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Is it safe to drink what comes from your water tank?

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The New York Times made quite a, ahem, splash yesterday with a lengthy investigation into the cleanliness of New York City’s domestic water tanks, finding E. coli and fecal contamination in a sizable percentage of the tanks it tested. (Yes, these are the ones that sit picturesquely atop residential building roofs across town; the newspaper estimates there are 12,000 to 17,000 of them.)

City officials insist the water is safe to drink—no reports have surfaced of dirty tanks causing illness—but a Yale microbiologist consulted by the Times was sufficiently disconcerted to notify the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of the findings. Also scary? Building owners are largely operating on the honor system when it comes to cleaning tanks and reporting inspection results.

“I think the city inspectors are overwhelmed with other inspections,” Alex Kalajian, chief operating officer of Solstice Residential Group, which manages 45 buildings in Manhattan, told BrickUnderground.

So how do you find out if your water tank is safe? And if it’s not, what do you do? Here’s a quick primer.

Regular inspections

First, some background: Since 2009, the city has required building owners or agents to inspect water tanks once a year, checking for things like blistering, rusting, corrosion or leakage. The company doing the testing should be on the lookout for sediment, debris, insects, “biological growth” (yum!) and rodent or bird activity. They’re also required to send a sample of the water to a state-certified lab to make sure it’s safe to drink. If the inspection turns up anything nasty, building owners are obligated to take immediate steps to rectify the situation.

If your building manager is doing regular inspections, you’ll probably know, Kalajian says. For one thing, the water will be turned off for the day; Kalajian’s company also sends a notice to residents advising them to fill up bathtubs.

In 25 years of ordering water tank inspections, Kalajian says he’s never come across bacterial contamination. And results from the lab, which are sent after cleaning, typically come back within a few hours, he says.

A notice in your super's office

If your building’s water gets the all clear following a private inspection, then the company will issue a certificate, which will list the company’s name, the tank size and the date of cleaning, he says.

Building owners must keep a written report of the results on file for at least five years, and post a notice in an “easily accessible location” with the name, address and phone number of the place where a resident can request inspection results, per city regulations. Typically, this is the super’s office, Kalajian says. Owners must provide inspection results within five days of a request being made.

But, according to the Times, the system is far from perfect. The city doesn’t do its own inspections, and some 60 percent of building owners don’t comply with the rules, the Times said, citing the city’s own figures. The majority fail to post notices.

Discolored, pulpy water

That said, if a tank is not being cleaned properly, you may be able to tell. First, you’ll notice brownish discoloration in the water, and if the tank is really deteriorating, you may see wood pulp coming through the faucets, Kalajian says. (Most water tanks are still made of wood.)

If your faucets are clogging routinely, try unscrewing the strainer and checking the buildup: if it’s brownish and similar to wood pulp, there could very well be a problem with your water tank, Kalajian notes. (If the buildup is blackish and made up of sediment, then the cause is likely a problem with the city water supply.)

But if you’re thinking of renting or buying in a building, you’re probably out of luck: the city doesn’t appear to maintain any kind of database of water tank inspection reports or violations records.

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