Is Your Water Safe for Reoccupancy?

June 7, 2021

Underused piping may harbor contaminants, sediment, biofilm and bacteria. Here’s how to handle it.

How long has it been since people have used your plumbing fixtures? If your building has been underutilized during COVID-19, you probably haven’t had water moving through most of your pipes, which can lead to several problems.

There are several key worries for building owners whose pipes have been sitting unused during the pandemic, explained Andrew Warnes, technical training manager for plumbing manufacturer Sloan:

  • Disinfectant loss. Chlorine used to disinfect water degrades quickly if it’s not continually refreshed. This isn’t a problem in occupied buildings because people are using the fixtures and continually refreshing the pipes with treated water from your municipality. When water just sits in your pipes, the residual chlorine from the city will start fading within a day, which can allow contaminants like Legionella to proliferate.
  • Metal corrosion. Sometimes scale inhibitors are used to keep lead solder or other metal contaminants from leaching out of pipes. Unused or underused buildings may not have had scale inhibitors added in a while, which could mean that metals are making their way into the water.
  • Sediment buildup. Rust and sediment that’s built up over time can slough off and make its way into valves and fittings, which can block pipes and faucets and damage key equipment.
  • Biofilm growth. Like sediment, biofilm can plug plumbing systems. It also harbors microbiological growth by providing nooks and crannies for organisms to grow in.

“It’s preferable that you prevent Legionella, biofilm, sediment and metal corrosion rather than having to fix it after the fact, but now we’ve got millions of commercial facilities that are faced with the potential of having to rectify it after the fact,” said Warnes.

[Related: Increased Risk of Legionnaires’ Disease as Buildings Reopen from COVID-19]

What to Do If Your Building Has Been Underoccupied

Understanding what your building is up against starts with testing and listening to expert advice. “Rely on the real experts,” advised Warnes. “Test before and after, verify what potential issues are and verify the remediation of those issues.” 

Testing can tell you whether the water in your system consistently has at least 1-4 parts per million of chlorine, in which case the microbiological threat should be minimal. It can also tell you whether your water system harbors metal contaminants, Legionella or other issues, in which case you may have to take remedial measures.

Corrective measures will vary by the type of threat your water system is harboring and may include flushing the lines, treating the water with heat or extra chlorine. It’s crucial that you engage a reliable, knowledgeable firm for testing and remediation so you can be sure the threat is eliminated.

In the meantime, Warnes suggested looking to sources like the CDC and EPA for guidance. Both organizations have published checklists for getting the water systems in underoccupied buildings ready for higher occupancy.

“Just talk to someone,” urged Christina Schafer, service manager for Integrated Facility Services, a firm that provides mechanical contracting and facility solutions. “Don’t ignore it. Have someone do some sampling for you just to make sure your building’s safe.”

Read next: 5 Important Tasks for Reopening Buildings During COVID-19

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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