By Katherine Bonamo
From the June 2023 Issue
Healthcare facility managers share a special obligation: their duty to protect the vulnerable. One perennial focus is the need to combat legionella, a waterborne pathogen that can cause grave respiratory illness. Patients who inhale colonized water (as in the shower) can develop life-threatening pneumonia, with the elderly or immunocompromised at greatest risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), water management programs are a critical way for hospitals to contain this threat.
At the same time, healthcare facilities face many of the same basic challenges as other large and complex building systems. For example, the effectiveness of hot water delivery may vary by location, as circuits farther from the heat source struggle to maintain temperature. And the window for meeting user expectations is narrow: the American Society of Plumbing Engineers warns that wait times longer than 10 seconds may be viewed as a delay.
For hospital patients, the perception that their environment is uncomfortable or frustrating can increase stress and even worsen health outcomes.
The Community Hospital of Staunton is a Critical Access Hospital (CAH) in southwest Illinois. Like all facilities in this category, Staunton’s medical center provides vital services in an area where health care would otherwise be hard to come by. When Community Hospital was experiencing difficulty with two different dimensions of water management—hot water wait times and residual disinfectant levels—they consulted engineers at GF Piping Systems for a solution. After evaluating the hospital’s blueprint, GF recommended the installation of the Hycleen Automation System.
Strategizing For Safety
To control legionella effectively, hospitals typically need to execute a complex program of interrelated strategies. This family of bacteria grows best at temperatures between 77F and 113F, so that keeping hot water hot and cold water cold becomes a key goal for any hospital water management program. Chemical disinfection also plays an important role, and hospitals are expected to keep the “residual” levels of these chemicals (amounts in everyday circulation) within safe and effective limits. Preventing stagnation is essential from both perspectives, since “dead ends” in the water system can cool heated water, dilute disinfectant, and encourage the accumulation of microbe-friendly biofilms.
The Hycleen Automation System allows operators to manage all of these factors through a single, intuitive interface. Once a customized needs assessment has been completed, automated balancing valves and/or flushing valves are positioned throughout the premise plumbing, with sensors to provide continuous feedback. Facility managers can use the simple 10 in. touch screen to set parameters such as minimum temperature. Using data from the sensors, the central “master” control unit will activate valves as needed to optimize hydraulic balance. Meanwhile, personnel can monitor system status in real time.
“I compare it to building automation, where thermostats used to be the control for each room but now you have centralized systems where you can see the whole building,” explains David Bohn, Senior Maintenance Technician at Community Hospital. “This does that for hot water loop balancing. Since we’ve had the Hycleen system, I haven’t seen brown water and I haven’t had complaints that somebody’s had to take a cold shower.”
At Community Hospital, GF recommended adding automated flushing valves to the system, in addition to replacing the existing mechanical balancing valves. A welcome added benefit of this capability was that the hospital no longer experienced unsightly discoloration in the wake of manual flushing cycles.
“Water quality is important in any facility, but particularly in the healthcare industry—there are more eyes looking, and stricter regulations.”
— Dan Burns, Director, Plant Operations, Community Hospital
Automation with Hycleen also helps ease the compliance burden for hospital facility managers, since the system’s data logging capabilities facilitate recordkeeping. In a regulatory environment that is constantly evolving, the system’s adaptability is a welcome advantage. “Water quality is important in any facility, but particularly in the healthcare industry—there are more eyes looking, and stricter regulations,” observes Dan Burns, Director of Plant Operations at Community Hospital. “As our water management criteria get stricter and we work through the process of meeting the standards, Hycleen allows us to do that.”
Systems such as Hycleen form part of a significant trend toward “smart” building management. More and more, automation platforms seek to give managers a 360-degree view of their building status, using the power of data to increase efficiency. With these developments in mind, Hycleen can be integrated into existing building automation if desired. Through Hycleen Connect, users also have the option of operating the system remotely with a smartphone or tablet, with status information and unusual occurrences reported via push message.
In addition to reducing frustration and maintaining hygiene, proper hydraulic balancing also cuts energy use, since less is wasted returning cooled water to temperature. Heat for hot water is typically among the largest energy draws at a hospital, accounting for about 15% of total thermal consumption. As pressures mount for healthcare organizations to control expenses and the cost of energy rises, this factor is too large to ignore. To help managers assess the possible benefits of an automated balancing solution, GF Piping Systems offers an online tool for simulating the efficiency gains that a specific building could realize.
Help Where It’s Needed
At Community Hospital, hot water now arrives on time. Regular water exchange through automated flushing prevents stagnation, and residual disinfectant levels have improved. “Hycleen allows us to rebalance the entire system constantly,” notes Dan Burns. Reflecting the importance of successful water management in a healthcare setting, hospitals, clinics, and senior living facilities have been among Hycleen’s earliest adopters.
In 2023, Community Hospital was recognized by the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network for its rank in the top 10% of CAHs on quality of care. These small-scale facilities (with 25 beds or less) are the sometimes-unsung heroes of rural health care in the United States, providing 24-hour emergency services and other much-needed assistance—where patients can reach it without burdensome travel. Like the Critical Access Hospital program, the rise of automation holds great promise as an equalizer. For healthcare centers like Community Hospital, modest in size but no less devoted to their mission, a water management program of the highest sophistication is now just a touch screen away.
Bonamo writes on architecture, building, construction, and other engineering topics for publications throughout the United States.
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