Perform Triage

"You have to prioritize," says Sherry Scaggiari, the quality control laboratory supervisor for the City of Aurora in Colorado (Aurora Water). Although her lab does around 80,000 samples annually, she previously worked for labs that handled as many as 5,000 samples a week. In those situations, she says, it's best to start with the critical short hold tests.

2. Establish Consistent Testing

"We fall behind every summer," says Shanna Shea, quality control manager and laboratory director for SOS Analytical in Traverse City, Michigan. At her lab, it's not the actual testing but the results that form a bottleneck. To help with that final report backlog, the lab adheres to a strict testing schedule in the summer. "For example, BOD samples are only set on Wednesday morning and Friday morning," Shea explains. "That meets holding times for samples collected between Monday mornings and Friday morning."

3. Rely on Your SOPs

Set up standard operating procedures that are easy to follow, advises Ian Habich, laboratory supervisor for the Ocean County Utilities Authority in New Jersey, which tests samples for 69 swimming sites. To ensure quality control, they run a duplicate sample every 10 samples as well as multiple cross-checks and cross-counts. "It becomes very robotic at times, but that's actually a good thing," he says. "You're not introducing errors."

4. Cross-Train Employees

All 10 people in Scaggiari's group are cross-trained for bacteriological analysis. "Anybody can pick up those samples and run with them," she says. "If you only had one or two people that could do that, you could put yourself in a really hard position." Start cross-training on the short holds and then, once those are covered, work your way down the list, she suggests.

5. Hire Seasonal Help

Ocean County Utilities Authority trains two seasonal employees who are usually college students to run the bathing beach sample tests. That way, the wastewater treatment lab staff can focus primarily on regulatory samples. "Our whole purpose is to protect the public health and the environment, so the seasonal workers are well supervised," Habich says.

6. Consider Faster Tests

Amanda Buell, supervising environmentalist for Hennepin County Environmental Health in Minnesota, says her team sends beach water samples to a contracted lab. They asked the lab to look into a certified E. coli test with an 18-hour incubation period instead of a 24-hour one. And last year, the lab switched over to the new test. "That made a huge difference for us," Buell says. "We can let the beach owners know a lot sooner — almost 24 hours sooner."

7. Keep Communication Open

Shea says that their clients receive notifications about the current turnaround times when dropping off samples. Those who ship samples to the lab are told to expect a 10-day turnaround time. "If it's more than that for any reason, I try to notify our regular customers to let them know," she says. "Most of our customers are very understanding when it comes to turnaround time during the busy summer months."

8. Offer Staff Support

When days are long and you never feel caught up, burnout becomes a real risk. In recognition of this seasonal pressure, SOS Analytical offers employees extremely flexible schedules during the winter months. "Also, our company periodically buys lunch for the staff, and schedules at least one afternoon off each summer for an employee sail on a catamaran in Lake Michigan," Shea says.

9. Implement Visual Alerts

Contractors occasionally drop off samples for Aurora Water's clear water testing program in a refrigerator that doesn't have a glass door. Recently, Scaggiari's lab gave contractors a hot pink magnetic sign that says, "Samples are in the refrigerator." It's impossible to miss. These kinds of visual tools can make a huge difference in getting clients results sooner, she says.

10. Line Up a Substitute Lab

If you're completely inundated, Scaggiari suggests working with an accredited substitute lab for regulatory samples. A sub lab can process samples with longer hold times, freeing up your team to concentrate on the critical quick holds.

As Murphy's law says, anything that can go wrong will. The team at Aurora Water plans ahead and tries to get everything done as early as possible so that they have a second chance if needed. "We call it Murphy-proofing," Scaggiari says. With the right preparation, summer doesn't have to be synonymous with scary backlogs. It might even be smooth sailing.

Read These Next

Alyssa Danigelis

Alyssa Danigelis is a professional freelance journalist who covers business, sustainability, energy, science, and technology. She received a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Having grown up in Burlington, Vermont, she spent formative time in Boston and pounded the pavement for years in New York City before moving to sunny Colorado, where she currently resides.