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Google Building Automation Systems (BMS) and you will get information that includes everything from MEP and HVAC equipment to lighting, security, power monitoring, fire alarm, elevators, and special system monitoring. These are systems we have come to see as systems that can be managed and adapted to fit a specific situation. We can set the lighting to come on and off on a set schedule or based on the occupancy in a room. The same can be done with HVAC systems, security, building power, and elevators. Making these systems dynamic and adjustable. In some cases, the building itself is dynamic such as sport facilities with retractable roofs, retractable replaceable playing area, buildings with rotating floors or buildings with transforming facades. The benefits of flexibility in a building environment can be endless. Multi-purpose use, cost reduction, user (tenant) needs, scalable flexibility demand is at an all-time high.
Although most building systems have been seen and designed as adaptable to the different variables, plumbing systems have been lagging in the flexibility department. The reason being is that plumbing, for the most part, is a building system. In other words, a system that encompasses an entire building which is seldom broken up throughout the building. Whether you are talking about a sanitary system, storm system, or water system, there is normally one point of connection to the utility, one central water heater. All rigid systems that normally connect to a single line like branches on a tree. Even when there are multiple points of connections, the limited amount of flexibility in the distribution of any of these plumbing systems is unavoidable. However, that does not have to keep plumbing systems from being dynamic.
Plumbing systems although rigid in nature, can be and should be designed to conform to different factors and conditions, not only to be able to keep up with dynamic buildings and other trades systems, but also for health reasons. Since COVID-19 first hit in March 2020, many professionals in the plumbing industry, together with health officials, have been active in promoting the need to address the health issues in idled plumbing systems. Many organizations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), have released guidelines to reopening buildings post COVID-19. And recently, the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) have partnered to develop a manual titled Recommended Practices for the Safe Shutdown and Startup of Building Water Systems Due to Emergency to address the issue of problems associated with the water systems after prolonged stagnation.
The recommendations for safely reopening buildings will be a difficult task for building owners and operators. Requiring research, qualified individuals, time, and money. Harsh requirements necessary to mitigate the risks associated with the concerns of water systems in buildings that have been shut down since the beginning of the pandemic. These concerns go back years in which the industry has been dealing with issues of water stagnation or slow flowing water in building plumbing systems.
Ever since the Energy Policy Act of 1992 introduced low flow plumbing fixtures as a way to help with water conservation, thus helping the environment, professionals have been studying the side effects of lower water flow in the systems. From how some low-flush water closets fail to properly wash and evacuate the bowl in the same way its predecessors did, to the hidden issues downstream in the drain systems due to lower scouring velocity, as well as reduced water exchange upstream in the water supply serving such fixtures. Yes, the problems could be found on both sides of the plumbing system.
Incorrect piping and little to no water flow can lead to an increase in biofilm growth in the supply lines. Therefore, it is important to consider how the low flow plumbing fixtures impact the flow and size of the system. This was not much of an issue pre low-flow fixture. When a single water closet flush would send 3-6 gallons of water rushing down the line, it was enough to scour the pipe lining while moving more water through the system and replenishing the flushed water in the lines with new water. Think of it as turning over your water inventory. We need to move the old water inventory out in order to bring in new clean water inventory for the next demand. Thus, keeping your water inventory fresh.
For that to happen, the systems must keep the water moving and at safe temperatures to minimize or eliminate waterborne microbial organisms such as legionella pneumophila, the cause of legionnaires disease. In 1976 the CDC reported the first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a lung infection (pneumonia). Legionella can be found in systems such as cooling towers and decorative fountains. However, the plumbing system, which makes up the largest part of a building’s water distribution, can present a huge legionella risk in a building. After the adoption of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, plumbing systems started being designed with low flow water fixtures, once those systems were installed, the number of people with Legionnaires’ disease has grown drastically. From 2000-2018 that number has grown 9 times faster. Reports say 1 in 10 cases end in death. The CDC has also noted that 9 out of 10 of its Legionnaires’ diseases investigations show that almost all outbreaks were caused by problems that could have been prevented with effective water management.
In most cases seniors and those with health issues, cancer, weak immune systems, underlying illnesses, smokers, are the most at risk of contracting the disease. Although most outbreaks are associated with large or complex water systems, often found in hospitals, long-term care facilities and hotels, there have been cases reported in theme parks, schools and even in residential systems as well, highlighting the need to design plumbing systems that meet today's health challenges in every application of the industry. Concentrating, not just on systems that transport water from the source to the end users as cheaply as possible but designing and installing plumbing systems whose priority is to protect the public’s health while delivering clean and safe drinking water.
The challenges to improve the public’s health in the buildings have not been isolated to the plumbing industry. In 1984 the World Health Organization (WHO) created a 484-page book on Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) which has been used as the basis for legislation on indoor air quality. Ever since then improvements have been made to building construction, including materials, lighting, as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to improve air quality and the health of a building occupants. A lot of these improvements have come in the form of technology. Technology that has helped with light management systems, as well as air quality systems to control humidity levels, minimized stagnant airflow, extreme temperature differences (hot/cold spots). Today’s buildings are now smarter and healthier while also helping the environment. The power of technology has allowed the design of dynamic systems to adjust as the needs change. Recently, the plumbing industry has been tasked with finding ways to use technology to improve plumbing system design and to eliminate the risks associated with todays’ health and environmental challenges. This brings us back to energy and water conservation where advancements have been made in everything from low-flow fixtures, booster and recirculating pumps, to mixing valves, to water heating systems. However, today’s plumbing systems also need to be dynamic, adaptable, and capable of changing throughout the life of the building.
There are multiple reasons for the need to make adjustments to the systems within a building today, whether internal or external, a change in the usage of a facility can impact the plumbing system, a change from the water source (utility company), or a pandemic such as COVID-19. Technology is available to ensure plumbing systems stay operational, healthy, and keep moving forward while being more flexible than yesterday’s systems. Expandable and upgradable systems offer the facility’s owner more control and information to better manage the system. Today, we can specify smart pumps that can adjust based on the demand fluctuations during the day, we can also specify smart water heaters that can alternate their firing sequence among a gang of heaters to promote the most efficient performance. All with features that give the owner the data they never had before while also allowing them to manage and monitor the systems operations remotely.
Smarter systems are the answer. Technology is now available for plumbing components from balancing valves, flushing valves, temperature, pressure, to flow sensors that can automate the systems and gives building operators the control and monitoring capabilities they need to manage their building water systems effectively. Automated valves can perfectly balance the hot water system by continuously sensing the water temperature and dynamically adjusting flow to meet the building’s pre-defined parameters.
In addition to automatically maintaining the hot water temperatures throughout the building, the automated systems help prevent stagnation, minimize biofilm growth, and increase residual disinfectant levels by automatically flushing the building water system according to predefined parameters. Minimizing the possibility for stagnant water even in a building or section of a building that has been shut down for a period of time.
These systems connectivity to smartphones, tablets, CPUs, and building management systems (BMS) keep facility managers up to date on their water systems operation. Data logging and reporting provide necessary information for risk assessment. This smart technology raises the bar on what we should expect from building water systems and how we approach building water management.
Today’s plumbing design professionals should take the lead in designing systems to be more fluid (pardon the pun), to be smarter, more responsive, better managed to prioritize public health, and able to adjust to meet tomorrow’s challenges. l
• U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention
• National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System
• American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
• Canadian Water and Wastewater Association,
• Los Angeles Times " Disneyland Shuts Down Two Cooling Towers After Legionnaires' Disease Outbreak"
• WHIO TV7 "Former Fairmont High School head custodian died from Legionnaires’ disease last year"
• U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) "Fatal Case of Legionnaires’ Disease After Home Exposure to Legionella pneumophila Serogroup 3 — Wisconsin, 2018"