Managing Water Systems for Return to Work & Continued Water Management

Feb. 1, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Commercial Water as "Back to Basics & Beyond"

About the author:

Brian Pawlik is marketing manager for the Commercial Buildings and Facilities Management industries with the Institutional, North America group at Nalco Water, An Ecolab Company. Pawlik can be reached at [email protected].

Two years into the pandemic, many building and facility operators continue to ride the wave of varying occupancies. Capacities have swung from zero or low occupancy to full or near-full – and sometimes back again, in sync with COVID-19 statistics and state and local guidelines.

Getting Back: Best Practices for Re-occupancy

As your site prepares for a return to normal or phased business operations, critical measures must be taken to address the safety of everyone entering your facility. With COVID-19 top of mind, facility management and corporate real estate leaders are developing re-opening or re-occupancy plans in accordance with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations; their focus is to minimize transmission risk among employees and tenants, maintain a healthy indoor environment and maintain healthy business operations.

One often-overlooked risk from low building occupancy is the increased potential for Legionella bacteria presence in domestic water systems. Since the pandemic, many corporate offices and facilities have been operating in a low-flow environment, which can reduce the domestic water usage and flow rates by 80 to 90% across all building water systems. This correlates to decreased levels of treatment and elevated bacteria levels, including Legionella.

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious lung infection caused by breathing Legionella-contaminated water vapor or mist. The CDC reports that one out of 10 people who contract Legionnaires’ disease will die; it is a serious issue for building operators.

Nalco Water highly recommends all facility managers and building owners review the CDC guidelines and implement water management plans for all at-risk water systems. Best practices for managing Legionella risk include:

  • Adhering to best practices for water system maintenance and treatment;
  • Implementing a water management plan; and
  • Scheduled testing to validate plan efficacy.

Water systems should be tested for Legionella prior to re-occupancy, in addition to conducting risk profiling. Idle or low-flow water systems should be properly flushed, but testing will confirm the condition of the water. Define a contingency response plan that includes appropriate remedial procedures. Among them, hyperchlorination procedures can help ensure your building water systems are safe for increased occupancy.

Previously, the CDC had to close several of its buildings in Atlanta due to Legionella presence in their water systems following the prolonged shutdown. If it can happen at the CDC, it can happen anywhere.

Per the CDC, Legionella risk is an issue facility managers need to watch for. Ensuring you are taking all the right steps to manage your water systems is critical for the health and safety of your building occupants. By testing for Legionella, you can validate that your water management strategies are working, or plan for remediation if necessary.

Addressing Legionella risk should be part of every company’s corporate re-occupancy plans, whether you currently outsource your facility management or self-perform these activities. Failure to execute best practices for water management can result increased Legionella risk — and increased cost in the event of an outbreak. When it comes to managing Legionella risk, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure; the World Health Organization estimates an outbreak can cost an average of $10.6 million in tangible expenses like remediation and lost productivity plus soft costs like damage to brand reputation.

The Basics of Water Treatment: Performance & Health Standards

Performance-based water treatment programs focus on industry best practices to control scale, corrosion and microbiological fouling in cooling water systems. The goal here is to minimize water usage, maximize system performance and maintain the physical integrity of system components. Such programs also minimize microbiological populations and maximize heat-transfer efficiency. Today, unique technologies and chemistries exist to help achieve these objectives.

Public awareness has increased in recent years regarding the connection between waterborne pathogens and building water systems. Specifically, questions about Legionella are coming up more often. Cooling water and domestic water systems must be managed effectively to reduce the risk of a health hazard.

The CDC reports approximately 20 outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and about 5,000 individual cases of Legionnaires’ disease per year in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2014, Legionnaires’ disease case counts grew by nearly four times, involving 514 cases and 65 deaths. Following an outbreak in 2015, New York City led the way in development of regulations and standards that have caused a shift towards the convergence of a health-based water treatment strategy versus a purely performance-based approach.

Health-based programs focus on water safety by reducing the likelihood of Legionella proliferation in water systems. It is easy to confuse traditional microbial control with risk-reduction programs that are health-based. Performance-based versus health-based goals are two separate programs with two different goals. A well-operated, performance-based program will help reduce the cost of a health-based water safety strategy, but it will not cover all of the health-based bases.


And Beyond: How Water Treatment is Going Digital

Nalco Water has been focused on digital innovation for nearly 20 years, beginning with the launch of 3D TRASAR technology in 2004. 3D TRASAR technology automatically detects, determines and delivers the appropriate chemistry to help control scale, corrosion and microbiological growth in industrial water systems. More than 42,000 systems later, 3D TRASAR helped users around the world save more than 200 billion gallons of water last year. That is equivalent to the annual drinking water needs of more than 700 million people.

Industrial water treatment technologies continue to advance. Today, for example, Nalco Water’s ECOLAB3D platform works with 3D TRASAR and other technologies to analyze performance data across connected assets within a single site — or across an entire enterprise — consolidating and delivering insights in a user-friendly way along with alerts for out-of-spec conditions and recommended corrective actions to take.

Some digital tools offer another benefit that became especially valuable since the onset of the COVID pandemic: The ability to monitor system performance and respond to issues remotely. Mobile apps help users and service technicians keep tabs on water systems anytime, from anywhere. Being off-site is no longer a barrier to ensuring your systems are running smoothly.

Building operators and facility managers are more empowered than ever to know how their water systems are performing and respond swiftly to disruptions that can compromise operational efficiency and costs. Deeper, easy-to-understand insights lead to faster action, which supports better operational performance and efficiency, improved sustainability, reduced risk and optimized asset life.

About the Author

Brian Pawlik

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