Friday, September 4, 2015

Cuomo mandates testing of cooling towers

Property managers take notice: Under new regulations issued by the Governor last month, all cooling towers – which are used for heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) in apartments, hospitals, dorms, and retail outlets and in industrial applications in many factories – are due for immediate and recurring inspection.

This comes on the heels of an August outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City. More than 100 people were sickened and a dozen killed by the atypical pneumonia that is caused by a specific type of bacteria that got its scientific name (legionella) and common name from an infamous outbreak that killed 29 attendees of an American Legion convention in 1976.

Despite the fact that Legionnaire’s disease is not necessarily rare (there are 18,000 cases per year in the USA) and outbreaks are usually isolated, it tends to get significant media attention from the fear-mongering press in big cities where it is most likely to occur.

That has led in New York City and the Empire State as a whole a sort of war between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who haven’t been on the kindest of terms to begin with. The Mayor mandated inspections of cooling towers across the Big Apple, so the Governor one-upped him and has issued new, stronger standards for all towers across the state.

Although they might be well-intentioned, it’s overkill, rather silly and poorly administered. It’s no different than Cuomo’s Chicken Little-like history of declaring states of emergency or closing roads in advance of storms that are either normal parts of winter in the northern US or never live up to their advance billing. 

Cooling towers are a sort of Quixotic windmill in this cause. In a matter of (im)perfect timing, the Center for Disease Control issued a study in August that said most Legionnaires’ comes from bad or old plumbing, be it through faucets, drinking fountains or showers. Despite that, the state has trained its sights on larger properties and their towers.

If those property managers are doing their job, Legionairres’ is already being addressed. Almost all introduce or have an outside contractor introduce biocides and other chemical agents to their cooling towers to prevent  the growth of legionella (which could harm residents or workers) and the build-up of algae and fungi (which will harm equipment and efficiency).

The state now wants to take that to another level and add reams of paperwork and numerous re-inspections to facility managers’ duties. Cuomo required that all cooling towers be registered and inspected within 30 days of his official statement – which makes September 17 the deadline. You must register the equipment on the state’s online database indicating model, serial number, capacity, usage and more while providing a detailed history of maintenance. Then, you must have a licensed specialist conduct a culture to check for Legionnaire’s. This test must be done every 90 days thereafter in perpetuity.

Then, managers must obtain and implement a maintenance program and plan by March 1, 2016. The plan must include a schedule for routine sampling, as well as procedures for emergency testing and disinfection to destroy Legionella bacteria. Owners must maintain a copy of the plan on the premises where a cooling tower is located, and make it available immediately upon request. Cuomo’s rule also requires annual certification from an outside firm regarding the maintenance and cleaning of cooling towers by November 1 of every year.

This law was launched with minimal fanfare or notice to property owners. I knew the day that Cuomo launched the plan because I follow what goes on in Albany. Most folks don’t. So, a vast majority of facilities owners don’t know or are just finding out now, with just over a week to spare. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse that flies with government, so that won’t cut it when local and state health departments start targeting and inspecting cooling towers – which is a low-hanging fruit because towers are readily seen from the road and with hundreds of thousands of them across the state there are countless dollars in fines just waiting to be levied after September 17.

Even if you know now or have known, being compliant is still a tough go. This plan also caught off guard the pros – the HVAC and chemical guys who do this for a living. There’s no way that they can pull off the number of inspections that they need to so soon. It’s going to be interesting to see how this is administered in the coming days and months.

For more information about the regulations, visit Cuomo’s website at 

From the 07 September 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

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