As businesses prepare to return to work, CREs are staring at an operational revamp of varying scales to quickly adapt their building systems for occupant safety and building efficiency. But given the role of HVAC in impacting C-19 spread, emphasizing HVAC health is at the heart of evolving strategies.

If there’s an outbreak within a building, owners will be forced to shut down the entire building. Not only will this disrupt business continuity, but also augment community spread of the infection.

To this effect, professional associations like ASHRAE, BOMA, ISHRAE have issued guidelines to help building owners maintain HVAC operating protocols. Vested with the paramount responsibility of occupier safety, property owners should be agile and meticulous in adopting these preventative measures to curb the viral spread and secure property value.

For modern properties that function within glassed walls, how effectively they comply with the protocols, and thereby, maintain IAQ(Indoor Air Quality), will play a huge role in luring back remote workforce from safe homes to are-they-really-safe workplaces.

Here are 5 steps to prepare and operate HVAC based on guidelines from regulatory bodies-

 

1. Conduct assessments and checks to evaluate operational ability

As you try to kickstart systems from dormancy, it’s critical to carefully assess risk exposure with existing infrastructure and their readiness to meet new guidelines. Experts opine that shut down-induced contamination in ducts and air spaces may hinder the HVAC system from sufficient fresh air intake and ventilation. This poses serious health hazards to building inmates.

So here’s a concise checklist to get started with HVAC reboot before buildings are re-occupied-

  • Run preventive maintenance on all units for complete disinfection of components, like filters, grilles, diffusers, indoor unit coils, and so on.
  • Inspect fans, dampers, water quality, pump operations, etc. for condition assessment.
  • Observe safety measures and ensure compliance with pre-requisites to reduce the risk associated with workers replacing possibly infected filters.
  • Check on water quality in chillers and boilers.
  • Recommissioning your HVAC systems is desirable to ensure the HVAC systems are safe and operating as designed. (Retrocommissioning is recommended if it was never commissioned before).

 

2. Maintain fresh air circulation to provide clean air

It can’t be stressed enough that increased ventilation can greatly reduce the risk of infection. It helps expel polluted or stale indoor air. Recirculated stale air, on the other hand, can expose a person to potentially infective respiratory droplets for a prolonged time.
This is the time to prioritize indoor air quality even if it takes extra effort/capital. Some effective steps to deploy this measure, while also dealing with the immediate effects, are outlined below-

  • ASHRAE recommends running systems for longer hours to minimize recirculated air for occupants.
  • Install additional fresh air ducts if buildings don’t have adequate ventilation.
  • Avert increased moisture by monitoring humidity levels and maintaining a balance of outdoor and exhaust airflows. Remote IAQ monitoring tools can prove very helpful in validating preferred ventilation.
  • Run the HVAC system in 100% airside economizer mode when there are occupants.

  • Automation expert Phil Zito cautions building operators to prepare for increased wear and tear of equipment owing to longer operational hours. Data-rich insights from intelligent analytics can provide great help in optimizing assets to deter mundane faults and repairs.
  • For buildings with less complex HVAC systems, keeping doors and windows open is a simple yet highly effective way for natural ventilation. Keep AC systems switched off. A bonus is this doesn’t even need risk assessment on a site-by-site basis.

 

CDC Air Change Clearance Rates for facilities/maintenance

 

3. Step up on improving air filtration and cleaning

Protocols mandate frequent cleaning and changing of air filters in HVAC for optimum air quality. Krissi Hewitt, a researcher on microbial life in offices, emphasizes that filtration has an impact on how contaminants flow through the air. Incidentally, this also supports good performance and energy efficiency. Costly repairs when components strain to purify air through dirty filters – an unwarranted OPEX overhead amid strained margins – are kept at bay. To achieve this –

  • Change filters as scheduled or more frequently based on the clog status of the filter. This can be monitored in real-time by IoT platforms to auto-generate work requests.
  • Perform preliminary checks to find if the AHU system can accommodate a higher efficiency filter(like MERV-15) for improved IAQ. Check if the fans make up for the decreased airflow with increased speed. 
  • If a system can’t handle high-MERV filters, due to issues like undersized ductwork, perform ductwork modifications to implement better filtration.
  • Closely supervise proper disposing of all used filter components per the guidelines. PPE(Personal Protective Equipment) should be worn by technicians while servicing/replacing dirty filters. These filters should be sealed in plastic bags for disposal.
  • Install portable room air cleaners with HEPA filter and perform UV germicidal irradiation for added protection to occupiers.

 

4. Keep a close watch on temperature and humidity conditions

Growing research consistently points to a weakening of the virus in good air humidity. Preferred conditions for building temperature and humidity may vary depending upon regional climate. It’s best for property owners to seek local authority guidelines to accurately capture the acceptable setpoint range.

  • ISHRAE recommends a temperature setpoint between 24°C and 30°C. 
  • Maintain a relative humidity between 40% and 70%. (In humid climates, use fans to increase air movement). In dry climates, do not allow relative humidity to fall below 40%. 
  • Data-driven systems can eliminate tedious manual inspection routines to prevent out-of-range setpoint deviations. With technology-enabled supervisory controls, property owners can automatically monitor and control systems conforming with minimized outdoor exposure and regulatory compliance.

 

5. Ensure sustained efficiency and compliance with the new remote world

Though it’s a one-time effort to reassess HVAC operations, adjusting schedules, re-aligning the O&M framework around it, and the entire exercise can prove futile if property operators do not have access to dynamic and remote control of automation systems in place – considering the substantial investment of time and spend associated with efficiency loss and the risk to health with on-site changes to systems. On top of it, regulatory bodies are penalizing violators with hefty fines for non-compliance to building norms. In this context,

  • IoT-based remote operations with portfolio-wide Fault Detection and Diagnostics can continuously course-correct equipment behavior and normalize operations in real-time.
  • Adopt workflows that automate anomaly resolution to field-service personnel.
  • Find nimble tech-enabled ways to operate HVAC that complies with on-demand tenant needs –  based on occupancy, space occupied, and season.
  • Leverage systems that harness HVAC data (and all automation data) to provide deeper analytics and reporting, encourage stakeholder communication, and overall better control over portfolio performance.

 

Facilio’s centralized FDD ensures consistent performance compliance of equipment
Facilio supports picture carousel cards and real-time maintenance score display for digitized disinfection routines

Conclusion:

As HVAC operating procedures shift towards occupant safety and well-being, a holistic tightening of operational strings in a real estate portfolio is called for. With properties operating in multiple patterns- some with old HVAC systems that struggle to maintain higher levels of ventilation, some with operations teams grappling with inefficient models – the revised guidelines are not low-hanging fruits, to say the least.

Under these circumstances, innovative solutions like digitized disinfection at scale, dynamic HVAC control, portfolio-wide automation, and centralized remote operations can provide immense support for quickly adapting your operations. It’s your best bet for simplifying overwhelming O&M and responding to tenants with agility in the post-pandemic world!