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Commercial Air Conditioning, Commercial HVAC

NYC Cooling Tower Cleaning Regulations: What If You Don’t Comply?


cooling tower cleaning

Ever since the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City in 2015, there has been increased awareness of the health risks to millions of city residents and workers. And yet, recent data shows many building owners and managers are not complying with cooling tower cleaning and other safety measures now required by law.

What are the basic requirements of the cooling tower regulations? What are the implications for public safety when the cooling tower cleaning regulations are not followed? And what are the consequences for your business if you are among those who are not in compliance?

The onset of the cooling tower cleaning regulations

It all started in the summer of 2015, when at least 12 people died and hundreds became ill from Legionnaires’ disease, a type of bacterial pneumonia. The source was traced to a cooling tower of a hotel in the South Bronx.

As you probably know, cooling towers are a vital part of many air conditioning systems. However, the towers are susceptible to bacteria — including Legionella, the one that causes Legionnaires’ disease. When warm water from the system is cooled, vaporized, and released by the tower, that moist air can carry the bacteria far and wide. That means even people at street level can inhale the bacteria and become ill from it.

In response to the 2015 outbreak, New York State and New York City both enacted strict cooling tower cleaning regulations to prevent Legionnaires’ disease. They include very specific cooling tower cleaning and maintenance measures designed to protect public safety.

A quick look at what is required

Thanks to these cooling tower cleaning regulations, New York City building owners must register, maintain, and test their cooling towers, as well as fluid coolers and evaporative condensers. The requirements include:

  • Following the cooling tower basin cleaning regulations described in Chapter 8 of the Rules of the City of New York, in compliance with Local Law 77 of 2015
  • Implementing a cooling tower Maintenance Program and Plan (MPP) and an ASHRAE 188 Water Safety Plan
  • Documenting all procedures and cooling tower cleaning equipment to be used for monitoring, inspecting, disinfecting, and maintaining the system
  • Keeping a record of all maintenance activities and compliance inspections

In addition to requiring inspection every 90 days and testing of cooling towers, the regulations state that owners must have cooling tower cleaning performed immediately if a tower shows a specified amount of Legionella bacteria.

Cooling tower owners must also file an annual certification, attesting that all cooling equipment was inspected, tested, and cleaned in accordance with a maintenance plan. The annual certification must also document any actions taken to correct deficiencies or address compliance issues.

Want more details? Here are some handy resources:

Current compliance with cooling tower cleaning regulations

With tough regulations and similar guidelines from both the city and the state, you would think cooling tower cleaning would be standard operating procedure and Legionnaire’s disease, a dwindling risk. However, reporting from WNYC public radio in the summer of 2018 indicated that non-compliance with the regulations is widespread. Among the statistics:

  • State data indicated more than 20% of cooling towers are not up to date with the inspections the state requires, with the majority of non-compliant towers not inspected in more than a year.
  • According to data provided by the city, almost half of NYC cooling towers are not up to date with their reporting.

According to a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) annual report on cooling tower inspections for 2017:

  • 6,447 towers were inspected
  • 75,822 violations were issued by the city — averaging nearly 12 violations per tower inspected
  • 5,496 of those violations were considered public health hazards

Despite the cooling tower cleaning regulations put in place just three years ago to prevent the spread of disease, non-compliance is a major issue in the city — and the negative effects are clear.

Potentially deadly consequences

According to federal data, there was a 64% increase in the number of Legionnaires’ diagnoses in New York City in 2017 over 2016. Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city is likely to have a record-breaking number of Legionnaires’ cases in 2018.

Most recently, in early July 2018, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ identified in Upper Manhattan sickened 23 people and killed one. While only about 5% of people who are exposed to Legionella become sick from it, anywhere from 5% to 30% of cases prove fatal.

As a responsible building owner, naturally you want your tenants, employees, customers, and visitors to be safe. Clearly, being in compliance with cooling tower cleaning regulations is vital to protecting NYC residents, workers, and tourists from exposure to potentially deadly bacteria.

Penalties for non-compliance

If you own a building with a cooling tower in New York City, investing in the measures that will keep you in compliance with the cooling tower cleaning regulations also makes financial sense because penalties for violations can add up fast.

For instance, failing to register a cooling tower or to file an annual certification can result in fines from the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB). Now that both NYC and the state require cooling tower cleaning, testing, and inspection under a structured maintenance plan, failure to have an MPP can also lead to fines — a minimum $1,000 for a first violation.

With the city Department of Health vowing to step up yearly inspections of cooling tower systems, MPPs, and recordkeeping, the risk of an inspector finding potential violations can also have serious consequences for your wallet. (Check out some minimum fines here.)

Expert maintenance support makes a difference

For building owners who not experts in cooling tower cleaning, inspection, and maintenance, partnering with a knowledgeable HVAC specialist can help you make sure your cooling tower system is in compliance.

In addition, regular cooling tower cleaning makes good fiscal sense from a day-to-day operational standpoint. Routine cleaning and maintenance help to prevent the buildup of mineral scale and debris in your AC system — keeping it running efficiently and reliably, and reducing the risk of unexpected and costly repairs.