Home Air Quality Cut Off COVID-19’s Plumbing Pathway Through Your Building

Cut Off COVID-19’s Plumbing Pathway Through Your Building

Glenn Hasek

With all the precautions you are taking to protect your guests and staff against COVID-19, you should pay special attention to your drains and pipes. The interconnection of all parts of a hotel building by the wastewater plumbing system makes it vulnerable. The plumbing can be the conduit for the spread of the virus and stagnating water could increase the growth of Legionella bacteria and other pathogens.

A recent article published in The Lancet explains how wastewater plumbing systems have the potential to enable airborne transmission of COVID-19. Buildings that have gone dormant for long stretches of time are especially vulnerable—think closed hotels or hotels with very low occupancy.

According to The Lancet, in 2003 the World Health Organization published a report about the spread of SARS within a housing block in Hong Kong. The 50-story building had 342 confirmed cases of SARS and 42 deaths. A hotel is not an exact apple to apples comparison, but the comparison is worth noting because of how SARS was spread. The report identified defects in the wastewater plumbing system as a transmission mode within the building, which facilitated the transport of “virus laden droplets” through empty U-bends (also called P-traps) in bathrooms. This airborne transmission route was aided by bathroom extract ventilation, which drew contaminated air into the room.

More Evidence in 2017

The Lancet says research in 2017 further demonstrated the vulnerability of a building to virus spread through the plumbing system and then through the air outside of the plumbing.

The authors of The Lancet article offer the following suggestions to avoid COVID-19 spread through the plumbing system:

  1. Make sure that all water appliances in bathrooms and kitchens are fitted with a functioning U-bend;
  2. To prevent the loss of the water trap seal within a U-bend, open a tap on all water appliances for at least five seconds twice a day (morning and evening) paying special attention to floor drains in bathrooms and wet rooms;
  3. If the wastewater pipework from an appliance appears to be disconnected or open, seal it immediately (i.e., use an elastic rubber glove to cover the end; a plastic bag and some tape will suffice, ensuring the bag has no holes);
  4. If there appears to be any crack or leak in pipework, seal with tape or glue; and
  5. Continuously monitor whole system performance (for large or tall buildings).

More Advice from Industry Expert

Klaus Reichardt, CEO and founder of Waterless Co. Inc., and an occasional contributor to Green Lodging News, said in a recent article in CleanLink that commercial kitchens and restrooms should remain well ventilated during the pandemic. “Do not use bleach or any chemicals, as the goal is not to clean the drains, but to keep the P-trap full,” Reichardt says. “Pour liquid primers into all drains just one time during the closure of the building. When it’s time to re-open the facilities, water and liquid primer should be poured into all drains again, just to be safe.”

I recently spoke with a representative of Green Drain (not a GLN advertiser) about its product for floor drains. It is designed to solve problems of odor, pests and sewage buildup often seen in other commercial and industrial floor drains. The product’s design is based off urinal cartridge technology. “It protects against the spread of contagious pathogens like COVID-19,” the company says. Be sure to check out the product.

Another Reason to Pay Attention to Plumbing

The Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease recently warned that stagnating water in community water distribution systems that reaches residential and commercial buildings—from vacation homes and dormitories to restaurants and factories shuttered by stay-at-home orders—could increase the growth of Legionella bacteria and other pathogens. That could lead to the risk of Legionnaires’ disease when buildings are reopened, and the stagnant water sources begin running again.

Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria entering the lungs through inhalation or aspiration. Legionella is commonly found in our water systems, and particularly thrive in stagnant warm water environments where it has access to nutrients and protective biofilm. Disinfectants introduced at water treatment facilities will dissipate over time, leaving no obstacle to bacterial growth.

Under normal usage conditions, regular water treatment and flow greatly reduce the risk for Legionella forming and creating a health risk. But with so many buildings and homes now shuttered for several weeks if not months, Americans could be put in harm’s way by turning on the faucets or shower heads when they return if they do not take precautions first, APLD warns.

“Legionella grows when water sits still, and the longer there is no water running through these pipes, it can become a breeding ground,” said Bob Bowcock, a nationally recognized water expert and board member with APLD. “When these water systems are restarted after the shutdowns, these bacterial colonies are disrupted and released downstream.”

APLD says building owners should follow the building standard known as ASHRAE Standard 188, which offers extensive guidance for reducing the risk of Legionella in large, complex buildings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control provides a “Legionella Toolkit” based on Standard 188 along with other guidance.

Many helpful resources can be found at the Alliance’s website: https://preventlegionnaires.org/.

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