Candid Discussions About Indoor Air Quality

Improving indoor air quality has shifted from a consideration to an imperative. That’s what facilities executives tell us as they build plans for healthier, more resilient buildings.

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ABM EnhancedFacility

By Deborah Hetrick

Since the start of the pandemic, ABM teams have been working closely with facilities executives to create strategies and deploy plans to help keep people safe from viral spread. With ​research now suggesting that COVID-19 droplets may remain in the air and could be a primary source of transmission, the ​conversation has expanded to indoor air quality.

What we hear in one-on-ones with executives is that the inherent complexities, costs, and data gaps associated with indoor air quality raise a consistent set of concerns. There is much to learn in how facilities and their engineering teams are gathering and using information to establish a strategic approach tailored to their buildings and industry.

Across these very candid conversations, four points frequently emerge.

1. Indoor air quality is complex to measure and manage.

HVAC is one of the most complex systems for facilities to manage because it goes deep into the system itself, but also factors the age of the building, ability to bring in 100% outdoor air, air return rates, climate, humidity, and other factors.

What had been a focus on climate control has escalated into a deep understanding of whether the air management system is resilient enough to help reduce airborne pollutants, including pathogens like COVID-19. “Playing an ugly game of catchup,” is a fair characterization of what people say.

indoor air qualitySo where does a facility team start?

The best steps are for the facilities director, engineering teams, and building owners to get together to understand and document the specifications and issues of their HVAC system from air exchange rates to filters and maintenance ​before​ exploring options and technologies to improve indoor air quality. A collaboration between these teams is crucial because it creates a common source of truth to attack the problem quickly and in unison.

2. A factual baseline is your best starting point.

Indoor air quality lacks clear, comprehensive standards. The complexity of the issue leaves most facility teams with a gap in data to define the potential problems and then devise solutions.

The questions that come up meeting after meeting: ​“We need to improve air quality to what level?” “What’s most important for my building?” “What are the dependencies and impact on the overall system if I start making improvements?”

Having metrics on key IAQ indicators such as temperature, carbon dioxide concentrations, air-exchange rates, and indoor humidity levels, establish a factual baseline to evaluate the wellness of your facility and its unique conditions.

The comprehensive ABM ​Healthy Building Risk Assessment Tool​ was developed alongside an Expert Advisory Council made up of experts in infectious disease, industrial hygiene, and facilities management. With backgrounds in healthcare and high hazard industrial settings, they focus on a systematic approach to optimize air quality, define building IAQ baselines, and collaborate with facility executives to develop solutions.

An 11-question framework delivers hard data to help executives assess and identify IAQ challenges to make informed decisions, prioritize documentation, identify best next steps, and provide fact-based evidence for their stakeholders and executive teams. The framework questions:

  • Categorize facility risk exposure.​ Your facility’s overall risk level is identified as low, medium, high or very high.
  • Identify highest priorities.​ Your facility’s specific risk level defines the most important and effective strategies to take.
  • Develop targeted solutions based on risk level for maintenance, lighting, and HVAC systems. ​A report of fact-based recommendations helps you form a comprehensive, short- and long-term strategy for reopening and operating more safely.

Facilities teams find that the dialogue from answering these questions is as valuable as the answers. There is often a push/pull between engineering and business directors as they discuss the issues, needs, and priorities. The benefit is that both teams get new information and critical detail on what is known and unknown about their building’s indoor air quality and systems.

3. Problems first, solutions next.

“Is the solution HEPA filters?” “Do we need to add new technology?” “What about UV lighting?”

Because COVID-19 is a new threat, it’s easy to assume that new tech is required. Clients tell us that there is a lot of noise in the marketplace related to IAQ solutions. It’s important to use risk assessment data diagnostically to identify the true problems and priorities before determining the mix of solutions your building needs. These are some of the technologies to know about.

  • Ultra-violet (UV)-C light is one of the most recognized technologies. ​Applied in different ways, UV-C can inactivate harmful microorganisms, but requires specialized training and installation and strict attention to safety features, application procedures, and controls. Improperly deployed, it can damage outer surfaces of skin and eyes.
  • Upper Room UV-C​ has the longest track record. It uses special fixtures to irradiate air at seven feet or higher for safe indoor use. It is successfully used to control the spread of airborne pathogens in hospitals, prisons and government buildings.
  • Fixed-air handling unit UV-C​ directs a light fixture on HVAC drain pans and cooling coils where pathogens may flourish. ​Having a higher dose through 360-degree application is needed if wanting to impact circulating air.
  • Installed UV lighting ​is the latest innovation. Its 222-nanometer light source is safer for the skin and eyes. This technology is promising for downlighting, but requires knowledge of room contents and occupancy patterns to effectively inactivate viruses. Like other UV-C options, operational safeguards must be deployed.
  • Bipolar ionization​ relies on electrically charged oxygen ions to inactivate pathogens. When injected into indoor forced air via the HVAC system, ions group fine particles into filterable clusters to break down harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and inactivate microorganisms. They are effective on a broad range of airborne contaminants and unpleasant odors. Large industrial facilities and buildings in areas with poor outdoor air quality have been among the primary users, with applications increasing during this pandemic. It is vital to use technologies that have been vetted for occupant safety.
  • MERV 13 and HEPA filters ​are designed to remove more particulates than the MERV 6 or 8 filters that are designed and installed for typical commercial HVAC systems. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends MERV 13 or higher filters to help mitigate infectious aerosols. Systems capable of supporting highly efficient particle filtration (HEPA) filters provide even more protection for your occupants. Note that higher rated MERV and HEPA filters also require greater air pressure. Some HVAC systems lack the capacity to accommodate higher pressure loads. A thorough design review is advised before making changes, along with system testing, balancing, and understanding airflow patterns. This is an area where facilities and engineering decision makers must align.

Again, use risk data to define the best solutions to improve indoor air quality.indoor air quality

4. Developing ​your​ strategy for IAQ priorities, timeline, and budget.

In meeting with facility executives and seeing data in aggregate, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improve indoor air quality. There are too many variables. Understanding this is important, because it helps you frame up a strategic approach customized for your buildings, priorities, timelines, and budgets.

The ABM EnhancedFacility​™ program was designed to take the guesswork out of improving indoor air quality with a fact-based approach to overall building health. Recommendations are based on what your buildings and occupants need holistically versus solving just part of the complex problem.

For some facilities, solutions can be straightforward and fast to implement. Our risk assessment data points to where to make immediate improvements.

For older facilities with dated systems, the solution may require a comprehensive, strategic plan, prioritized steps for retrofitting equipment, and financial strategies for capital expenditures or securing capital to fund the project over time. Our risk assessment data and consulting from our engineering teams identify priorities and the sequential steps required to retrofit or replace systems to improve indoor air quality.

For most facilities, the solution falls somewhere in between with a mix of steps that can be taken immediately along with longer range plans.

ABM services more than six billion square feet of buildings every day and works with more than 50% of Fortune 500 companies. With 100,000 employees and offices around the country, a significant part of our services are in HVAC and mechanical which work in complement with our depth in facilities engineering and janitorial services. Our national presence keeps us on top of federal, state, and local guidelines related to the pandemic.

Our scale also gives us access to ​public and private loan programs which could be paid for by savings realized with a Professional Service Agreement (PSA).

Facts And Transparency

At some point in 2021, building occupancy will start to progressively expand. As people return, they will have a heightened state of caution about the health of your building. In listening to facilities executives, it is clear that keeping people safe is a top priority along with balancing operational and financial factors.indoor air quality

Indoor air quality is an issue they want to understand at a deeper level to ensure their buildings are more resilient. Many are using the early months of 2021 to get information to refine or formulate IAQ strategies, and set resource and budget priorities to help ensure overall building health. ​As facility executives understand, COVID-19 is not the last of pandemics and now is the time to build ​the​ resiliency of their buildings.

Deborah Hetrick is Senior Vice President for ABM. She can be reached at

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