If you happened to find yourself in a bathroom of the Humanities and Social Sciences building in the past few weeks, you might have noticed something peculiar: greenish brown water flowing from the sink faucets.
After some phone calls, several Twitter DMs and multiple email chains, the answer to the issue was found.
Due to a combination of switching to low-flow fixtures, as well as a lack of traffic in HSS because of COVID-19, the water had become stagnant in the pipes. This allowed it to pick up the strange color, most likely from the pipe sediment.
The issue was first popularized when a UT student tweeted a video of the discolored water gushing from the sinks of HSS. The video now has 3.4 thousand views.Several students walking around the halls of HSS were shown the video and one student shared her thoughts.
Abbey Lawrence, sophomore geography major, was upset by the issue.
“That looks really unsafe and like it could harm students and other people using the bathrooms in HSS. The university should figure out why it’s like that first and then they should publicly disclose it … instead of trying to cover it up. We need to be transparent,” Lawrence said.
The original tweet was captioned “I’m disgusted.......” and tagged the official UTK twitter, UTKnox Confessions and the Daily Beacon. The university twitter responded saying that UTK Housing was looking into the issue.
But, it turned out that the housing department was not looking into the issue, and in fact, no one was looking into the issue at all. Upon contacting UTK Housing, they responded that they had been “mistakenly tagged in that post.”
Issues of maintenance, physical resources, plumbing, etc. do not involve UTK Housing, but lie within UTK’s Facilities Services, a robust department that helps keep the university functioning seamlessly and safely.
Any time you have a clogged shower, power outage or leaky faucet, Facilities Services are the ones to call. The issue with this was that they were never contacted about the incident in HSS and were completely unaware of it until notified.
However, as soon as they were, they immediately addressed the problem. Johnny Wagner, assistant director for maintenance, contacted the plumbing department and dispatched them to HSS to flush out the system and take care of the issue.
“We have changed over to all low-flow fixtures, which actually help us with water usage. And with the lack of traffic in the HSS building due to COVID, we don’t have near as many students as we normally have moving through that building; the water has just been sitting in there,” Wagner said.
After the fixtures were run for a few seconds, the water cleared up. Wagner has now instructed his maintenance personnel to regularly flush all the fixtures and activate the sinks so the issue does not arise again.
“Since we don’t have the volume of students coming through that building to activate the sinks, toilets and bottle-filling stations, we're actually going to go through and make sure we do that regularly, like once a week, to make sure we keep those lines flushed out,” Wagner said.
Wagner used to work as a maintenance man in HSS about 20 years ago, and he spoke to the immense amount of piping in the building. He noted how typically in the past there were probably three to 5,000 kids coming in and out of HSS, so the water never stopped running because there was constantly someone in the bathroom or using the water fountains.
In addition to this unexpected side-effect of COVID-19, the newly installed low-flow fixtures may have contributed to the problem because they take slightly longer to flush everything out.
Low-flow fixtures have a third of the force of a regular faucet. By reducing the force of the water that comes out, water is saved. The toilets, urinals and sinks have all been switched to low-flow in an effort to save water.
There is now no need for concern when using the HSS bathrooms; the water is completely safe to use.