Domestic hot-water boilers harbour active thermophilic bacterial communities distinctly different from those in the cold-water supply

Thomas Egli, Lena Campostrini, Mats Leifels, Hans Peter Füchslin, Claudia Kolm, Cheng Dan, Stefan Zimmermann, Vivian Hauss, Alexandre Guiller, Luigino Grasso, Adrian Shajkofci, Andreas h. Farnleitner, Alexander Kirschner

Publikation: Beitrag in Fachzeitschrift (peer-reviewed)Artikel in Fachzeitschrift


Running cold and hot water in buildings is a widely established commodity. However, interests regarding hygiene and microbiological aspects had so far been focussed on cold water. Little attention has been given to the microbiology of domestic hot-water installations (DHWIs), except for aspects of pathogenic Legionella. World-wide, regulations consider hot (or warm) water as ‘heated drinking water’ that must comply (cold) drinking water (DW) standards. However, the few reports that exist indicate presence and growth of microbial flora in DHWIs, even when supplied with water with disinfectant residual. Using flow cytometric (FCM) total cell counting (TCC), FCM-fingerprinting, and 16S rRNA-gene-based metagenomic analysis, the characteristics and composition of bacterial communities in cold drinking water (DW) and hot water from associated boilers (operating at 50 – 60 °C) was studied in 14 selected inhouse DW installations located in Switzerland and Austria. A sampling strategy was applied that ensured access to the bulk water phase of both, supplied cold DW and produced hot boiler water. Generally, 1.3- to 8-fold enhanced TCCs were recorded in hot water compared to those in the supplied cold DW. FCM-fingerprints of cold and corresponding hot water from individual buildings indicated different composition of cold- and hot-water microbial floras. Also, hot waters from each of the boilers sampled had its own individual FCM-fingerprint. 16S rRNA-gene-based metagenomic analysis confirmed the marked differences in composition of microbiomes. E.g., in three neighbouring houses supplied from the same public network pipe each hot-water boiler contained its own thermophilic bacterial flora. Generally, bacterial diversity in cold DW was broad, that in hot water was restricted, with mostly thermophilic strains from the families Hydrogenophilaceae, Nitrosomonadaceae and Thermaceae dominating. Batch growth assays, consisting of cold DW heated up to 50 – 60 °C and inoculated with hot water, resulted in immediate cell growth with doubling times between 5 and 10 h. When cold DW was used as an inoculum no significant growth was observed. Even boilers supplied with UVC-treated cold DW contained an actively growing microbial flora, suggesting such hot-water systems as autonomously operating, thermophilic bioreactors. The generation of assimilable organic carbon from dissolved organic carbon due to heating appears to be the driver for growth of thermophilic microbial communities. Our report suggests that a man-made microbial ecosystem, very close to us all and of potential hygienic importance, may have been overlooked so far. Despite consumers having been exposed to microbial hot-water flora for a long time, with no major pathogens so far been associated specifically with hot-water usage (except for Legionella), the role of harmless thermophiles and their interaction with potential human pathogens able to grow at elevated temperatures in DHWIs remains to be investigated.

Seiten (von - bis)121109
FachzeitschriftWater Research
PublikationsstatusAngenommen/Im Druck - 01 Jan. 2024


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