Our Research Understanding effects of intermittent flow on drinking water quality

Principal Investigator

Andrew J. Whittle

  • Edmund K. Turner Professor in Civil Engineering
  • Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Andrew J. Whittle, NAE, is the Edmund K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He has been a faculty member at MIT since 1988 and is primarily known for his research expertise in geotechnical engineering and geomechanics. He initiated research in the application of wireless sensor networks for monitoring infrastructures through the SMART Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling (CENSAM). The initial focus for water distribution systems led to new methods for online detection and localization of leaks and pipe bursts; and to the creation of a successful start-up company, Visenti, that provides smart analytics services for the water industry.


More than 1 billion people currently receive their drinking water supplies through pipe distribution networks that operate intermittently. We aim to understand how water quality is affected by the intermittent operation of these urban water distribution systems

Research Strategy

  • Measure growth, detachment, and composition of biofilm within water pipes after sequences of flushing and stagnation
  • Perform experiments in abandoned section of pipe within a monitored network system
  • Collect data to update and refine current models of Intermittent Water Supply Systems (IWS)

Project description

Today nearly 1 billion people worldwide obtain their drinking water through piped distribution networks that operate intermittently and allow water inside the pipes to stagnate and depressurize between supply periods. As a result, these Intermittent Supply Systems (IWS) are inherently vulnerable to contamination due to intrusion through leaky joints, cracks or holes in the pipes, backflow, and/or through biofilm growth and detachment inside the pipes.

This research is investigating how changes in water quality associated with the IWS operations by measuring changes in water quality during controlled sequences of water supply (filling/flushing and steady state flow) and drainage/stagnation for a range of different duty cycles. This is being accomplished through controlled field tests using an abandoned section of pipe connected to a monitored testbed. The study focuses on biofilm growth as the source of biomass in the delivered water and the relative abundance of key microbial species including waterborne pathogens.

The study leverages extensive prior research on biofilm growth and composition within fully pressured water distribution systems networks and provides a more reliable basis for evaluating changes in water quality hypothesized in prior MIT research.

Additional Details

Impact Areas

  • Water

Research Themes

  • Water Resources & Infrastructure

Year Funded

  • 2019

Grant Type

  • Seed Grant


  • Ongoing