Over the last two years, your commercial property may not have had but a percentage of the occupants it had before 2020. Many commercial buildings will never see their historically highest rate of occupancy again with staggered scheduling, remote, and hybrid work schedules. The fact remains, however, that more people are returning to the physical workplace as we progress through 2022.
There is an enhanced awareness of Indoor Air Quality (IAC) in a very recently post-pandemic world.
When addressing Indoor Air Quality, human health & safety is of course the top priority. It has to be. But at what cost? As with any other part of your business, the cost does matter and must be factored into your planning & execution. While so-called “clean rooms” used in medical research or the manufacture of computer chips are necessary for these types of industries, they come with a high operational cost to create & sustain these hyper-sanitary conditions. These are the extremes on the Indoor Air Quality spectrum. There are likewise, suitable solutions for other types of business and industries.
In our last blog, we dove into many of the pitfalls of maintaining adequate Indoor Air Quality (IAC). In this edition, we’ll spend some time discussing a variety of techniques and technological improvements to improve your IAC that can minimize cost while maximizing efficiency.
Newer technologies can help you balance cost & performance.
UVC light does kill most viruses & bacteria, according to the EPA.
The UVC light does need to be shielded from human exposure, no different than when we put on sunscreen when we go to the beach … it’s the UV light that damages the skin, upon prolonged exposure. A UVC light can be a stand-alone unit or a series of units. It can also be a series of panels installed in the ceiling throughout your building. Or this technology can be added to your current HVAC/Air Handler. Costs range from a few hundred dollars for stand-alone units, to tens of thousands for large-scale industrial installs. The high rate of efficacy combined with the relatively low cost to operate & maintain makes UVC light technology a very attractive option for commercial applications. A study by Columbia University found that 99.9% of coronavirus can be killed with exposure to UVC light.
Ionized Hydrogen Peroxide, or iHP. This is a developing technology based on old-school medicine cabinet home remedies. Liquid hydrogen peroxide has been used for generations to sanitize cuts. Now, some manufacturers are leveraging an ionized version of hydrogen peroxide, injected into the air stream, to sanitize the air. We’ll follow this emerging technology and report back again later.
We all have a thermostat in our homes and in our office buildings to regulate the temperature automatically without the need for constant human monitoring & intervention. Many of us are also familiar with a humidistat, which similarly monitors the humidity, meaning moisture level, and it also adjusts automatically & accordingly. Many of us now use “Alexa” to control special devices to switch on lights and the A/C. Smart Technology in commercial buildings today can monitor and adjust not only temperature & humidity, but now the levels of Particulate Matter, CO2 levels, and “VOC” … volatile organic compounds present in the air.
Volatile Organic Compounds are defined by the EPA as, “compounds that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility.” https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs.
That’s a technical definition.
In the EPA link referenced above, the article states that VOCs are more commonly known to us as the vapors given off by, “… paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.”
In other words, commonplace items are found in almost any sort of office or commercial building, and not just in a facility where they are manufactured, but in the everyday workplace where they are used.
This takes us back to our Smart Sensors. These devices can monitor and track in real–time potentially offending compounds present in the air and can effectively ramp up or ramp down a variety of air handling and conditioning features. This allows you to condition & maximize air quality without the unnecessary expense of running all these features 24/7.
We all run the exhaust fan over our stove while we are cooking. But we don’t let it run when we’re not. It’s not necessary, it wastes energy, and it shortens the life of the fan. Smart Technology in a commercial building can be looked at the same way…only running the right equipment at the proper time, for the proper length of time.
“Most often overlooked in properly addressing Indoor Air Quality is the proper injection of FRESH AIR.
The addition of an “Economizer” to your legacy equipment or installing new equipment which already has this technology will:
- save you money on cooling
- bring in fresh outdoor air when appropriate
- keep you in compliance with ASHRAE code with regards to the amount of fresh air that must be a part of your Commercial Building’s overall Air Handling Plan.”
Steve Kroedel, Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Solutions Specialist
Founder and CEO, Eco-Cool HVAC
Ventilation. Increasing the introduction of outdoor air.
Modern buildings are designed to be relatively air-tight, with an eye toward energy efficiency. This can cause a “stale air” situation, however, if the air is only being recirculated and not being supplemented with a supply of fresh, outdoor air. There are a variety of tools available to introduce outdoor air:
- Simple considerations we may already use at home: opening existing windows and doors. In warehouses or shops, these might include rollup doors that can be opened partially or completely to allow for maximum airflow.
- Roof Vents. The upper-most part of your building’s interior will be subject to the highest temperature & humidity. Roof vents will improve this condition and will place less of a strain on your HVAC System, meaning a more efficient use of proper air handling & conditioning.
- Exhaust fans. Used to push stale, indoor air, outside. Nature does not like a vacuum…expelling a portion of the indoor air will naturally result in the intake of outdoor air.
- The use of outdoor air dampers allows for fresh, outdoor air to be introduced to the indoor air. As simple as mechanically operated louvers, to sophisticated, electronically controlled air dampers as part of your overall HVAC System.
- The use of an “economizer” in your overall air handling plan.
- As noted in the quote above, these are becoming part of the standardized ASHRAE ‘code’. https://www.ashrae.org/technical-resources/ashrae-standards-and-guidelines
- The more sophisticated ones heavily self-monitor, so that they are not introducing hot, humid outdoor air into your cooled, dehumidified indoor air.
- They allow for the timed & metered introduction of outdoor air into your building
- They will save you money in general operating costs and extend the equipment life of your HVAC, as the compressor will run less
- More reading from the CDC on ventilation: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/ventilation.html
Ozone generators & Ionizers… not so much.
Ozone Generators & Ionizers are different technologies but are often combined into a single unit.
I thought I’d mention these, as they sometimes come up in conversations about IAC. With Ozone Generators, levels safe for humans are far too low to have a significant effect on viruses and bacteria. And conversely, at levels that DO have a significant effect on viruses and bacteria, they are unsafe for human co-habitation. They CAN be effectively used in unoccupied spaces … and sometimes are after a fire … then allowing the excess ozone to dissipate before people go back into the building.
Ionizers ‘charge’ the particles in the air with an electrical current that causes particulate matter to ‘stick’ or ‘glom’ together. The theory is that they will then fall out of the air. Problem is, they tend to ‘stick’ on almost any surface: walls, curtains, level surfaces. It’s sort of trading-off one type of dust or particulate for another.
Here are two links to the EPA about Ozone Generators & Ionizers:
https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air- quality-iaq/ozone-generators-are-sold-air- cleaners#:~:text=Available%20scientific%20evidence%20shows%20that%2C%20at%20concentrations%2 0that%20do%20not,removing%20most%20indoor%20air%20contaminants.
Let’s refresh ourselves on the Low-Hanging Fruit:
- Clean & Efficient. Keep all of your Air Handling Equipment clean and running at peak efficiency. Yes, this means regular cleaning and servicing of the equipment, as well as cleaning/replacement of filtration media. Consider an upgrade to HEPA filtration for maximum efficiency.
- Duct Cleaning. Related to the above, if your Air Handling Equipment is the “heart”…pumping away in your building…the miles of ductwork are like the veins & arteries. And just like our veins & arteries which are subject to the buildup of plaque, so is your building’s ductwork subject to buildup. Three things are immediately apparent with the buildup in ducts:
- 1) You are robbing your system of its peak efficiency. It must work harder to move the air through an ever-shrinking diameter.
- 2) Redistribution of filth. All of that “junk” that’s stuck to the inside of your ductwork is now a part of the air you breathe in the building. Major allergy alert.
- 3) Fire. While more likely to occur in a residential setting from a plugged dryer vent, the possibility is still there in a commercial building.
- HEPA filters in your vacuums. If your commercial property has carpeting, the use of HEPA filtration in your vacuum will capture more particulate matter, rather than sucking it up and spreading it around, as is often the case with cheaper filters/filter bags. It’s the particulate matter that you don’t see … the microscopic matter … that only HEPA can effectively capture.
- Don’t just recirculate the stale indoor air, exchange it in part for filtered outdoor air. Refer back to earlier parts of this blog for effective means.
- Speaking of “low-hanging fruit” … as an avid gardener, I was ready to add the benefits of indoor houseplants for the improvement of IAC. Unfortunately, if you search for “indoor houseplants improve air quality”, you’ll be as disappointed as I was. Seems as though you would need to turn your workspace into a veritable greenhouse to have any significant impact. Still, the psychological impact of having living things in the workplace, aside from your co-workers, makes it worth your time.
- Pest Control. Many classifications of commercial buildings are required to have a pest management company under contract. Even if yours does not, consider it. Urine & Fecal matter from rodents can carry a dizzying array of pathogens. https://www.cdc.gov/rodents/diseases/direct.html. One example is the hantavirus. “People get HPS when they breathe in hantaviruses. This can happen when rodent urine and droppings that contain a hantavirus are stirred up into the air.” Preventing rodents from being present in your building in the first place will eliminate this urine and feces borne virus from contaminating your IAC. https://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/pdf/hps_brochure.pdf
- Take out the trash. Indoor Air Quality takes, well, “quality” of life issues into consideration. Maintain a regular schedule of taking out the trash and periodically cleaning the trash receptacles. Unpleasant odors are a part of poor indoor air quality, too. Even if you’re not breeding a potential pathogen, your officemate does NOT need to know you had microwaved Tilapia for lunch … just by walking into your office and taking a “whiff”.
- That beautiful Spring Day when you switch on your car’s Air Conditioner for the 1st time in 6 months. I probably don’t have to elaborate. We all know what that smells like. If your building has been locked up tighter than a drum for two years, and you’re preparing for the return of workers, clean those ducts, clean or replace those filters, ventilate the building as best you can, and run the system before your unsuspecting staff returns for their 1st day back in over a year … or two.