Legionella Prevention: FICO Links BMS to Smart Faucets, Controlling Pathogens

The experts at FICO are playing a pivotal role in Legionella prevention at the VA Hospital in Ft. Harrison, near Helena, Montana. FICO worked with manufacturers of smart sensors for water testing and Armstrong Rada Digital Faucets with Infection Control that automatically flush parts of the plumbing system not used regularly. These are two crucial elements of the hospital’s Legionella mitigation strategies. As part of the project, FICO has developed the first protocol of its kind for linking smart faucets to a building management system. 

It’s serious business. Legionella is the bacteria responsible for Legionairre’s disease, a form of pneumonia that can be fatal. 

What’s inside this blog post:

  • What is Legionella?
  • FICO’s role in Legionella prevention.
  • FICO’s solution cited as an example nationally. 

What is Legionella?

Legionella is a naturally occurring waterborne pathogen, in this case, a bacteria, that causes Legionnaire’s disease, a severe type of pneumonia caused by inhaling or ingesting water into the lungs that contains Legionella bacteria. Left unchecked, Legionella can flourish in the plumbing systems of large buildings, especially in rooms that are not used regularly. Ingestion typically happens in a shower or drinking from a water fountain.   

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionnaire’s disease is fatal in about 10% of cases. Legionella also causes Pontiac Fever, a less serious disease with flu-like symptoms. It is almost always linked to water transmission. Even though Legionella is a commonly occurring bacteria, the CDC does not recognize any safe levels in water for human use. 

Legionella typically needs two things to grow in a large plumbing system. 

Temperature. Legionella bacteria grow in water with a temperature range of 77°–113°F (25–42°C). During periods of non-use, there is a greater chance of cold water temperatures rising into the range of optimal growth for Legionella.

Stagnation. Biocides such as chlorine (the most commonly used chemical in disinfecting water) combat the growth of Legionella. When parts of a plumbing system are used infrequently, there is a risk of stagnation, allowing these biocides to evaporate. This leaves the water unprotected,  creating an environment where Legionella can grow. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines three principal measures for preventing the growth of Legionella in water systems:

  • Hot water temperatures should be as high as allowed by local and state regulations or codes, well outside the favorable range for Legionella growth. The minimum level for most hospitals is 122°F (50°C). Cold water temperatures should be kept at 60°F (15.5° C) and never above 70°F (21.1° C). If necessary, pipes are wrapped with insulation to maintain cold-water temperatures. 
  • Water should be monitored for proper levels of biocides where it enters the building, and at use points.
  • Biocides work best in water within a narrow pH range. Routinely checking the water’s pH levels ensures the disinfectant level used in the system is appropriate for limiting Legionella. 

FICO’s Role in Legionella Prevention

In 2019, the Veterans Administration released VHA Directive 1061(1), addressing the issue of Legionella in the water distribution systems at various VA hospitals and facilities. Officials at the VA Hospital in Helena decided to use sensors and intelligent water fixtures, specifically smart faucets, as part of their Legionella growth control efforts. 

FICO engineers were already developing BMS solutions for the facility, and the local VA officials asked them to help engineer a solution for Legionnaire’s disease prevention. 

FICO’s solution for water quality management

The FICO-installed BMS system monitors 17 Metrinet multi-parameter monitoring sensors in the water system at the VA Hospital. A sensor monitors water in a 14-inch pipe serving as the main city water feed into the facility. Three more sensors monitor lines that branch off from the main feed, with a separate sensor on each hospital floor for hot and cold water. There are also sensors on a large chiller and another on the cooling tower. 

“The Schneider Electric BMS system installed by FICO is ideal for monitoring these sensors,” said Dan Morris, a project manager for FICO. “Everything is fed back into the system. We monitor for all the measurements—temperature, biocide readings, pH levels, and more—ensuring they fall within certain parameters.”

Morris added that the sensors continuously monitor the water in the pipe as it flows through a manifold-type assembly. The sensors require monthly calibration, and a consumable membrane must be regularly changed.  

Smart faucets as part of Legionella risk assessment

The Helena VA hospital facilities management personnel identified more than 50 rooms with intermittent or low occupancy. These are typically overflow patient rooms or rooms for specialty purposes—infusion treatments, casting, imaging, etc. 

“Some of these rooms are vacant for extended periods,” said Morris. “Legionella can form quickly.”

Water fixtures in these rooms now have digital smart faucets from Armstrong International. The smart faucets automatically flush the water lines according to the parameters outlined in the BMS. Room occupancy dictates the flush frequency and how much water the faucets release during the flush. The BMS system is constantly updated as room use changes. 

“The sensors can measure down to a half part per million of free chlorine in the water,” added Morris. “Between the sensors and the smart faucets, it is an extensive system. There are over 90 parameters that we can evaluate as part of water quality management. The smart faucets and the sensors, and the corresponding BMS, are the main thrust of the hospital’s legionella risk assessment program.” 

FICO solution cited as an example nationally

FICO engineers developed a protocol allowing the BMS to communicate with the smart faucets. It is the first system of its kind in North America. Armstrong International, the faucet manufacturer, has cited the protocol as an example of what can be accomplished in VA hospitals across the US. 

The success of the Legionella monitoring system has helped drive the VA to choose FICO and Schneider Electric as their preferred partners. FICO engineers are 75% of the way through installing Schneider Electric components and software as the hospital’s building management system. 

“This project has been a good opportunity to show what building management systems can do for Legionella prevention,” added Morris. 

FICO has been providing turnkey building management systems (BMS) for businesses, schools, office buildings, hospitals, and others in and around Montana for more than twenty years. We are also experts in building management and system integration services, and our staff has numerous industry certifications. FICO works with leading BMS component manufacturers to provide optimum environments that are comfortable for employees and save energy. 

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FICO provides turnkey building management and system integration services for technically complex buildings in Montana and beyond. From design and installation to ongoing maintenance and security, our best-in-class people and products help you achieve operational savings and minimize risk as you work to provide reliable and safe environments.

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