It is said that the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the single biggest driving forces behind the digitalization of industries ever seen. And although not new within HVAC infrastructures – especially within the food retail environment where it has been rolled out extensively – remote management and automation of HVAC systems is increasingly being used to support supermarket responses to COVID-19.

From air filtration through to dynamic scheduling, digitalization of HVAC within the food retail sector is going through something of a renaissance.

Pre-COVID Digitalization

Software solutions that use Internet of Things (IoT) technology to analyze data from HVAC infrastructures, for example, are common in food retail stores. These solutions work by monitoring mission critical aspects of HVAC systems, from simple temperature data through to complex asset monitoring. This data can then either be fed back to the retailer for them to perform their own analysis or, using more advanced IoT technology, can be used to enact automated HVAC outcomes.

Software solutions that use IoT technology to analyze data from HVAC infrastructures are common in food retail stores

From preventing HVAC asset’s overworking – and therefore expending too much energy – through to detecting the first stages of a fault and alerting the relevant maintenance engineers, automation has been shown to deliver numerous benefits. These combine to serve the retailer’s primary purposes; enhancing the consumers in-store experience, improving the bottom line and decreasing energy usage to lower carbon footprint.

But not only is the digitalization of HVAC helping food retailers drive down costs and energy, advances in areas such as air filtration and dynamic scheduling have meant that it is also being seen as a potential solution to COVID-19 related issues.

Filtering Out the Virus

Air filtration is a primary focus when looking for ways to keep internal spaces free from pathogens. While not exactly a new feature for HVAC systems, food retailers have been increasingly working towards implementing or improving their existing air filtration techniques in their stores. The solution to keeping air clean and fresh is actually quite straightforward and relies on the same technology that many stores already use to monitor CO2.

Advances in areas such as air filtration and dynamic scheduling have meant that HVAC is being seen as a potential solution to COVID-19

By connecting CO2 monitors to a central controls panel (the technical way of describing the place where all of the sensor data is collected and, in some cases, analyzed), sensors are able to detect the CO2 levels instore, signal if they begin to drift past a pre-determined base level, and automatically alert the HVAC systems to provide more fresh air into the store.

This is a simple process of optimization. Additional sensors detect when fresh air is either too humid, hot or cold to be filtered into the store and rectify this by automatically adjusting the HVAC. Essentially, monitoring CO2 and air quality levels makes sure the air in a store is constantly fresh and filtered to keep the chances of airborne transmission as low as possible without causing the HVAC systems to expend any more energy than is necessary.

Research has shown that COVID-19 spreads through small respiratory droplets that are released into the air from an infected person when coughing, talking or even breathing. Within a store environment therefore, where surface contamination and proximity to other people are likely to increase the chances of transmitting the virus, optimized fresh air flow to dilute indoor air is desirable. By detecting higher levels of CO2 within the air which in turn increases the chances of pathogens floating around, food retailers can automate their HVAC systems to filtrate the air and significantly reduce chances of transmission.

Dynamic HVAC Response

Air filtration isn’t the only way that food retailers are combining digitalization and HVAC systems to help them navigate the ‘new normal’. With store opening times continually changing, fewer people inside a store at any one time and staff performing additional and stricter clean regimes after hours, the requirements for optimum store temperature have moved from static to dynamic.

Before the pandemic, HVAC systems would have to keep an average non-24 hour store at the optimum temperature for between say, 7am and 11pm, and would have to work a little harder to deliver more air into the store during the lunch time rush and post-work peaks – a mostly predictable routine.

Research has shown that COVID-19 spreads through small respiratory droplets that are released into the air from an infected person

Now, however, with adjusted store schedules and social distancing regulations, the footfall and peak traffic times have changed dramatically. Through digitally enabled remote management of HVAC temperatures and schedules, new schedules could be deployed across the estate at the touch of a button. Real-time monitoring of in-store temperatures and the volume of people inside also enables HVAC systems to run more efficiently by stopping them from filtering in more outside air than is necessary in a shop that contains fewer customers than normal.

IoT solutions are ensuring HVAC infrastructures are running efficiently, saving energy, helping a retailer’s bottom line and most importantly, ensuring the comfort and safety of customers and colleagues. However, as retailers look for solutions to the challenges posed by the post-COVID landscape, digitalized HVAC is breathing fresh air into the industry. From improved air filtration to dynamic schedule monitoring, digitalized HVAC systems are proving to be an important tool in a food retailer’s arsenal as they navigate the new normal.

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version

Author profile

Tim Burke Executive VP, Energy & Operations, Americas, IMS Evolve

Tim Burke has been with IMS Evolve since 2017, supporting the commercialization and successful application of the IMS Evolve platform in the Americas. Prior to IMS Evolve, Tim worked with several IoT startups to develop their offerings within the energy and buildings automation space, which included sales, product development and investment strategy. Tim has an extensive background in automation, having previously run the largest independent distributor of building automation controls in North America, a company he led until it was acquired in 2007. He is an expert on topics including HVAC-R, building and energy automation, and has sat on several technology advancements boards for major firms such as Honeywell and Emerson.

In case you missed it

Could Smart Systems Using Thermal Cameras Replace Thermostats?
Could Smart Systems Using Thermal Cameras Replace Thermostats?

HVAC systems should operate to ensure the comfort of individuals, not based on the temperature in a room. That’s the thinking behind a system devised by researchers that uses thermal cameras to measure the temperatures of faces in a room and adjusts operation of the HVAC system accordingly. Among other things, the scheme shifts the focus away from facilities and toward occupants, who reflect a truer measure of system effectiveness. Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a plan to use thermal cameras along with three-dimensional video cameras and artificial intelligence in lieu of traditional thermostats to control HVAC systems. Human Embodied Autonomous Thermostat The Human Embodied Autonomous Thermostat, or “H.E.A.T.,” system pairs a thermal camera with a 3-D video camera to measure facial temperature and track whether individuals are hot or cold. The temperature data is then fed into a predictive model that compares it with information about occupants’ thermal preferences. When the H.E.A.T. is newly installed, occupants “teach” the system about their preferences by periodically providing feedback via their smartphones on a three-point scale – “too hot,” “too cold” or “comfortable.” After a few days, the system learns their preferences, relates preferences to corresponding facial temperatures, and then operates independently. The system then determines the temperature that will keep the largest number of occupants comfortable with minimum energy expenditure. The University of Michigan study shows how the system can effectively and efficiently maintain the comfort of 10 occupants in a lab setting. The overarching goal is to keep the largest number of occupants comfortable with the least amount of energy expenditure. Flexible Climate Control In the post-COVID-19 age, the approach enables smarter, more flexible climate control that keeps building occupants comfortable without needing to heat and cool entire empty buildings. The more efficient, personalized approach to comfort could conceivably totally replace the use of wall-mounted thermostats. If building occupants need to wear masks and other protective gear, issues of comfort become even more complex The overarching goal is to keep the largest number of occupants comfortable with the least amount of energy expenditure The research was described in a study published in the July 2020 issue of Building and Environment. A key innovation of the approach is the ability to measure an occupant’s comfort level without requiring them to wear any detection devices, and without the need to use a camera for each occupant.     The University of Michigan research team is working with power utility Southern Company to test H.E.A.T. in their Alabama offices, where test cameras are mounted on tripods in the corners of rooms. (Permanent mounting locations would be less conspicuous.) All camera footage is deleted within seconds, thus eliminating concerns about privacy. Smart Home HVAC Tests A key innovation of the approach is the ability to measure an occupant’s comfort level without requiring them to wear any detection devices Another test will take place in an Alabama community of newly constructed smart homes; a residential system could be on the market in the next five years. Tweaks to the system could make it useful in applications beyond homes and offices, such as in hospitals where care providers struggle to stay comfortable wearing masks and protective equipment. H.E.A.T. is available as a licensable technology through the U-M Office of Technology Transfer. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, and the research team has filed patent applications related to the technology. It turns out facial temperature is a good reflection of comfort level; facial blood vessels expand to radiate additional heat if we are too hot and constrict to cool the face if we are too cold.

How HVAC Professionals Can Learn, Adapt, and Successfully Lead COVID Reopening Efforts
How HVAC Professionals Can Learn, Adapt, and Successfully Lead COVID Reopening Efforts

The current Coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding socioeconomic crisis has dealt a brutal blow to public and residential facilities alike, as businesses and management bodies worldwide are challenged to constantly ensure that their spaces are safe and healthy for occupants. As the entire world has been forced to adapt to what’s been commonly referred to as “the new normal,” one broad-ranging area has come into critical focus as a priority with a heightened sense of fear and cognizance around virus transmission: indoor air quality (IAQ). Importance of Indoor Air Quality For HVAC professionals, the importance of indoor air quality and ventilation as it relates to building efficiency and occupant comfort is nothing new, but through the introduction of new technologies and research, the topic of occupancy health and wellness as it directly relates to HVAC systems is constantly evolving and providing fresh information. However, while every facility manager, business owner or landlord wants to create a healthy building, HVAC pros are often subject to a constant push-pull dynamic that must be managed when it comes to balancing costs and utility budgets with optimized performance. Recommending improvements that will make a building healthier but may carry an added costThis conflict between competing demands can be incredibly daunting and taxing for HVAC managers looking to justify their decisions to seek out or implement new solutions. Recommending improvements that will make a building healthier but may carry an added cost, which can be a major challenge during times when budgets may be tighter than ever.The topic of reopening businesses, office buildings, schools and public gathering places has stoked prolonged debate over protocol, timing, and appropriate standards for facility management. While every state and industry will have its own set of circumstances, from an indoor air quality perspective, there are three steps that can be taken to ensure your building is offering the healthiest and smartest environment possible: Know Your Air Understanding what is in the air is the most important first step towards optimizing your building. This is critical in determining how to customize the specific needs of your space when preparing to reopen. The most common misconception about building health is that a “healthy building” has to be a newly-created structure. In reality, a healthy building is a structure where the strengths and weaknesses of the indoor air quality have been assessed, and the proper measures have been taken. HVAC professionals should implore property owners to invest in an IAQ monitoring system that monitors multiple pollutantsThis ensures that any areas lacking have been addressed and optimized - age notwithstanding. This can only be achieved through constant intelligent monitoring and familiarization with what’s in your air. HVAC professionals should implore property owners and leadership to invest in an indoor air quality monitoring system that monitors multiple indoor air pollutants. Our Airthings For Business solution, for example, tracks CO2, humidity, temperature, airborne chemicals, radon, air pressure, and light and provides 24/7 access to data that tracks changes, dangerous levels or inefficiencies over time. Once an issue is identified, HVAC professionals can then implement solutions that are curated towards a specific problem. The best part? Taking action by investing in monitoring will actually create perpetual energy savings in the future. On average, spending $40 on improving air quality in a building results in a $6,500 productivity gain. Understanding what is in the air is the most important first step towards optimizing your building Healthy Humidity When developing a reopening strategy, perhaps no indoor air quality component is more important to monitor closely than humidity. The reason humidity is so critical is because studies have proven a direct, established link between the facilitation of seasonal respiratory virus transmission, particularly flu, and the level of humidity in the air. When humidity levels are too low, it means indoor air is dry, which allows airborne drops of water and flakes of skin that contain virions and bacteria to stay airborne longer and travel farther, and tend to be resilient enough to remain infectious. In regions heavily affected by Coronavirus, such as the US Sun Belt, people spend their entire summer days breathing in circulated cooled airThis threat is compounded with the fact that public facilities such as large office buildings that operate with central air conditioning tend to have exceedingly dry air, especially in regions heavily affected by Coronavirus, such as the US Sun Belt, where most people spend their entire summer days breathing in circulated cooled air. While the CDC recommends property managers maintain humidity levels in between 30-50%, other scientific bodies disagree and believe that 40-60% is the optimal target zone. Research from Yale, among many leading institutions, has proven that indoor humidity levels which fall below the range of 40 to 60% can dramatically increase the spread of airborne viruses, including COVID-19. In fact, Dr. Stephanie Taylor, an infection control consultant for Harvard Medical School and a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force, has been leading a petition called 40 to 60%RH, urging the World Health Organization to establish concrete humidity standards within these parameters for public spaces. The evidence is clear that humidity levels are paramount when establishing a safe indoor environment. Ventilate In addition to focusing on humidity, ensuring the presence of proper ventilation will be a core element of any reopening strategy. When it comes to virus transmission, stale air is the enemy, and poor ventilation can also cause harmful toxins such as CO2, VOCs and radon to accumulate. The best way to manage a ventilation strategy is by monitoring and extracting data-based evidence, and deploying a tailored solution to address your issues. For airborne pollutants (also known as VOCs), monitoring their levels will give you data that indicate if you should increase ventilation, reduce the use of products that emit them or to more regularly replace air filters in your indoor fan systems. In an environment where we are in close proximity, such as the workplace, high concentrations of CO2 can build up if the air is not ventilated properly. While HVAC professionals obviously understand the importance of ventilation, operation costs clearly play a factor in strategy. Most ventilation systems run the entire day, regardless of building occupancy, which can quickly double the cost of energy, maintenance and wear on the ventilation system. It will also lead to spending much more energy on heating as the air is often delivered undercooled. Ways to potentially mitigate this would be to invest in a technology solution that offers smart monitoring of occupancy and overall air quality, or seek out alternative HVAC products such as a standalone heat recovery ventilator (HRV) instead of a one-way fan to save energy and maintain comfort. Conclusion In conclusion, between the pressures of reopening highly frequented buildings and ensuring an indoor environment that is optimized to prevent viral spread, the expertise and assistance of HVAC professionals has never been more valuable. By taking a proactive approach towards indoor air quality, achieving a balance between occupant health and operational bottom lines is well within reach.

What Has Been the Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the HVAC Market?
What Has Been the Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the HVAC Market?

Welcome to our Expert Panel Roundtable, a new feature of We will be asking timely questions about the HVAC market and seeking out experts in the field to provide responses. Our goal is to promote a useful exchange of information on a variety of topics and to create a forum for discussion of important issues facing the industry. Launching this new feature in the middle of a global pandemic made choosing our first question quite easy. We asked our Expert Panel Roundtable: What has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the HVAC market?