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
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.
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.
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.