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Intelligent Water Systems Can Help Keep Occupants Safe

Today’s property owners and managers are adjusting to new demands in a post-pandemic world. Many are reexamining the traditional functions of their facilities as tenants seek greater flexibility, connectivity, comfort, health, and safety. While indoor air quality (IAQ) often grabs the headlines, water safety is equally, if not more, important to tenants.

Building owners and operators should heed the call from plumbing professionals to improve the intelligence of their building plumbing infrastructure in the same way they have done for HVAC systems for years. Integrating an intelligent domestic water system and water management plan can mitigate health and safety risks and help avoid potential lawsuits for negligence. Here are four considerations to get the most out of your intelligent water system.

Be aware of hidden pathogen risks

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7.2 million Americans get sick every year from diseases that spread through water. Cases of Legionnaires’ disease, the most common waterborne illness in the United States, have grown by nearly 900 percent since 2000.

Legionella is a general category of bacterium all-too-commonly found in our water supplies. There are over 60 different species of bacterium, of which 25 are known to be implicated in human disease. The king of the species Legionella pneumophila is responsible for approximately 90 percent of all infections. About 1 out of every 10 people diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease will die due to complications from their illness. For those who get Legionnaires’ disease during a stay in a healthcare facility, the mortality rate climbs to about 1 out of every 4.

Building owners and operators have good reason to be so concerned about Legionella as plumbing domestic water systems are the predominant source of the bacteria. If Legionella grows in a plumbing system, the bacteria can spread to humans via small droplets and/or vapor inhaled into the lungs. Common sources where these droplets are made include showerheads and sink faucets, cooling towers, decorative fountains and water features, and hot water heaters

So how do the bacteria grow and spread? Water temperature, disinfectant residual, stagnation, and pipe materials can all contribute to the development of Legionella pneumophila growth in the domestic water system. The larger and more complex the building is, the more challenging it is to maintain a healthy, balanced system. Complicating this further, the age, location, surrounding environment, and incoming water quality can also have a significant impact on the development of Legionella bacteria.

Legionella bacteria have an ideal temperature range for growth which also happens to be right in the sweet spot most building occupants favor for washing, bathing, or showering. And if the building occupants are in a higher risk category, you may have to consider more options, such as supplemental disinfection, to keep occupants safe.

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, offers a guide to Legionellosis: Risk Management for Building Water Systems, which it describes as “essential for anyone involved in the design, construction, installation, commissioning, operation, maintenance, and service of centralized building water systems and components.” Likewise, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers its “Toolkit: Developing a Water Management Program to Reduce Legionella Growth and Spread in Buildings.”

Treating water with high temperatures seems like a good answer to controlling the growth of pathogens like Legionella, but that approach could cause other problems. In the hospitality industry, the two biggest complaints are the lack of hot water and water that’s too hot or scalding. With an inability to confirm the water temperature in the supply piping to a guest room at the time such a complaint is lodged, hospitality establishments are forced to go along with whatever the guest claims, even when the complaint leads to a lawsuit. 

If building management systems began incorporating more water monitoring, it would be possible to know exactly what the water temperature is in each pipe at any given time. Not only would this data enable buildings to confirm or dismiss water complaints, but it would ultimately give facilities the tools to improve systems performance and occupant health.

An accurate picture of water temperatures as measured by sensors strategically placed throughout the building’s pipes means these levels can be properly adjusted to improve system performance, better reduce water pathogen growth, and improve overall water quality. With this key building intelligence in hand, building engineers and managers would be much better equipped to take a proactive water management role and deliver safer, more hygienic water at the right temperature. The failure to monitor the temperature of domestic water systems outside the mechanical room can increase a building’s exposure to risk, and litigation, hurting a building’s bottom line.

Conserve water with caution

Before rushing out to install a bunch of low-flow fixtures to save water, be advised that doing so in haste could be putting building occupants at risk. Today’s water pipe sizing practices are outdated and don’t consider the decreased volumes of water used by widespread low-flow fixtures. These devices can leave water in the pipes for longer and increase building water age. Stagnant water in these systems can create an environment ideal for cultivating dangerous pathogens, including the bacterium responsible for Legionnaires’ disease.

When water was flowing at higher volumes through the plumbing systems, the water purveyor’s primary and secondary disinfectants had the best chance at eliminating waterborne pathogens because the chemicals used have a certain shelf life. The use of low-flow fixtures in conjunction with outdated water pipe sizing practices allows the disinfectants to expire before the water reaches your faucet. As a result, pathogens are given the opportunity to grow and multiply inside the building pipes.

Building owners and managers should work with design engineers to correctly size the piping infrastructure of their facilities using tools like the Water Demand Calculator. While this tool is recognized for only certain building types in the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC), it is a starting point for keeping water moving in buildings and recognizing that fixtures are flowing lower than they were 80 years ago. Only then can we reasonably recommend a holistic use of water-conserving fixtures. They are important but keeping buildings healthy is more important.

We must consider applying the same level of technologies and controls currently in place in our building’s HVAC systems to our plumbing systems. Plumbing systems must get smarter, and our water management programs must be informed by more sound intelligence. Right now, most connectivity from the plumbing systems to the building automation system takes place in a mechanical room. But this simply isn’t enough to provide the intelligence required to effectively improve water quality and occupant safety for years to come. Plumbing systems are the area where waterborne pathogens thrive. We must focus the time, energy, and investment required to alleviate this problem and deliver the water quality and safety that building occupants deserve. It’s high time our plumbing systems become data-driven, along with other systems like HVAC, lighting, and access control.

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