Surface water and ground water at risk of containing pathogens (GARP) sources require two methods of treatment, or dual treatment. Filtration alone is not an effective method of treatment against all pathogens. Using the multi-barrier approach, filtration is usually followed by inactivation processes (disinfection) either individually or in combination. Disinfection removes, inactivates or kills pathogenic microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and protozoa) by destroying the cell wall or interfering with its metabolic processes. Because no single disinfectant is effective against all pathogens equally, a multi-barrier approach employing multiple disinfection technologies is recommended. The most common disinfectants are chlorine, chloramine, chlorine dioxide, ozone and ultraviolet light radiation.
Each type of disinfection process has advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, no single disinfectant is effective against all waterborne pathogens; a multi-barrier approach is the most effective strategy to treat drinking water.
Potable (drinkable) water is required from all parts of the water supply system, including the distribution system. The distribution system is that part of the water supply system used to convey water from the treatment plant or water source to the water users. As potability must be maintained throughout the distribution system, Health Canada recommends a combination of primary and secondary disinfection for surface water and GARP sources.
Primary Disinfection vs Secondary Disinfection
There is a clear distinction between primary disinfection and secondary disinfection. They are often completely separate treatment processes that provide different outcomes.
Primary Disinfection (Primary Treatment) is intended to provide disinfection before the water is delivered to the first consumer. It is intended to kill or inactivate pathogenic microorganisms that may be present in the source water. Section 5(2) of the Drinking Water Protection Regulation (DWPR), requires a water supplier to disinfect water originating from surface water or GARP sources.
Some disinfectants are effective as a primary disinfectant but they are not maintained throughout the distribution system. For example, while ultraviolet light radiation (UV) is effective as a primary disinfectant, it does not prevent pathogen regrowth in the distribution system as it does not produce a chemical residual. The chemicals ozone and chlorine dioxide are effective primary disinfectants but they degrade too quickly and do not maintain a residual.
Secondary disinfection (also referred to as ‘residual disinfection’ or ‘distribution disinfection’) is the maintenance of a disinfectant residual throughout the distribution system in order to protect the water quality. Secondary disinfection differs from primary disinfection in that the concentration of disinfectant used will not necessarily be strong enough, or have the necessary contact time, to deactivate pathogens to the extent needed to meet the requirements of section 6 of the DWPA.
A distribution system has many components (reservoirs, water mains, pump stations, pumps, hydrants, valves, etc.) which may be vulnerable to contamination during an emergency event or if system maintenance is inadequate. Leaks in pipes or improper connections may allow the intrusion of pathogens into the distribution system. This contamination is often of fecal origin (sewage, animals, surface water, etc.) which presents an increased risk of waterborne illness.
Once pathogens are introduced to the distribution system, favourable conditions (e.g. temperature and stagnant water) may provide a suitable environment for bacterial growth and pathogen survival in biofilms. Biofilm is a slime layer formed from particles, nutrients and microorganisms. Biofilm attached to the walls of pipes in the distribution system provides an environment that can harbour pathogens (primarily, bacteria). If the biofilm is disturbed, these pathogens can be released into the drinking water in high concentrations. Systems with many dead ends or systems that do not have a high rate of water turnover are at risk for having stagnant zones in the distribution system that contain “old water,” particularly if they do not practice regular flushing.
Secondary disinfection protects the distribution system by:
- protecting the water from microbiological recontamination (due to pipe leaks, cross connections, etc.)
- reducing bacterial re-growth
- controlling biofilm formation
- serving as an indicator of the microbiological integrity of the distribution system (through bacteriological sampling)
Currently, chlorine and chloramine are considered the most effective secondary disinfectants but most water systems use chlorine as a secondary disinfectant. Chlorine is an effective primary disinfectant and secondary disinfectant but it requires a minimum concentration and contact time before pathogens can be reduced or eliminated. The regional health authority (typically, the Public Health Engineer) can provide guidance regarding the determination of the required chlorine concentration and contact time prior to the first water service connection. This is also discussed under Calculating CT Disinfection.
At the end points of the distribution system, operators should aim to maintain a free chlorine residual of 0.2 to 0.8 mg/L, or if chloramine is used, a minimum residual of 0.5 mg/L to ensure safe drinking water and to minimize taste and odour issues at the consumer's tap. On a case-by-case basis, most provinces and territories may permit higher chlorine residuals.
After reviewing system records, source-to-tap risk assessments or reports from qualified professionals; a Drinking Water Officer (DWO) may request or order a water supplier to have secondary disinfection. The DWO may also add this requirement as a condition on the operating permit.
Resources for Designing Treatment for Small Water Systems
The following documents and websites detail more information on the construction and design of waterworks systems and drinking water treatment.
Design and construction guidelines for BC waterworks
Design Guidelines for Rural Residential Community Water Systems, BC, 2012
The Master Municipal Construction Documents (MMCD) Standard Specifications and Drawings, BC, 2022
Guidelines for the Construction of Waterworks, Interior Health, BC, 2014
Treatment information and guidelines for BC water systems
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality - Technical Documents, Health Canada
Small Water System Guidebook, BC Ministry of Health (February 2017) - This guidebook is intended to be the first step in helping owners and operators find solutions to the challenges of operating a small water system, so you can provide the best possible drinking water to your customers.
Drinking Water Officers’ Guide (DWOG), BC
Drinking Water Treatment Objectives (Microbiological) for Surface Water Supplies in British Columbia of the DWOG, BC
Drinking Water Treatment Objectives (Microbiological) for Ground Water Supplies in British Columbia of the DWOG, BC
Sections 6, 7 and 8 of the Guidelines for Pathogen Log Reduction Credit Assignment of the DWOG, BC
Guidelines for Ultraviolet Disinfection of Drinking Water of the DWOG, BC
Guidance on Waterborne Pathogens in Drinking Water, Health Canada, September, 2022
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Enteric Viruses, Health Canada
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Enteric Protozoa: Giardia and Cryptosporidium, Health Canada
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Turbidity,Health Canada
Drinking Water Chlorination Facts, HealthLinkBC File Number: 49d
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Chlorine, Health Canada
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Chloramines, Health Canada
Disinfecting Drinking Water, HealthLinkBC File Number: 49b
Drinking Water Chlorination, Environment Canada
Water Talk - Chloramines in drinking water, Health Canada
Disinfection by-products in drinking water, Indigenous Services Canada
Chlorine in Drinking Water in First Nations Communities, brochure, Indigenous Services Canada
Water Disinfection with Chlorine and Chloramine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA
Chloramines in Drinking Water, EPA, USA
EPA Office of Water’s Alternative Disinfectants and Oxidants Guidance Manual (1999), USA
World Health Organization’s (WHO) Water Treatment and Pathogen Control (2004)
Washington State Department of Health’s Alternate Disinfectants website (they also have a two-page pdf document entitled Alternate Disinfectants, May, 2004).
Drinking Water Treatment – Ozone, Extension Foundation, USDA
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Chlorine, Health Canada, 2009
British Columbia Guidelines (Microbiological) on Maintaining Water Quality in Distribution Systems, 2016
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Chloramines, Health Canada, 2020
Water Talk - Chloramines in drinking water, Health Canada
Drinking Water Chlorination Facts, HealthLinkBC File 49d, BC
Drinking Water Chlorination, handout, Health Canada, 2008