The Real Cost of Blocked Condensate Drains

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Supermarket giant Tesco this week found out that blocked condensate drains have a very real cost, with an eye-watering fine of £733,333 – almost three-quarters of a million pounds – after a customer slipped and broke their hip in their Hemel Hempstead store.

Tesco received the fine, which is still set to rise further, when costs are added, at Luton Magistrates Court on 24th January for breaching The Health and Safety at Work Act by not ensuring customers and staff were protected from risk.

The fine relates to an incident back in 2015 at the Tesco Extra store in Jarman Way, Hemel Hempstead, where a 91-year-old customer slipped on ‘pooling watery liquid’, which was leaking from refrigerator units.

According to the local authority, Dacorum Borough Council, whose Environmental Health Officers brought the case, the customer fell and suffered multiple hip fractures, and ‘was fortunate to survive such an injury.’

How is this relevant to the refrigeration industry, you might be asking?

Well, the council goes on to spell it out: “The drains had become blocked because of bacteria setting the leakage into a jelly-like consistency, which prevented further liquid passing through.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Drains blocking due to the formation of ‘biofilm EPS’. The severity of the fine was due to the fact that the store failed to put sufficient measures in place.

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I urge you to read the whole statement for yourself by clicking on the link because it covers in detail the huge number of measures the store undertook to try and sort the problem out.

The council says: “The problems first began on 5 June 2015, 63 days before the accident. Over the two months to 6 August, Tesco had its maintenance engineers in several times, but to no material effect, other than that they and other Tesco staff used machines to suck up the liquid, only to have it return because the leaks were continuous, and the blockage was still there (my italics)…”

The magistrate, District Judge Leigh-Smith, concluded that the store management failed to implement a number of options to mitigate the risk, such as switching off the offending display cabinets or putting up barriers – in the end, staff were reduced to putting down cardboard to try to soak up the leaks. As the council notes, this thus introduced a further trip hazard.

The reason the case took so long to be concluded was that Tesco argued that these health and safety breaches were down to local failures at the particular store. But after several hearings and listening to evidence from a number of witnesses and experts, Judge Leigh-Smith disagreed. He found that the maintenance issues should have been identified and addressed at the area management level.

It seems clear from reading this that Tesco, again and again, tried to fix the immediate effects but not the cause. All the maintenance visits were just a sticking plaster over the real problem, which was the formation of biofilm, which was blocking the condensate drains.

Tesco’s fine will probably cause a shudder around the industry because the nature of retail refrigeration makes situations like this an all-too-common problem: There is a complex matrix of firms involved in installation and maintenance of refrigeration: running from the designers and specifiers of the equipment, through the installing contractors and retail merchandisers to the maintenance engineers and FMs and down to the store staff.

That complexity means that any number of people could have ‘caused’ a problem but often the store manager, who is the one most impacted by it, haven’t had any input into it at all.

So in the Tesco case, what was the real cause of its expensive problems? Although the biofilm caused the initial blockage, clearly the complex layers of responsibility caused it to escalate into a real hazard.

Who sorts out the drainage?

The question of ‘who sorts out the drainage?’ is something that has been an issue in retail for many years. Many companies hold that ‘above-ground’ drainage is not the responsibility of the drainage engineers, but the responsibility of the refrigeration contractor, or FM contractor because it is part of the refrigeration ‘equipment’ not the drain.

The gap between the bottom of the chiller and the terrazzo tiles has always been something of a maintenance ‘no man’s land’, but nevertheless, it does come under statutory regulations and needs to be compliant with building regulations for drainage.

This brings us to a more fundamental issue: many chillers aren’t actually compliant. That may surprise many reading this, but it is true – the applicable standards for food retail chillers drains are Part H of the Building Regulations for indoor gravity drainage, prescribed by BS EN 12056.

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Very few companies are aware that this standard applies to condensate drainage. To further complicate matters, there is no specific best practice guidance in the refrigeration industry as to how to install or commission the drains, so that they don’t get blocked by biofilm.

The key purpose of the regulations – and one which would have a massive effect on all those problems that caused Tesco (and its poor customer) such pain – is a functional, serviceable drainage installation, to prescribed standards.

Just to spell this out in black and white, this means any chiller plumbing laid flat to the floor is non-compliant. The same applies to an open connection to below-ground drains. 

But nobody signs the condensate drainage off as compliant (or highlights it as non-compliant, for that matter) because there is currently no industry guidance to tell them to do so.

Of course, I have a reason for highlighting this. We have developed two retrofit products that will bring condensate drains to compliant standards in minutes, and we also manufacture condensate drain tablets proven to prevent biofilm in chiller drains.

But surely what the Tesco experience really highlights is that there needs to be specific industry guidance on drainage – and condensate drains in particular – just as there is for all the other elements of refrigeration systems.

Clear guidance on designing, installing and maintaining the chiller drainage will help cut through all those issues of ‘who sorts out the drainage’, as well as helping to eliminate the problems surrounding condensate blockages.

That way, we can help to eliminate what is now clearly a very costly – and for some, very painful – set of problems.

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