— By Elizabeth Orlieb —
HVAC systems are no longer an afterthought post COVID-19 lockdown.
Discussions on HVAC systems and maintenance best practices have become prominent amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With this development comes the recognition that HVAC in commercial buildings can no longer be an afterthought post COVID-19 lockdown, particularly as it relates to adhering to maintenance best practices and enhancing maintenance programs.
Business owners, facility managers and maintenance personnel need to be aware and know the implications of the new recommended HVAC controls for COVID-19 mitigation.
While there are other control methods, such as social distancing and increasing disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, that take more importance in ensuring a safe indoor environment HVAC control methods have undoubtedly become a focal point amongst stakeholders.
The Role of HVAC in COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts
Amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous stakeholders were debating the role HVAC systems play in virus transmission. In fact, speculations and rumors soared. As an example, at one point, some were asking if air-conditioning systems should be turned off.
As a result, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) published two official statements: (1) a statement on airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and (2) a statement on the operation of HVAC systems to reduce virus transmission. The former statement deems airborne transmission of COVID-19 “sufficiently likely” and that HVAC operational changes can reduce airborne exposures.
Both statements, along with crucial information on building reopening and operational best practices, can be found on ASHRAE’s COVID-19 Preparedness Resources website: http://www.ashrae.org/covid19.
Recommended HVAC Management in Commercial Buildings
The HVAC management strategies that are being looked at pertain to filtration and ventilation as well as temperature and humidity control.
Buildings should consider increasing air filtration to as high as possible; in fact, in some situations, MERV 13 filters are being recommended. The applicable filter rating for your business depends on the HVAC system type, as this improvement should not significantly diminish the design airflow.
Of course, enhancing air filtration comes with maintenance requirements.
Ensure you change your filters at the right time and in accordance with your preventative maintenance plan. The fact that higher quality filters are now being recommended means that there’s a higher probability of these filters clogging sooner.
As a result, set alerts and reminders accordingly; keep a log of filter change outs.
As you increase fresh air in a building, it will put additional demand on your ventilation. That’s why it’s important to keep track of your maintenance round data, and watch the trends.
Temperature and Humidity Control
As indoor temperature and humidity set points are also scrutinized (e.g., recent guidance entertains 40% to 60% RH), you should be aware of the impact these changes could have on your units as well.
Ensure Proper Asset Tracking Now
The specifics of these recommendations depend on the building and equipment type. What is consistent regardless is the fact that these new strategies will put additional strain on systems, and you need to have a way to measure what’s happening overtime.
Because, just as you’re trying to return to some sense of new normal, the last thing you would want is for your HVAC system to underperform — or worse, fail.
Plus, likely there’s already strain on an HVAC system; for instance, keep in mind that an excessive refrigerant leak rate does so. And we know that the average refrigerant leak rate is 25% in the U.S., so most systems indeed already endure strain from this.
Thus, the days of waiting for intermittent service visits to check on your HVAC system are over. You want to have a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on, so you don’t get caught off guard with system failure.
Ultimately, unplanned operational upsets due to HVAC systems can be avoided through proper asset tracking. In the post COVID-19 lockdown, the HVAC lesson is you must manage your HVAC systems before they manage you.
— With an extensive background in HVAC/R public affairs and communications, Elizabeth Ortlieb serves as the content strategist and policy analyst for Trakref, where she tracks policy trends and provides updates to multi-level stakeholders. She can be reached at [email protected].