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Are Water-Cooling Tower Inspections Adequate?

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks

New York City

Cooling Towers

A 900-ton water-coolng tower on the roof of a Harlem building (image courtesy of NYC Cooling Tower Inspections and Services)

In the summer of 2015, a mysterious plague swept through the South Bronx. It left 12 people dead and more than 120 severely sick before the culprit was found – an improperly maintained water cooling tower on the roof of the Opera House Hotel, which had fostered the growth of the Legionella bacteria, the source of Legionnaire’s Disease.

The city responded by passing Local Law 77, one of the nation’s strictest sets of regulations on the maintenance of the city’s 6,000-plus water cooling towers, which disperse heat from the water used to cool centrally air-conditioned buildings, ranging from tiny mom-and-pop stores to co-ops and condos and massive office buildings. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently issued 19 pages of additional regulations – a heavy slog for even the most diligent property manager or board member. The regs are larded with arcane terminology such as “dead legs,” “dip slide,” and “heterotrophic plate count.” Failure to comply with the law can result in fines up to $25,000 and up to one year in prison.

Obviously, this is an area where most co-op and condo boards rely on experts, usually a water-treatment vendor who monitors chemical levels in the water cooling tower, refills tanks as needed, checks for leaks, and performs necessary adjustments, repairs, and clean-ups of water-treatment equipment. Many of those vendors also prepare the Local Law 77-mandated Maintenance Program and Plan (MPP) for the building’s tower, and they conduct required quarterly inspections, notifying the Health Department of elevated Legionella culture levels. Twice a year all towers must be disinfected by a technician licensed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. By Nov. 1 of every year, a credentialed inspector must confirm that the MPP for every cooling tower has been followed and all requirements have been met. 

Sounds like a good system, right? Not to Steven Serrano, CEO of a consultancy called New York City Cooling Tower Inspections and Services. The company is one of handful that specialize in developing the required Maintenance Program and Plan for every tower, conducting quarterly inspections and Legionella testing, and writing up the annual certification. While his bias may be understandable, allowing a water-treatment vendor to inspector his own work is, in Serrano's opinion, the equivalent of letting your kid fill out his or her own report card. 

“This is a serious matter,” says Serrano, who has been named a Certified Water Technologist by the Maryland-based Association of Water Technologies. The certification process requires five years of experience in water treatment, passing an exam and peer review, and recertification every five years. Serrano, who has trained hundreds of water-treatment technicians, adds, “If a co-op or condo board has a water-treatment vendor, it would be in their best interest to invest in an independent company to eliminate any conflict of interest. One of the best ways to protect the water in a cooling tower is to have unbiased inspections.” 

Serrano’s company charges about $9,000 a year for buildings with towers that run year-round, and about $8,000 for buildings with seasonal towers. There is, he adds, a side benefit to his service’s reduction of risk and liability: “If you have us monitoring your cooling tower’s water quality three times a week, you’ll have cleaner water than ever. Which makes your equipment run smoother. Which equals a significant drop in your electric bill.”

Which also protects you from a possible $25,000 fine and a year in jail.

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