Clearing the Air

By Chris Ebener

COVID-19 isn’t the only pathogen that’s killing people today.

The legionella bacterium, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, recently led to the death of two people in the Bronx. Additional outbreaks in Hawaii, Palm Springs and North Carolina over the past few months have brought the disease fully back into the eyes of the public and local health departments.

Nearly 10,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease were reported to the CDC in 2018, which is the most in U.S. history—and even that is likely an undercount, as some scientists estimate the annual case count at up to 70,000. Michigan’s Health Department recorded a nearly 600% increase in legionella cases in 2021 compared to the previous year, and a 261% increase from 2019. Similarly, the city of Chicago reported a threefold increase in legionella cases from its 2019 and 2020 numbers.

Theories for this rise include an aging population, a higher prevalence of conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, and the effects of climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has also likely increased the prevalence of Legionnaire’s disease, as many buildings sat unused for months, giving legionella bacteria—which is growing increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatments—an optimal environment to proliferate.

The most frightening thing about legionella is that it spreads so easily, and in the unlikeliest places: People can contract Legionnaires’ disease in the shower, standing near a decorative fountain, or—in one case—visiting a hot tub display at a state fair. All it takes for a person to contract the potentially fatal disease is to breathe in microscopic droplets of water that contain the bacteria.

Legionella thrives in warm water environments and stagnant sections of water systems. Common sources include drinking fountains, hot tubs, sinks, toilets, sprinklers, showers and air-conditioning systems. Once the bacteria grows there, it only needs to be aerosolized and float into the air—via a showerhead, for instance—for it to reach a person.

That is why hotel management should have a thorough plan for managing water systems. Such complex strategies typically include constantly maintaining or replacing showerheads, faucets and mixing valves; maintaining plumbing infrastructure; heating water to excessively high temperatures; and dosing the system with disinfectant from now until eternity.

Thankfully, there are simple steps we can take to dramatically lower the risk of Legionnaires’ disease. For starters, we can integrate tankless water heaters across our national infrastructure, into schools, hotels, office buildings, retirement homes and more.

It’s only common sense: Consider that most hotels provide hot water via two massive tanks that hold thousands of gallons of water that must be heated, 24 hours a day. These tanks—which are often so huge that they must be installed by helicopter—necessitate stagnant water in their design. Tankless water heaters eliminate this still water, removing the murky areas where legionella thrives, while simultaneously decreasing high-risk system complexity.

And as we see the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change, we should note that tankless water heaters also decrease energy usage as there’s no need to keep water heated around the clock. For building owners, this equals the rare win-win-win—tankless water heaters reduce the likelihood of a legionella outbreak on their property while also decreasing overhead costs and doing their part to combat climate change.

As we’ve seen over the last few years, the world can be a very dangerous place. When we have the chance to make it safer, we should jump at it. Tankless water heating systems can be part of that change.

Chris Ebener is the manager of new product innovation at Intellihot.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.