Flint, MI— The water filtration systems funded by Elon Musk are ready for final testing at Flint Schools, according to Kettering University officials.

It has been almost three years since Musk donated $480,000 in Oct. 2018 to cover the cost of installing ultraviolet water stations in all Flint school buildings and the administration building.

Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering, provided an update on the project during an Aug. 18 Board of Education meeting.  

Next steps involve connecting the stations to the district’s plumbing and testing three water samples from each. Arch Environmental Group is slated to perform the tests.

The group will sample the water as it enters the school building, as it enters the fountain, and as it exits the faucet, Sullivan said.

“There is lead in some of the plumbing within the schools, as well as galvanized iron (which adsorbed lead from the water). In addition, in some buildings the chlorine level isn’t always sufficient to completely disinfect the water,” Sullivan said.

Kettering University has been working on a volunteer basis with the district to test and perfect the systems prior to use by children.

Progress has been slow in part due to the pandemic and issues with the original filter manufacturer, Sullivan said.

The original configuration required three filters: a carbon block filter to remove metals like copper and lead, a membrane filter to prevent bacteria from flowing through, and an ultraviolet light to kill remaining bacteria or viruses.

During initial testing, the filters had inconsistent results and were also un-certified, meaning they did not meet National Sanitation Foundation standards for removing contaminants, Sullivan said.

Unable to contact the manufacturer, Sullivan began looking for an alternative. She found one made by company called 3M. The new filter performed both carbon block filtering and membrane filtering.

“It’s one unit that would do what the other two units did,” Sullivan said.

Kettering started testing the new units in Jan. 2021, which involved adding known amounts of bacteria and metals to water, sending it through the stations, and measuring the bacteria and lead levels afterwards.

Between all three tests, there was 99.7%-100% reduction in bacteria, Sullivan said.

Arch Environmental performed copper and lead tests. Between all three tests, copper levels were below 20 micrograms per liter, well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable levels. Lead levels were never detected during testing, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said field testing is required to make sure they work as well as they did in a laboratory setting.

“I have every reason to believe that they should, it’s good just in case there’s something going on with any one of these machines,” she said.

Before field testing begins, Flint Schools must order more filters from 3M. They cost just under $100 a piece, a fair price, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said she recommends the district replace the filters every school year.

“What will happen when they’re too old is not that they will let bacteria or whatever come through, it’s that there just won’t be any flow through the filters. And kids will just get frustrated because nothing’s coming out,” she said.

If everything goes well, field testing should be complete in a month, Sullivan said, adding that no other school district in the country will have this technology.

“It’s one of the best in the country, because of the components. But the sense of trust that the students in Flint schools and the staff and the Flint schools are entitled to have now. You couldn’t get in any other school system,” she said. “So, what we have in Flint now is not only our state-of-the-art drinking fountains, but data that proves that.”

Carmen Nesbitt

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...