Addressing Water Quality Issues: Testing & Management Strategies

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By Scott Manley, La Marzocco

Several weeks ago, I received a call from a technician about a leak. The café owner had noticed a drip from under the machine and called the tech out to investigate. The tech discovered an area on the boiler covered in limescale and rust and determined that to be the source of the leak. This café is located in a city on the east coast that’s known for having corrosive water, and he performed a water test and high chloride levels were detected. Having found the root cause of the problem, he reported this to the café owner. 

Delivering news like this is never fun. I related in a previous article about a customer of mine who had removed their RO system to save on the cost of maintaining it, only to end up with even more costly repairs for their brewing equipment. This story, however, went a little differently. The owner of the unnamed east coast café insisted that it couldn't be the water this time, as only a year ago she had installed an RO system that the manufacturer had recommended after a previous boiler failure. Yeah, let that sink in. This customer had already encountered the effects of corrosive water on her espresso machine, knew what the result would be from high chlorides, and had taken preventative measures to correct it. She then directed the tech to the basement where the RO system was located. What he found was a solid RO – a brand that many of us would recognize, probably have even installed or maintained, and certainly should have worked. The tech found that the water system was on an annual maintenance schedule. It appears from the documentation of the water service provider that only the pre-filters were changed at that time, and there was no record of a water test being performed.

I’m sure, based on what was relayed to me by the tech, that this customer is very frustrated at having to address this problem again, when they had done exactly what they were told to do to avoid it. I really feel for this customer. I get the emotion they have about this because I was in the same situation almost 2 decades ago. I used to work for Starbucks Coffee Co. I worked there for 16 years, 10 as a senior equipment tech. Not long after being hired as a tech at Starbucks, I was given a new position and volunteered to relocate to Eastern Washington State to take over repair and maintenance of 40 stores located across Washington and Idaho. At that time, Starbucks was still using La Marzocco Lineas. The strategy when I arrived in this territory had been to replace a store’s espresso machine every 2 to 3 years due to scale build up in the boilers. They even had a remanufacturing facility called Restoration that continually churned out rebuilt machines to support this effort. I now find it sort of funny thinking about building a manufacturing facility just to combat scale build up in boilers (that wasn’t the only reason, Starbucks was growing at a phenomenal rate and the machines were getting hammered in other ways). But still, that’s a huge investment. 

As this wasn’t a sustainable business model, and my position as a technician was morphing into “Scott’s Espresso Machine Moving and Storage,” Starbucks started investing in new water filtration equipment to address scale. We installed RO and Nanofiltration systems in every store that had a history of scaling problems; like magic, our water scale problems were solved. I know what you might be thinking right now, the customer I mentioned above had a corrosion issue - which is different than a scaling issue, but the point of this article isn’t about a specific water problem. And this is where our stories converge, because after about a year our water scale problem returned - much like her corrosion issue. Same emotion only multiplied by 40 cafés. All this time and investment and it seemed like we were back to square one. We had to do something about it, but what? I was fortunate, we found a water service vendor who understood what the real problem was.

I met Brian from Ecowater Systems in 2002. Of the many vendors we interviewed, he was the only one who wasn’t trying to sell us a new product and took a genuine interest in solving the problem. He suggested an aggressive preventative maintenance program was needed, which stressed routine monthly water testing and reporting. So, we had him testing water for almost 2 years. He tested water every month in every café (in that time, the store count increased to around 60 due to market expansion) which is around 700+ water tests! That’s a lot of data. The information we gathered from it allowed us to make decisions going forward about what was needed at each café.  This investment in preventative maintenance dramatically reduced reactive service calls for brewing equipment and we weren’t replacing equipment because of scaled boilers. The rigorous testing allowed us to know where to focus our resources. We learned that in 90 percent of our cafés we could reduce preventative maintenance to a bimonthly or quarterly schedule, accounting for seasonal variation in water quality. And in the other 10 percent (about 5 locations) we had discrete water concerns that required continued focus or unique solutions for issues such as high iron or nitrates from agricultural runoff into the water table. 

At Starbucks, our water quality and brewing equipment didn’t suffer from a deficit of proper water filtration or the correct product. Our initial solution to the problem failed because we didn’t understand water filtration maintenance and testing. Likewise, the café owner above wasn’t informed about ongoing maintenance and wouldn’t have known based on the information from the water service provider - which did not involve routine testing. As a matter of fact, we could find no documentation of any testing whatsoever. And the water service provider indicated that they were more interested in selling the café a new system, than maintaining the existing one. There were other issues with the RO itself which should have been identified, such as insufficient incoming water pressure for the system to work and a broken fitting the espresso tech identified. Armed with a water test kit and a TDS meter we were able to determine that the RO membrane had failed.

An interesting note, the espresso tech found that the pre-filters had just been changed 05/01/18 by the water service tech. This is an unfortunately common occurrence (I mean he changed the filters, right?) and what probably lead to a false sense that the RO was doing its job. It’s this lack of water strategy that can lead to the boiler failure, not the type of water filtration system installed. If water testing and reporting had been performed with every site visit, it would have caught the membrane failure and low-pressure issue. If these had been addressed, a costly repair would have been avoided. No new product was needed to solve this issue, only diligence and proper knowledge applied as an effective strategy to maintaining water quality.

Test your customer’s water, test it frequently, and become knowledgeable about what the results really mean. By doing so, you can help them identify issues early and avoid situations like those discussed above and make sure your cafés are serving the coffee they want to serve.