Preventing legionella in 7 Simple Ways

Do you take into consideration the legionella disease seriously enough? Every year many people die due to legionella outbreaks in the developed countries; the danger to your building occupants is very real if legionella risk is not managed carefully.

Since legionella is a building water issue, health officials agree that handling building water systems properly is the key to proper prevention. Over the last years, due to the many outbreaks worldwide, laws have been established mainly in developed countries to require building operators to create water management plans that include cooling towers.

Take this opportunity to reduce the legal risk in case you run a company, protect your reputation and show leadership in business responsibility by instituting a water system management program.

Your decisions can impact the success of your water management program for the years to come. Build a solid foundation for success following the 9 tips below:

1) Understanding your portfolio

Which buildings must have water management plans? When considering a multi-property campus, should all the properties be included or just some of them?

A water management plan can cover all the properties on one site, but not multiple sites. For instance, only one water management plan is needed for a site with multiple buildings managed by the same staff even if the properties are for different uses. But 3 properties in different locations – even if the properties are the same when it comes to the size and structure and located within a few kilometers of each other – will require 3 water management plans, one for each site.

What about leased properties? Discuss it with landlords as necessary to guarantee control measures are implemented. You might need to ask tenants to keep their plumbing configuration per your water management plan. If this is not done, those areas could not only present a high risk to people within the tenant space but also affect bacteria growth in other spaces of the plumbing system. In case the tenant is responsible for keeping a cooling tower that could affect the community in its property as well as other properties on the campus, make sure the tenant’s cooling tower maintenance complies at all times with your water management plan.

2) Include All At-Risk WMPs and Water Systems

New legislations throughout many countries require water management plans to account for whirlpool spas, ornamental fountains, water features, air washers, misters, humidifiers and cooling towers. For plumbing systems the standard requires a water management plan only if the property has any of the following:

  • Centralized hot water
  • +10 floors
  • Accommodation designated for people +65 years old
  • Patients being hosted for longer than 24 hours

How we apply the first 2 factors (centralized hot water and the number of floors) is key to risk management.

All other factors being in a status quo state, a centralised domestic hot water (for instance, ground floor water heaters spreading hot water to faucets with recirculation back to the central heaters) is usually more prone to bacteria growth than a system that spreads only cold water to faucets with tankless heaters below. However, other non-centralised domestic hot water systems might actually be more prone to legionella development than a centralised system with recirculation.

It’s also quite common to find legionella in samples taken from domestic cold water systems, particularly during the summer when the water might not be all that cold. Think twice about the number of floors as well. Larger piping systems are generally more prone to legionella development than the ones found in single-family buildings or small office properties, but legionella testing data shows that it would be foolish to assume a property is free of legionella because it has seven floors instead of eleven.

3) Develop Deliverables and its specs

Water management plans (WMP) must include certain vital elements. Keep the plan focused by listing what the facility will do to meet the legal requirements. Background information belongs in training materials, not in the water management plan. Those who need to implement the water management plan will see their job simplified by a format that makes it easy to read through, without extra words to read.

4) Knowing Your Team

Deciding what your own staff can take care of and when to hire an outside expert is essential for success.

The site survey does not require special expertise. Someone who works at your facility who knows your water systems can do the survey and probably in approximately the same time they would spend accompanying a vendor through the facility. However, writing the water management plan requires Legionella expertise, particularly for the hazard analysis, control monitoring and validation procedures.

In-house facility staff, especially at larger facilities, could and should manage the routine maintenance processes outlined in the water management plan, but outside experts will be needed when Legionella testing needs to be carried out, which involves writing specs, collecting samples and lab testing, and also water treatment and remediation.

Facilities that try to manage all aspects of water management plan development themselves might end up with inadequate control monitoring and spend much more money than they should have with the help of expertise where needed. Look for the right balance for your company or facility.

5) Select the Adequate Control Measures

Control measures are the single most important aspect of any legionella WMP. They must be specific, thorough, evidence-based, defensible, doable and of course effective without costing more than it should.

If the water management plan excludes important control measures or includes some that are unnecessary, it will not be optimal for reducing risk, too expensive or even both.

6) Validate Your Plan

Validating the effectiveness of the water management plan in controlling the hazard is secondary only to control monitoring in importance.

Testing water systems for bacteria like legionella can provide the most direct feedback on legionella monitoring, especially in cooling towers and plumbing systems, but only if done properly. Sampling specs must outline the adequate locations, devices, water and collection methods to produce quality data for decision making. Samples should be collected properly and tested by a competent lab. And the test results should be properly interpreted and acted upon.

7) Ensure A Proper Execution

A football team with the best players will not win unless its players put their plan into action. Likewise, having in place a good water management plan is only the very beginning. It needs to be well executed in order to be successful.

Implement the right control measures. Educate employees with legionella training. Verify implementation processes. Validate. Respond as needed to test results. Document effectively and thoroughly. Hold team meetings and reviews no less than monthly. Revise the plan based on validation results and new findings, regulations, and technology.

Like when working out, it will be uncomfortable in the beginning. It might even be painful. But after some time you will get in your way and find it quite doable and manageable. These efforts will help you reduce risks, protects your community, and in case you run a company, avoid business losses and prevent brand damage. You could even save lives.