Lisa Prevost in Building Operations on October 12, 2018
Three years ago, after a contaminated cooling tower at a South Bronx hotel caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 12 people and sickened more than 100 others, city officials wasted no time adopting sweeping regulations aimed at preventing future outbreaks. Known as Local Law 77, the rules lay out a strict schedule for the testing, cleaning and inspection of the ubiquitous towers, which recirculate and cool water used in commercial and residential buildings’ air-conditioning systems.
The close monitoring of the towers is intended to prevent the dangerous proliferation of Legionella bacteria, which can cause pneumonia-like illness – and death – when breathed in through water mist. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene currently has 70 inspectors conducting more than 5,000 cooling-tower inspections a year. They’re armed with a hit list of 30 potential violations – and the power to levy fines from $500 to $2,000 per violation.
Inspections occur once a year, and boards can fight violations at hearings before the Environmental Control Board (ECB). Here are some of the most important things co-op and condo boards need to know about the law:
1. Your cooling tower(s) must be registered with both the city and the state. The state has its own set of regulations concerning cooling towers, many of which overlap with city requirements. However, when it comes to registering the tower, that must be done through two separate online portals, one with the state and one operated jointly by the city’s health and buildings departments. Registration includes such information as the tower’s make, serial number, and location. It also requires contact information for the property owner.
2. You must keep a Maintenance Program and Plan (MPP) for each cooling tower onsite at all times. The MPP must be written to city specifications, Frazier says. A useful reference material for boards, it must include the names and contact information for everyone performing maintenance on the towers, diagrams of how the tower works, and checklists of system control and maintenance requirements.
3. Certain maintenance procedures must be performed by “qualified personnel.” When it comes to writing the MPP, the city wants it done by a licensed engineer, industrial hygienist, water technologist, or environmental consultant. The same goes for the required compliance inspections (every 90 days) and the annual certification, which must be filed with the city as confirmation that the building owner is following the plan. When a tower must be disinfected, which requires the use of approved biocides, the cleaning must be done by a certified pesticide technician or commercial pesticide applicator.
4. Two types of water testing must be done on the system every week. Water quality in the tower must be tested at least three times a week, with no more than two days between tests. Each test must evaluate water temperature, pH, conductivity, and biocide concentration. “If you have someone on staff who can do this testing and won’t screw it up, by all means have them do it,” Frazier says. Required weekly testing for bacteria and fungi is often done in-house.
5. Testing for Legionella must be conducted no less frequently than every 90 days. Test results must be kept onsite and made available for inspection. The fine for failing to test within the proper time frame is $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for the second.
6. If Legionella levels exceed specified limits, corrective action must be taken within 24 hours. The law calls for treating towers with biocides within 24 hours of receiving a higher-than-normal Legionella test result. At a certain threshold, the tower must also be drained and cleaned. The property owner must notify the health department of the high bacteria reading within that 24-hour window.
7. It’s not enough to just do the tests and inspections – someone has to be responsible for recording and reporting. Record-keeping is crucial to compliance. The annual certification must be filed with the city, and other data must be submitted to the state. Records of all required maintenance activities, compliance inspections, and test results must be maintained onsite for three years.
8. The city is getting tougher on violations. Until recently, city inspectors mainly concentrated on the most obvious shortcomings. But with the rising level of scrutiny by inspectors, violations are sure to become a fact of life for many co-op and condo boards. “The bottom line is that if you obey the law and keep good records, you can beat the violations,” says Michael Bogart, in-house counsel at the management company Maxwell-Kates, who has successfully appealed violations. “The best defense is compliance with the law.”
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