Research shows water quality could diminish in closed buildings during COVID-19 pandemic

ASU researcher joins study to understand how extended shutdowns affect water quality in buildings

August 24, 2020

While bars, gyms, dine-in restaurants and other buildings have been closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, water left sitting in pipes could change in quality.

It’s possible that water left sitting for long periods of time could contain excessive amounts of heavy metals and pathogens concentrated in pipes nationwide, say researchers who have begun a field study on the impact of a pandemic shutdown on buildings. photo of buildings from an empty street Many buildings around the country are closed indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but water left sitting in pipes could change in quality. The Arizona heat could exacerbate stagnation problems. Photo courtesy Shutterstock Download Full Image

“There are several factors that encourage the growth of disease-causing microorganisms in buildings — low or nonexistent disinfectant residual, such as chloramine or chlorine, poor temperature control and water stagnation inside water pipes,” said Kerry Hamilton, a researcher with the Arizona State University Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering. Hamilton has expertise in risk assessment for pathogenic microorganisms, specifically for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease commonly linked to poor water quality in buildings.

Hamilton is a co-author of a new report completed with Purdue University and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research program. The study involves monitoring water quality in buildings both during a period of extended vacancy and when occupants have returned.

Her contribution to the study focused on summarizing practices used to notify building occupants of potential water quality issues and what communication typically takes place between utilities, building owners or facilities managers, health departments and building occupants.

“This may be an issue when high ambient temperatures can encourage the growth of undesirable microorganisms in water systems in buildings,” said Hamilton, an assistant professor with the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

“Shutdowns due to COVID-19 can exacerbate stagnation problems and point to the need for utilities, facilities managers and the general public to be especially aware of these issues and to take action to prevent disease from exposure to water that has been allowed to remain stagnant in pipes.”

“We don’t design buildings to be shut down for months. This study focuses on the consequences and could help building owners make sure that their buildings are safe and operational when occupants return,” said Andrew Whelton, a Purdue associate professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering and lead investigator.

Whelton’s field study is part of a national effort to advise public health officials, building owners and water utilities on how to safely recommission buildings with low or no occupancy due to the pandemic.

Whelton and other researchers across the U.S. have begun drafting recommendations compiled by this effort in a study published June 16 by the American Water Works Association journal "Water Science." Collaborators on this study include experts from leading plumbing safety scientists and engineers from ASU, Purdue, Virginia Tech, Legionella Risk Management, Inc., University of Memphis, University of Iowa, Northeastern University and Polytechnique Montréal in Canada. The recommendations are based on implications from other studies of water stagnation in large buildings.

Typically, buildings can prevent stagnation through regular water use. This brings in new water with disinfectant. But extended building shutdowns will require different solutions, the researchers said. The Centers for Disease Control provides guidelines for the reopening of buildings after shutdowns.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU's Modeling Instruction Program continues teaching legacy in online format

August 25, 2020

For three decades, teachers from around the Phoenix metro area – and as far away as Singapore – have gathered on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to learn as students in the Department of Physics’ Modeling Instruction Program. This year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program adapted to an online format for the first time in the its history.

“I always say, I think it's amazing that we get teachers to come to Phoenix in the summer to learn,” said Bob Culbertson, the director of the Master of Natural Science (MNS) program and associate professor in the Department of Physics. “By going online, of course they didn't have to do that and we could tap into a bigger pool. Some teachers may not have been able to travel had we offered it in our normal way, but now were able to stay at home and do it online.” Teachers participate in ASU's Modeling Instruction Program Participants of ASU's Modeling Instruction Program pictured in a past session. This year's program was held virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Download Full Image

Participants of the program dedicate their summer break to improve their teaching skills, retrain as physics and chemistry instructors, qualify to teach dual enrollment courses, or work toward a master’s degree. Many of the teachers attending the graduate-level courses serve low-to-moderate-income students in Arizona and are focused on preparing the thousands of students among their classrooms for the 21st-century workplace.

Typically, the ASU Modeling Instruction Program holds six graduate courses in physics and chemistry each summer for a total of about 60 teachers. This year, the program saw an increase in attendance, with 75 teachers participating in the remote courses dedicated to physics and chemistry.

Those behind the program have found that modeling instruction allows students to own their scientific discoveries and learnings through prepared activities and observation, rather than being lectured about concepts. The benefits of this style of instruction include increased student engagement and developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“Physics is the chief STEM pathway to compete in the 21st-century workplace, as it includes more math, technology and engineering than any other high school course,” said Professor Jane Jackson, co-director of the Modeling Instruction Program. “A student who takes interactive engagement — hands-on, minds-on — physics, such as modeling instruction, is three times more likely to earn a STEM degree than a student whose last high school science course was chemistry.”

Culbertson said the teaching method is fun, but requires an investment from teachers looking to incorporate the learning style into their classrooms.

“I think that's the downside of modeling, is that you just can't watch a YouTube video on it and say, ‘Oh, OK, I'm going to try that in my classroom.’ It doesn't work that way. You really have to live it and practice it,” he said. “Teachers report that they get better each year and it takes several years before they feel like they actually have some mastery of how to do modeling.”

Holly McTernan, a high school science teacher in Ohio, earned an MNS degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2011 after spending four summers in a row in Tempe. McTernan credits her family’s support as well as the help offered by Jackson with allowing her to successfully complete the program.

“Most of us could not have managed if Jane had not helped find inexpensive but safe housing and supplied us with basic essentials for studying and living there. It was truly amazing what she did for us,” McTernan said.

She had planned to return to Tempe again this year, this time to lead a modeling workshop herself. Then COVID-19 struck, everything went online and McTernan’s gut response was to say “no” to remote instruction for the workshop.

“But Jane persisted and convinced me that teachers in the MNS had identified that this was a very important class for them,” she said. “I remembered what it has done for me and how I was able to return to my own school and successfully offer AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism ... I felt I could not say no.”

The remote experience proved beneficial and impactful, even if it wasn’t in the typical setting.

“I was surprised at how a learning community can be encouraged and grow online. It was not unusual for participants to hang around after class even with no questions and they would say ‘I'm just here to soak more in,’ which was very encouraging,” she said. “I was truly impressed at how we could get a lot of input and discussion even without the benefit of in-person body language and the simultaneous wide view that is not possible online.”

McTernan shared that while participants were nervous about the program’s remote facilitation, many were pleasantly surprised at how much they accomplished and the new confidence the course gave them.

“Many also pointed out they felt they had learned some helpful techniques for how to teach remotely where necessary and preserve a modeling pedagogy and keep a classroom scientific discourse prevalent in the remote learning environment,” she said.

This summer’s online adaptation was in part made possible by community support: The Arizona Department of Education awarded $2,000 scholarships and local businesses Salt River Project, Core Construction and First Fidelity Bank donated $7,000 for lab equipment/technology. According to Jackson, this financial support allowed the program to provide equipment to the homes of teachers in need so that they could complete investigations during the courses.

“Arizona’s economic health depends on a strong K–12 education that includes robust physics courses,” Jackson said. “Our work is crucial.”

Monetary donations help provide tuition to high school teachers seeking continued professional development programs. Support the Department of Physics Modeling Instruction Program at

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences