3 ways to combat Legionella in dormant water systems

Buildings across the U.S. that have remained closed due to COVID-19 related concerns are urged by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider the potential risk of legionella bacteria developing in stagnant water in plumbing systems—the bacteria was even found in the CDC’s own water systems, prompting several of its Atlanta buildings to close.

“It’s a problem that people across the country need to be on the lookout for,” the CDC said to CNN. “The bacteria, which can cause deadly pneumonia, grow in warm or stagnant water.” Facilities managers already need to plan for the possibility of disease spreading over surfaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the potential for legionella bacteria existing in water systems must not be overlooked.

The only way to determine if legionella is present is to test the water. Before getting started, however, be prepared with the proper PPE.

It is especially important for individuals with weakened immune systems, and other with an increased risk of developing Legionnaires’ disease, to take precautions prior to flushing or cleaning water systems, according to the CDC. “Wearing a half-face air-purifying respirator equipped with an N95 filter, or an N95 filtering facepiece, may be appropriate in enclosed spaces where aerosol generation is likely,” says the CDC.

1. Flush the system

Facilities managers must flush hot and cold water through all points of use, which may need to be done in segments depending on building size and water pressure. This will ensure all standing water inside the building’s pipes will be replaced with fresh water.

It is recommended to first flush the cold water, then flush the hot water at its maximum temperature. Determine if the water heater in your building should be drained after prolonged disuse by checking the manufacturer’s recommendations.

2. Clean ice machines

Ice machines that have not been used for an extended period of time will need extra attention to protect occupants from the potential spread of bacteria or disease. In addition to flushing out the ice maker, the ice that has been left in the machine will need to be tossed out and the entire unit must undergo a deep cleaning.

Begin by emptying the unit’s reservoir completely, then replace the filter and follow the manufacturer recommendations for preventative maintenance. If the building is to remain unoccupied, leaving the ice maker unused for an extended period, then the machine should be kept drained and completely dry and the wall connection will need to be added to the regular flushing schedule until full occupancy resumes.

3. Dorm and gym showers

Ensure that all areas are clear of visible slime and clean the area thoroughly. Additional consideration needs to be given to gyms or other facilities that have spa areas, as they will need to be drained and disinfected as well.

Keep showers and spas completely dry while the areas are not in use. Mold and bacteria are more likely to develop where there is moisture and humidity.

Facilities managers must ensure that all staff members who clean and disinfect the building are equipped with the proper PPE. Gloves and goggles should be worn when handing industrial-strength cleaners, especially in rooms with poor ventilation.

Sometimes the toughest chemical isn’t necessary to get the job done. Double check where harsh disinfectants could be benched and replaced with soap and water or rubbing alcohol—look for unbiased advice when determining which products to use to disinfect your facility.

Once the water systems in the building have been cleaned and made safe for use, continue to communicate with your team to maintain a regular water maintenance procedure. Legionella is not the only risk to water systems, there are other waterborne pathogens to consider, and more reason to continue preventative maintenance regularly to keep everyone in your building safe and healthy.

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