Legionella and a landlord’s responsibilities

Legionella might sound like the latest fashionable baby name among the Chiswick and Richmond set, but it’s actually a good deal more sinister, and most landlords are bound to have become dimly aware of it in recent times.

In the last year or so, the online forums have been buzzing with legionella. Agents have updated their terms and conditions to incorporate special legionella disclaimers, and some have even started offering super-scientific ‘legionella assessments’ at £250 a go. But what is legionella, and what are you supposed to do about it as a landlord?

What is legionella?

It’s a particularly unpleasant little bacterium that thrives in stagnant, tepid water. If it gets into your lungs, it can cause a nasty infection called legionnaire’s disease.

Legionnaire’s disease starts out with the usual flu-like symptoms, which quickly develop into pneumonia. Swift treatment is essential, as there are a number of potential complications, including organ damage and septic shock. In the worst cases, legionnaire’s can be fatal.

Most people catch legionnaire’s disease by breathing in tiny droplets of water that are carrying the legionella bacteria. In practice, this is generally going to be in spray form, possibly from old, tepid showers or sprinkler systems. The risk tends to be higher in warmer countries.

What are the risks?

It’s actually very rare. In 2013, there were 284 people diagnosed with the disease in England and Wales, of whom a third had most likely picked it up abroad. All the same, it’s a dangerous infection and as a landlord, you should be taking reasonable precautions to prevent it.

To survive, legionella needs tepid, still water, and plenty of muck to live off, like micro-organisms and rust. So prime candidates are places where there’s warmish, stagnant water in pipes that don’t get flushed through much. Think sprinkler systems, old unsavoury air-con units, or those trickling old showers with water the temperature of warm beer that you find at dilapidated local sports clubs.

One environment where they’re unlikely to thrive is in the home, and this is of particular importance to landlords. Generally, the pipes in a modern domestic environment are flushed through too often for the legionella bacteria to stick around, plus the temperatures are usually too high for them. Also, instant water heaters like combi boilers and electric showers further decrease the risks, as there’s no standing water for the legionella to get comfy in.

What are your responsibilities, and why is it suddenly a thing?

Landlords have been obliged to keep their tenants safe from legionella for upwards of forty years, but for some reason the industry has only just cottoned on. This is because the relevant legislation is fantastically well hidden. The legalese is squirreled away in the depths of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), and it doesn’t mention landlords at all. All the same, it applies, and while the wording of the act is mystical at best, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have helpfully distilled it into a single, useful page of actual guidance for landlords.

What it says, in brief, is that you have a duty to take reasonable precautions to stop your tenants getting legionnaire’s disease, but that detailed professional assessments are not a requirement. The HSE page does a nice job of debunking the expensive legionella tests your managing agents might be pimping, stating explicitly that ‘Health and safety law does NOT require landlords to obtain, produce nor does HSE recognise a “Legionella test certificate”.’

So what should you be doing?

All the sensible stuff that you’re probably doing anyway. Keep the water running through the pipework on a reasonably regular basis. Make sure any water tanks are covered, and that any redundant pipework that might provide a home for legionella is removed. The water also needs to get hot enough that it will kill any legionella in the hot water system. The HSE specifies 60 degrees, which is handy because this is roughly the temperature that most decent domestic hot water systems run at anyway.

Your tenants themselves need to make sure showerheads are clean, and if they tell you the hot water system’s not working properly then you need to be proactive about fixing it. Which you should be anyway, of course.

One situation where you might need to be a bit more careful about legionella is if your property ends up being empty for a while. The HSE recommends letting the hot and cold water systems run at least once a week during vacant periods, and possibly draining the system down if the property is going to be empty for a very long time.

What’s the outlook?

Legionnaire’s disease is nasty, but rare in the domestic environment. While landlords are required to take reasonable precautions to prevent it, the measures are all very straightforward. So long as the hot water system is working well, the place is clean, and water’s running through the system regularly, you’re fine. The HSE doesn’t require you to keep records or carry out professional assessments, and they’re not actively checking up on private landlords and legionella. If one of your tenants does catch it, they’re more likely to have picked it up on holiday in Cyprus or down the rugby club, and so long as you’ve taken the minimal precautions above, both you and the HSE can be confident that you’ve done your best to keep them safe from legionnaire’s disease.