How to Answer Customers’ Questions on Legionella and Air Conditioners

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Published: 13 October 2015


Air conditioner contractors need to be aware of the facts of Legionella and how to communicate them to customers, as Tony Ellerker of Blakes M&E Building Services explains.

If there’s one thing you can be sure of with regard to your customers, it’s that they know how to use Google. 
Just as doctors meet plenty of people who have convinced themselves they have cancer, and most car salespeople have dealt with the buyer demanding they match a deal he found online, an ACR contractor now must be ready to reassure the smartphone-wielding customer that a system is safe from whatever faults he or she may have read about.

​With air conditioners, the Google problem is Legionnaires’ disease. Enter a search like ‘air conditioners legionnaires’ or ‘air conditioners legionella’ and you’ll see no shortage of words on the subject.

If you’ve seen these, it’s a fair bet your customers have. Here are some of the questions you can expect to get asked, and how best to respond.

​“I’ve read that air conditioners can cause Legionnaires’ disease, is that true?”

​Short answer: no. Legionnaires’ disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, which multiply and spread in contaminated water. When this water disseminates into the air as droplets and is then inhaled, it can cause the disease. However, as conventional air conditioners do not have water inside their systems, they are not likely to be the source of the bacteria.

The worst an air conditioner will do is disseminate already-contaminated air throughout a building, which is only an issue with systems designed for larger buildings such as offices. It is a myth that air conditioners in any way “cause” Legionnaires’ disease.

“So how do I make sure I don’t get the disease?”

​First, remember that Legionnaires’ disease is rare. It can’t transfer from person to person, and it’s perfectly possible for someone to be exposed to the bacteria without actually catching the disease.

With that said, there are plenty of sensible cautionary measures that can be taken in order to minimise the risk of the Legionella bacteria spreading through a building. The most important thing is to look at the water system – is the water being stored at temperatures between 20 and 45 degrees centigrade (optimum Legionella breeding conditions)? Is it routinely circulated? Is it rusty, or sludgy, or filled with organic matter and mould? These are all things that can allow the bacteria to multiply. 

It’s important to remind customers that any new system is very unlikely to have any bacteria inside it, and therefore a new air conditioner won’t make them ill. What allows disease to spread is a badly maintained system with rust and dirt building up inside it.

​There is no substitute for rigorous regular maintenance and the implementation of sensible precautions. In the case of a domestic water system, making sure the water is regularly heated to above 60 degrees centigrade is an excellent start.

“How would I know if I did get it?”

​The symptoms, though somewhat flu-like, are quite specific. Most commonly a sufferer will experience fever, chest pains and a cough, and also might encounter achy muscles, headaches, tiredness, a confused mental state, chest pains and shortness of breath. Advise customers to book in with a GP if a combination of these symptoms starts rearing its head.

It’s a complex topic, and you never know what a customer might ask next, but if you stick to these key points then you should be able to reassure even the most avid Googler that their air conditioner poses no risk.

​About the author

​Tony Ellerker has worked in the building services and construction industry for over twenty years. He is currently the director of Blakes M&E Building Services, who provide pre-planned maintenance, reactive repairs and installations of all mechanical and electrical systems throughout London and the South East.