Water heater temperature set point and water use patterns influence Legionella pneumophila and associated microorganisms at the tap
Background Lowering water heater temperature set points and using less drinking water are common approaches to conserving water and energy; yet, there are discrepancies in past literature regarding the effects of water heater temperature and water use patterns on the occurrence of opportunistic pathogens, in particular Legionella pneumophila. Our objective was to conduct a controlled, replicated pilot-scale investigation to address this knowledge gap using continuously recirculating water heaters to examine five water heater set points (39–58 °C) under three water use conditions. We hypothesized that L. pneumophila levels at the tap depend on the collective influence of water heater temperature, flow frequency, and the resident plumbing ecology. Results We confirmed temperature setting to be a critical factor in suppressing L. pneumophila growth both in continuously recirculating hot water lines and at distal taps. For example, at 51 °C, planktonic L. pneumophila in recirculating lines was reduced by a factor of 28.7 compared to 39 °C and was prevented from re-colonizing biofilm. However, L. pneumophila still persisted up to 58 °C, with evidence that it was growing under the conditions of this study. Further, exposure to 51 °C water in a low-use tap appeared to optimally select for L. pneumophila (e.g., 125 times greater numbers than in high-use taps). We subsequently explored relationships among L. pneumophila and other ecologically relevant microbes, noting that elevated temperature did not have a general disinfecting effect in terms of total bacterial numbers. We documented the relationship between L. pneumophila and Legionella spp., and noted several instances of correlations with Vermamoeba vermiformis, and generally found that there is a dynamic relationship with this amoeba host over the range of temperatures and water use frequencies examined. Conclusions Our study provides a new window of understanding into the microbial ecology of potable hot water systems and helps to resolve past discrepancies in the literature regarding the influence of water temperature and stagnation on L. pneumophila, which is the cause of a growing number of outbreaks. This work is especially timely, given society’s movement towards “green” buildings and the need to reconcile innovations in building design with public health.