Water Quality Concerns in Vacant Buildings

Topics: Loss Control

Reopening Buildings with Low or No Use during COVID-19: Potential Plumbing and Water Issues

Summary: Commercial buildings left vacant due to shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can face a variety of issues upon reopening. In this article, we’ll discuss water quality concerns and what building owners can do to mitigate health risks posed to occupants.

As the COVID-19 crisis swept through the nation, many businesses of all sizes, in all industries, shut down as a preventative measure to stop the spread of the virus. Commercial properties, left vacant throughout the pandemic, have faced a variety of challenges that have opened them up to certain risks. These risks, such as severe weather conditions, vandalism, plumbing problems or building leaks, can lead to costly damages to the property.

An additional concern in regards to plumbing is the fact that water quality can become compromised the longer it is unused. As buildings begin to reopen, stagnant water left standing in pipes throughout the closure can cause significant hazards that business owners need to address.

Health Concerns of Water in Vacant or Closed Buildings

Commercial properties such as hotels, universities, office buildings, restaurants and churches may have been standing vacant or at drastically reduced capacity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While empty of guests, patrons, students and office workers, the water left in pipes throughout these buildings can begin to degrade in quality. This water can contain harmful pathogens like Legionella bacteria or chemical contaminants such as lead, which can impact the health of those returning to the buildings as they reopen.

Plumbing is meant to be used consistently. Water flowing regularly through pipes inhibits the spread of bacteria. However, the longer the water sits in the pipes, the more problems it can cause. While the various shutdown and stay-at-home orders were in effect, the water in commercial buildings was left to sit in the pipes, which increased the risk of both less disinfecting chemicals like chlorine, and a higher level of microbes that can lead to a host of waterborne diseases.

One such concern is Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacteria. Water that has become stagnant in plumbing systems can increase the growth of Legionella and other biofilm-associated bacteria, according to the CDC. Legionella becomes a health concern when people breathe in water droplets that contain the bacteria, such as during a shower. Other bacteria can also grow when water isn’t flowing through pipes, plus copper and lead levels may also rise.

Water Quality Concerns in Closed Commercial Buildings

What Can Building Owners do to Improve Water Quality as Buildings Reopen?

As commercial properties closed during the COVID-19 crisis, steps should have been taken to secure the buildings, including inspecting the plumbing for leaks and turning off the water supply. If that had not been completed, building owners should take certain measures as they reopen.

Purdue University released a study designed to help public health officials, water utility companies and building owners better understand the different plumbing problems and water quality concerns caused by buildings closed due to the coronavirus crisis. The study provides building owners with both short-term and long-term advice as they get ready to reopen their properties.

Likewise, the CDC offers information and guidance for reopening to help reduce Legionella risk and ensure all water systems are safe for use after a shutdown.

Before allowing employees or visitors into the building, here are a few of the key measures building owners should consider:

Evaluate current water quality and create a water safety plan

The CDC recommends consistently checking water quality parameters such as temperature, pH and disinfectant levels after the water system has returned to normal. Building owners should contact their local health departments for advice about water safety. Then, develop plans specific to their building’s needs. Keep in mind different buildings have different types of plumbing systems; buildings with several stories have different systems than those with just one floor. Additionally, water sources may differ and the age of the building also plays a role, as newer buildings are often built with water conservation efforts in mind.

Flush out plumbing systems

As buildings become reoccupied after being closed for several months, it will be critical to flush out plumbing systems. Run hot and cold water in sinks and showers, flush toilets, run water fountains, etc. for several minutes. In some closed universities, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, water staff have been visiting the campus twice a week to flush out main water lines and run all water sources in every building. However, water usage has still decreased dramatically throughout the pandemic. Keep in mind the way the plumbing is designed in each building will dictate flushing times. For instance, pipes that are farther away from the city distribution main line will need more time, potentially up to an hour in some commercial buildings.

Consider worker safety

The Purdue University study notes that the safety of the workers enlisted to flush the plumbing systems should be made a top priority as buildings reopen. These workers could be exposed to contaminants, especially because flushing of stagnant water can release “high concentrations of chemical and microbiological contaminants due to high shear stress associated with flushing protocols.” Additionally, another study found a pressure shock caused increases in iron, copper, particles and bacteria released into the atmosphere.

Communicate water quality risks to building occupants

Workers, visitors and other occupants should be kept in the loop about the water quality in the building. Consistently communicate information received from the health department to ensure everyone is aware of any potential health risks from the building’s water.

What if Another Shutdown is Necessary?

Should buildings become vacant again, building owners can move forward with turning off the water supply and drain faucets of standing water to help reduce bacteria and other contaminants from growing. It’s also important to note that if water supplies are turned off, shutdown should be downstream of automatic fire sprinkler connections. Fire protective systems must not be shut down or impaired for either temporary or permanent duration.

Preparing Plumbing Systems for Winter Weather

While many businesses continue to reopen, time will tell if shutdown orders will go back into effect later in the year. Should commercial buildings become unoccupied or underutilized as freezing weather approaches, additional precautions will need to be taken to prepare and prevent not only health concerns but also to prevent water from freezing in pipes. Frozen pipes present plumbing problems and hazards all their own, as they can easily burst, damaging the building and any property inside.

Building owners can take steps to prevent freezing and bursting pipes, such as adding extra insulation, sealing up any exterior cracks and holes, leaving the thermostat set to at least 55 degrees, and installing an early detection system to monitor for burst or broken pipes.

Loss Control Services from AmTrust

AmTrust’s Loss Control Department can help insureds by providing the right safety resources and commercial property safeguards to ensure their ongoing success. It’s our goal to help insureds identify specific hazards and offer solutions that fit each operation. Contact us for more information about creating a customized loss control program for your organization.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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