About Legionella and Legionnaires' disease
Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease, is the most common cause of waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States. Legionnaires' disease is not known to spread from person to person or from drinking water. People get sick from Legionella by breathing in small water droplets containing the bacteria. Learn more about Legionnaires' disease from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Maintaining water quality and controlling Legionella growth is a shared responsibility. The Water Bureau controls microorganisms, including Legionella, with chlorine to deliver safe and reliable drinking water to your property. Once water enters a home or building, the resident or building manager is responsible for maintaining water quality in the home or building plumbing system.
The risk of getting sick from Legionella in a single-family home is low. Large buildings that have complex plumbing systems are at a much greater risk to Legionella growth. However, everyone can take steps to prevent Legionella growth in their plumbing systems.
Steps all residents can take
Whether you own or rent the space you live in, you can take the following steps to reduce the growth of Legionella in your living spaces.
Maintain the hot water system
If you have access or control of your water heater, follow the steps below under Maintaining your water heater.
If you live in care facility or apartment building, your property manager or landlord is responsible for maintaining the hot water system. If you have concerns about Legionella exposure in your building, check with your property manager to see if they have an active water quality management plan to reduce the risk of Legionella growth.
Clean showerheads and faucets
Cleaning showerheads and faucet aerators at least four times per year can minimize the growth of Legionella bacteria. Clean them more often or use a showerhead filter if your home has high-risk patients or if there is buildup of minerals or slimy film on the fixture. To clean them:
- Disassemble the showerhead and hose that is attached to it.
- Place the fixture in a bucket filled with vinegar or chlorine bleach. Let it soak for a few minutes to remove any deposits.
- Rinse with fresh water and reassemble.
If not cleaned properly, a humidifier can host Legionella bacteria and transport it to your lungs through its fine mist of water. Regularly clean your humidifier per the manufacturer's instructions to keep it free of bacteria. Also, only fill your humidifier with water that you boiled for one minute and then let cool down. Boiling the water protects you from any bacteria that may be in your plumbing system.
Maintain hot tubs
Legionella grows best in warm water, like the water temperatures in hot tubs. But warm temperatures also make it hard to keep disinfectants at the levels needed to kill germs like Legionella. Therefore, hot tub owners or facility managers must ensure they are operated properly and adequately cleaned. If you have or maintain a hot tub:
- check the amount of disinfectant in the water and the pH twice a day
- have a regular cleaning schedule to scrub away slimy films or algae from the sides of the tub
- replace filters in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications
Replace water filters
People do not get sick from Legionella by drinking the water it lives in. Using a water filter for drinking water will not reduce your risk of contracting Legionnaires' disease. If you do use a water filter for your drinking water, change and maintain the filter according to the manufacturer's recommendations. If the filter is not maintained properly, Legionella bacteria can grow on the filters and lower the water quality. If you are at high risk of getting a severe illness from Legionella, have someone else change your water filter or take safety precautions before changing the filter yourself.
If you can't set your water heater temperature and are concerned about Legionella exposure in the shower, consider installing a shower filter. Various filters are available for purchase online. Shower filters should always be changed according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Maintaining your water heater
Set the water heater temperature
If your water heater has a tank, set your heater to 140 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the growth of Legionella. However, to reduce the risk of scalding, the temperature of the water leaving the showerhead or faucet should be no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. You can install point-of-use mixing valves if your home doesn't already have them to help control the water temperature at the showerhead or faucet. Contact a plumber if you don't know how to do this.
Electric versus gas or oil water heaters
Electric water heaters have a heating element that sits slightly above the bottom of the heater. This creates a layer of cooler water at the bottom of the tank that can be the perfect temperature for Legionella growth. If your home has an electric water heater, consider setting the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit to make sure growth of Legionella is minimized.
Gas and oil water heaters heat from the bottom up and do not have layers of cooler water.
Flush the water heater tank
Emptying and refilling (flushing) the water tank is a good practice. You can hire a plumber to do this for you. Completely flush (empty and refill) your water heater:
- when you return after a week-long or more vacation
- before you move into a home
- after plumbing work
- if your hot water is discolored
Steps to flush your water heater tank:
- Turn off the gas or electricity to the water heater.
- Open a hot water faucet in the home and run the water for about 10 minutes to reduce the water temperature in the tank.
- Attach a garden hose to the existing drain valve and route it to a floor drain.
- With the cold water valve open to drain the tank, open the drain valve. Please use caution, as sediment can build up within the water tank and can clog the drain line or valve. Follow the manufacturer's procedure for restarting your hot water heater.