FM Frequency: There’s Something In The Air…Or Is There?

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the June 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

It’s 3:00 p.m. Friday, and veteran Facility Manager (fm) Tracy is wrapping up a detailed space utilization presentation for an emergency executive committee meeting Monday morning. She’s typically anxious when summoned to these meetings, but not this time. This week her organization landed a major new client, and department managers are energized after almost a year of workforce reductions, budget cuts, and chronic bad news.

A friendly e-mail alert fades in and out of her peripheral vision. She glances to the lower right corner of the screen and detects the red exclamation point. Pete, the human resources (HR) manager, needs to speak with her ASAP. He offers no details in the message—not a good sign. Remembering that it’s Friday afternoon, “Probably a termination and access badge deactivation,” she assumes silently.

She dials Pete’s extension and learns that two accountants on the ninth floor have complained to their manager about the building’s indoor air quality (IAQ). They’ve both had headaches and flu-like symptoms in the past 30 days and reported that co-workers are sniffling and coughing more than usual.

“Thanks for letting me know,” Tracy says and continues, “We will, of course, take this inquiry very seriously, but we should recognize that most of our staffers have been heavily exposed to overly dramatic newspaper and television reporting of our local high school’s sick building syndrome diagnosis. Many of those students’ parents work here.”

“Very true,” responds Pete. He continues, “We’ll follow your lead regarding next steps. I know you’ve been through this drill a few times, and you’ve always handled it in a sensitive and professional manner. What would you like me to tell their manager?”

“Please tell her we’ll begin running building diagnostics tonight and over the weekend. Also, if these aren’t anonymous complaints, I would really like to meet each individual to ask a few questions and share some facts about our strategy for preventing IAQ concerns—especially the type they may have heard about at the high school.”

It’s now 4:45 p.m., and Tracy calls her chief engineer. “Hi Jack. Sorry to bother you, but we have an IAQ inquiry on the ninth floor. I’m planning to meet with the accounting manager and hopefully the concerned individuals next week. How is our staffing this weekend? What can you tell me by Monday at lunch time? And how much more time will we need to complete a thorough investigation?”

Jack responds, “I’ll spend some time reviewing the EPA’s IAQ Manual over the weekend and make sure our checklists are current. We can complete physical inspections this weekend and see how much historical data our systems can provide. We’ll probably need time next week for additional diagnostics when the space is fully occupied. You’ll have a status report by 11:00 a.m. Monday summarizing what we accomplish over the weekend, but I suspect we’ll need most of next week to finish our testing and document everything.”

At 10:59 a.m. Monday, as the emergency meeting adjourns, Jack’s report arrives—on time as usual. She reads the bulleted summary:


  • After being alerted to an IAQ inquiry on Friday at 4:45 p.m., an engineering foreman stayed from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. reviewing the building’s HVAC controls, mechanical settings, and airflows. He also walked the ninth floor to verify our latest occupancy data. Data trending (temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, supply air volumes, and outside air volumes) was configured Friday night, began at 4:00 a.m. Saturday, and will continue until manually stopped.
  • On Saturday between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., the technician used hand held instruments to take temperature, relative humidity, and carbon dioxide measurements in several locations on the ninth floor. He verified that all readings were compliant with ASHRAE standards and confirmed that adequate fresh air ventilation was being properly delivered to the space.
  • On Saturday, between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., a technician conducted visual inspections of the ninth floor, window systems on floors seven through 10, the roof, each vertical chase, all restrooms and mechanical rooms, the primary and secondary outside air intakes, elevator machine rooms, and all exhaust fans. He used a moisture meter to spot check floors and walls near the bathrooms and around the ninth floor. He also inspected above the ceiling space in various spots on the ninth floor.
  • Visual inspections confirmed that the high efficiency air filters in the HVAC systems were all in place, clean, and in good condition. He found no evidence of current or previous water leaks that might be related to plumbing, roof, HVAC condensate, or window systems.
  • He noted the presence of several new potted plants on the ninth floor, and upon inspection, several appeared to be over watered with mold beginning to form in the soil. He also noted several workstations with open food containers surrounded by paperwork. (See next steps below.)

Next Steps

  • Since we inspected the building on a Saturday when only about 30% of the staff was working, results will not be indicative of fully occupied, normal weekday conditions. As mentioned above, we’ve established trend reports in our building controls software and will monitor this data through the week.
  • This morning at 8:00 a.m., we met with the janitorial account manager to confirm the cleaning staff was properly sanitizing water fountains, telephones, faucets, door knobs, fixtures, etc. per our specifications. The cleaning crew came in over the weekend to work on keyboards, mice, and other office surfaces that are typically outside their scope of work.
  • We recommended a memo or meetings with department heads to remind them of the importance of keeping their spaces and equipment clean, disposing of food and other trash properly, and using disinfecting cleaning wipes on phones, keyboards, etc. Not sure how you would like to handle the moldy plants or determine who brought them in.
  • As we’ve discussed during previous IAQ inquiries, there are additional testing options we can coordinate through independent third parties if we decide that further investigation is warranted. We can also reconsider annual IAQ testing as a preventive maintenance tool. I realize these decisions have budget and political implications, but that’s why you’re the boss!

Pleased with her chief engineer’s timely and thorough response, Tracy sends a quick thank you note, gathers her IAQ interview questions, and leaves for her appointment with the accounting manager and the concerned employees.

If there is a problem in the building, she’s confident her team will find it. And if there isn’t, she’ll at least have an opportunity to help the accounting team understand a little more about IAQ and facility management before refocusing on numerous “to-dos” from the executive committee meeting.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.