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New Tool Could Revolutionize Water Cooling Tower Tests

Adam Janos in Building Operations on April 19, 2018

New York City

Legionnaires' Test

The Spartan Cube is able to test water samples for legionella bacteria on-site (image via Spartan Bioscience).

April 19, 2018

An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx in 2015 killed 12 people and sickened more than 100. After the outbreak was traced to a boutique hotel in the South Bronx – where improperly maintained water cooling towers fostered the growth of deadly legionella bacteria – the state mandated that building owners send water samples to laboratories for culture testing on a monthly basis. Additional regulations imposed by the city included mandatory semi-annual cleanings and disinfections of the towers, which cool water for central air-conditioning systems. Violations are punishable by up to $25,000 in fines and up to one year imprisonment. 

Those regulations, among the most stringent in the nation, can hit hard at smaller co-ops and condos, says Michael Mintz, the CEO and founder of MD Squared Property Group, a company that manages 55 properties, primarily in New York City. “For a lot of the larger buildings they never notice it,” Mintz says. “But for a six-unit building, an extra $6,000 to $12,000 is pretty meaningful." 

Adding insult to injury: despite this new burden on multi-unit buildings throughout the city, legionella bacteria has not been eliminated. Last summer, seven people were sickened and one died after contracting the respiratory disease in Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side. Another outbreak in Flushing, Queens, this past October sickened 14 more. 

Now, the solution to both the costly compliance measures and the public health risk may be upon us. So claims Dr. Paul Lem, CEO and founder of Spartan Bioscience, a Canadian medical technology company.

Dr. Lem is the inventor of the Spartan Cube test, a portable four-inch cube that tests water samples on site. It’s user friendly, he says, adding that, “if you can build a Lego miniature, then you can build this test.” It also delivers quick results. Instead of shipping water samples to a laboratory and then waiting up to two weeks for results, boards can use Spartan Bioscience’s cube to get accurate legionella bacteria counts in 45 minutes. 

According to Dr. Lem, the new system offers something far more important than immediacy: it also provides accuracy. In a study funded by the Canadian government and conducted by Spartan Bioscience last year, Dr. Lem’s team found that federal building cooling tower water infected with impermissible levels of legionella bacteria would often falsely test negative (that is, clean) at labs. That 65 percent “false negative” rate was due to the bacteria dying en route from cooling tower to laboratory. With an on-site test, Dr. Lem expects that problem will be averted. 

The cube rents for $2,500 a year, with each individual test costing building owners an additional $150

The Spartan Cube, which is now coming to market in the United States, could change legionella testing in the city – but likely won’t catch on in New York until after it’s been approved by city and state officials as a substitute for sending out culture tests. 

If it does get accepted as a substitute to laboratory testing, Mintz says he sees enormous potential benefits for the city at large, even if some property managers aren't keen to rent the cubes for their board clients. “I don’t want to be in the water treatment business,” Mintz says, “but maybe this could create more of a market. It could really open things up.”

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