As the business community addresses the need to return employees to the workplace, many have asked questions about maximizing the safety, health, and protection of their team members.
What measures can be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19? How can the office space be prepared to ensure a safe return? Are there enhancements that can be made to the existing building system to promote well-being, without sacrificing comfort?
Fortunately, many reputable organizations have independently published guidelines to assist decision makers in developing a strategy for a return to normalcy. The CDC, ASHRAE and OSHA have provided recommendations on a wide array of approaches for returning employees to the workplace. Within the panoply of guidance is a focus on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), with additional suggestions on water treatment. The goal of these measures is to create an environment that leverages existing systems to best safeguard occupants without encumbering the overall operation.
There are four central tenants to the guidelines that fall within the purview of HVAC:
- Increased Ventilation
- Use of Germicidal Irradiation
- Domestic Water Flushing
Three of these directly address Indoor Air Quality, while the final item concerns water quality. The purpose of the IAQ measures is to continually promote the quality of the air during ongoing occupancy. Separately, the water quality recommendations are best followed as a pre-occupancy measure.
The first of the four measures, Filtration, is the easiest to understand, evaluate and implement. As an industry standard, most commercial facilities use MERV 8 filters. The “8” refers to the general filter level and is an indicator of how much particulate matter the filter can extract from the air stream. By upgrading and utilizing filters in the MERV 10 or MERV 13 class, filtration will be greatly increased, and harmful contaminants can be removed from the air stream before they travel through the ductwork. When considering this upgrade, it is important to discuss filter change frequency and system efficiency tradeoffs with an HVAC professional.
Another recommendation is to increase Ventilation throughout the building. This involves adjusting the system controls and units to introduce a higher percentage of outside air to the building during occupancy. This should in turn lower the volume of recirculated air, creating a generally cleaner air environment. Overall, this leads to more frequent air changes which will reduce the probability of re-introducing contaminated air back into the occupied areas. This measure can have the unintended effect of diminished operating range for the adjusted equipment, so a consultation is crucial prior to execution.
A final IAQ item to investigate is the installation of Germicidal Irradiation equipment. These are devices mounted in the existing ductwork which utilize either high intensity UVC specific wavelengths or Ionization technology to charge air particles. The goal of both methods is to break down organisms traveling within the air stream before they can replicate. This technology has been found to be impactful against mold, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Installing Germicidal Irradiation systems can have a permanent long-term positive effect on the overall air quality in a building. However, these devices can be dangerous when not operated by a professional, so an outside consultant is necessary to ensure proper implementation.
The last HVAC recommendation concerns Domestic Water Flushing. Water sitting in vacant or low capacity building infrastructure may have been stagnant for some time. This can create an opportunity for organisms to grow within the pipework that would normally not occur during regular occupancy. Flushing the domestic water lines prior to use in lavatories, kitchen areas and drinking fountains can prevent the transmission of possible contaminants to returning employees. Again, HVAC professionals can help to ensure all the pertinent lines have been fully flushed before use.
As a longtime member of the Pennsylvania business community, McClure Company has grappled with these same issues. We seek to return to a sense of normalcy but want to ensure the work environment is as safe as possible for all our team members. As HVAC professionals, we endeavor to support our community partners with important building operations guidance that impacts the health and safety of occupants during this difficult time. With patience, diligence, and effort the current situation can be overcome.