Clean the water, clear the air

Writing at a time when the UK is yet to reach the peak of the Coronavirus epidemic, Gary Nicholls, MD of Swiftclean, takes a look at how we should be protecting the users of water and ventilation systems, both in a time of crisis and in the longer term.  

In the past weeks, we have become familiar with some new terms; social distancing, self-isolation and shielding; all part of the Government plan to prevent any further spread of COVID-19.

It has been absolutely the right decision to encourage working from home and therefore, inevitably to close offices and entire buildings. However, as an industry, this decommissioning has presented us with some new challenges. We have noticed, for example, a reluctance to continue with some regular maintenance, in order to facilitate social distancing. Although this is well meant, it is something of an own goal in terms of maintaining a healthy building in the future.

Healthy water systems are meant to be used. In fact, it is the frequent flow of water through a domestic water system which helps to keep it healthy and free from legionella bacteria. When properties are closed, water will remain static in the pipework. As we head into towards the summer months, the ambient temperature is rising and this water can become tepid, rather than cold. Tepid, static water provides the ideal conditions to aid the proliferation of legionella.

Legionella is, of course, the cause of the ‘flu-like Legionnaire’s Disease; but this seems to have been forgotten by some, in the rush to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. We must prevent both, as far as we can, as both are potentially lethal. Both attack the respiratory system, and both are particularly perilous for the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. What we absolutely must not forget is that Legionnaire’s Disease has a mortality rate of around 12% for those infected – higher, at present, than the rate for those with COVID-19. We also have a severely stretched and overtaxed NHS. The last thing that we need now, as a nation, is a spate of legionella outbreaks.

Special consideration must be given to legionella prevention measures when the usage of the water system has been substantially decreased or when recommissioning a building after shutdown. L8, the HSE approved code of practice on controlling the risk of legionnaires disease, recommends a review of the risk assessment where there have been significant changes to the use of a building, such as the number of people using it.

Hopefully, before the shutdown period, you will have taken the time to review your legionella risk assessment and ensure that your property is compliant with the Approved Code of Practice. During the shutdown, you should have been following regular, at least weekly, flushing routines for toilets, taps, shower heads and drinking fountains – any water outlet which has been idle. These flushing routines should be carried out with the least possibility of causing fine spray, which those carrying out the procedure could inhale.

To be on the safe side, after a prolonged period in which it has not been used, you should call in a specialist to clean and disinfect your water system. This should be done before the regular cleaners start preparing the building to reopen, to ensure that the domestic water supply is safe and legionella free. This will protect not just the end users, but also the property owners and managers.

If there is a legionella outbreak, both the organisation and the individuals responsible for risk control can be prosecuted for negligence. Coronavirus will not be a defence in law. In the event of a guilty verdict, the court can impose limitless fines on the organisation responsible, while any individuals convicted may face a custodial sentence.

It is best not to delay routine legionella prevention at all – this is essential work. A professional specialist provider will be able to timetable legionella prevention work for completion out of normal business hours, to observe social distancing while they work, and will use personal protection equipment as a matter of course. They can carry out the work safely, even during a lock-down period.

The quality of indoor air in a property should not be neglected either, especially at a time when we are trying to ensure as healthy an indoor environment as possible. Clean air is not compatible with a dirty ventilation system and, regrettably, there are still quite a lot of those in existence. Fortunately, since 2013, when the second edition of TR/19, the leading guidance document concerning ventilation ductwork hygiene, was issued by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), there have been testing protocols for new ventilation systems to ensure they are thoroughly clean before commissioning. This has meant that the system was clean at the start of its life, assuming of course that the protocol was followed. However, many systems installed before that date were not cleaned before their first use, and may never have been cleaned since.

It is essential that we clean ventilation ductwork in compliance with TR19®, the latest incarnation of the BESA guidelines, which is currently under review, as we seek to improve industry best practice still further. TR19® gives us clear tables to follow when considering cleanliness assessment and regular testing, according to the system quality classification, and the type of function of the facility which the ventilation system serves. Compliance with TR19® is, again, something that we would not recommend putting off.

In the current climate we would also recommend adding a further process, cleaning the interior surface of the ventilation ductwork with medical surface disinfectant, especially in areas where there has been a recent suspected or confirmed case of Coronavirus. This sensible precaution can be carried out at little extra cost during a routine TR19® clean, or can be conducted as a one-off service to provide deep cleaning and additional peace of mind.

With a solution of the same chemical disinfectant, we can also clean more difficult equipment such as radiators, boiler plant, light fittings, heating controls, door handles, soft furnishings and a host of other surfaces, using a fogging method. This will destroy the COVID-19 virus, which is typically accepted can survive for 72 hours on many surfaces.

It is a difficult balancing act at the moment, maintaining property and keeping our distance. In the long term, for the health of the nation, it will pay to keep air and water compliance as a top priority.