Healthier Indoor Air Through Operations & Maintenance

Evaluating existing HVAC equipment goes a long way toward improving IAQ.

By Anne Cosgrove
From the April 2022 Issue

Though it’s actually invisible, since March 2020 indoor air quality (IAQ) has undoubtedly become a visible issue to anyone who works, lives, or plays in a facility. With the emergence of Covid-19 across the globe, facilities professionals and fellow building industry stakeholders have ramped up actions and awareness related to the state of the IAQ inside their facilities. Facility Executive spoke with three industry sources about operations and maintenance (O&M) practices that aid in understanding your facility’s current IAQ conditions, as part of the journey toward healthier indoor spaces.

healthier indoor air
(Image: Adobe Stock / Dizain)

Baseline IAQ First

Alan Wozniak, President of Pure Air Controls, Inc., a nationally recognized indoor air quality firm, shared this insight: “It’s always best to understand the baseline conditions within a building and the systems in operation. What would you do if you went to your primary care physician and without an examination or single question sent you directly to have your spleen removed? Of course, no doctor would do that! It’s the same for buildings and HVAC. Make the investment in data and science through quantitative IAQ/HVAC baseline assessments which will efficiently steer budgets, planning, and lead to successful outcomes. Ultimately saving money, improving IAQ conditions and leading to greater ROI.”

Continues Wozniak, “Get the data, make a plan, and then commit to it. There are quite a few non-governmental organizations like ASHRAE, IAQA, NADCA, and others that provide clear guidance for HVAC, indoor air quality and operations. ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62.1 addresses ventilation specifically for acceptable IAQ. In fact, Section 8 is entirely dedicated toward implementing an Operations and Maintenance Manual, or O&M.”

“It is important to understand the existing conditions and correcting issues before introducing new equipment,” adds Wozniak. “You may be placing a bandage on a hemorrhaging condition or a tourniquet for a bandage need. For example, outfitting dirty air handlers with UV or needlepoint bipolar ionization would be very little help, if any, and do nothing to improve airflow, building dehumidification, and building pressurization if the coils are fouled.”

Use Building Automation Tech

Greg Turner, Senior Director of Engineering at Honeywell, seconds the importance of first understanding how building systems are performing related to IAQ. “This starts with an air quality audit,” he says. “The audit includes a combination of measurements made with handheld tools and inspection of AHUs and outdoor air intakes. We evaluate ventilation needs for improving IAQ that could require both bringing in more fresh air and cleaning recirculated indoor air to improve energy efficiency.”

Turner then highlights the role of building technology to take next steps in the journey. “In some cases, facility managers can purge building contaminants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by extending the operating times of HVAC systems to run on basis of the current occupancy of a facility and effective scheduling (e.g., before the earliest occupants arrive for the day and after the last occupants have left for the night). Additionally, facility teams can increase the number of air exchanges per hour to provide fresh air to closed spaces—this can be achieved through natural or mechanical ventilation.”

“Additionally, air filter media can have a significant impact on a building’s air quality, ventilation rates and even energy consumption,” continues Turner. “In terms of sustained operations, using an air filter with proper MERV rating for the contaminants of concern and the mechanical system design can help to significantly reduce indoor pollution at the lowest filter, labor, and energy cost. In certain settings, such as healthcare facilities, HEPA filtration may be warranted for increased filtration efficiency.”

Bring All The Tools Together

It’s not news to facility managers that IAQ is a complex issue, and that each building will have its own challenges, opportunities, and ultimately, solutions. Johnson Controls recently introduced an industry-first offering for buildings professionals with its OpenBlue IAQ as a Service (IAQaaS). Tyler Smith, Executive Director, Healthy Buildings Services and Solutions with the company, explains, “[This new offering] allows facilities to pay for outcomes instead of equipment. Our long-term life cycle funding models allow facilities to modernize and refresh clean air environments while mitigating risk—putting clean air-focused upgrades within reach for facilities of all types.”

In discussing what facilities might do when evaluating current IAQ conditions and the role of their HVAC O&M, Smith says, “The EPA’s recent ‘Clean Air in Buildings Challenge’ [announced March 22, 2022] addresses this issue and marks an essential step in the journey toward healthier, cleaner infrastructure throughout the country. This challenge provides a set of guidelines and resources building owners and operators can use to prioritize IAQ within their facilities.”

The EPA Challenge focuses on:

  1. Create a clean indoor air action plan that assesses indoor air quality and includes HVAC inspections and maintenance.
  2. Optimize fresh air ventilation by bringing in and circulating fresh outdoor air.
  3. Enhance air filtration and cleaning using the central HVAC system and in-room air-cleaning devices. “For most buildings, we recommend using filters with a MERV rating of at least 13, or as high as 16 for certain applications. HEPA filters are also available and are becoming more common in commercial buildings, especially when installed as part of a portable filtration unit,” states Smith. And,
  4. Engage the building community by communicating with building occupants to increase awareness, commitment, and participation.

Focusing on how facilities might make improvements with the equipment they have in place today, Smith advises: “Building owners can look to optimize their HVAC controls sequences and enhanced filtration (including portable filtration) so that they work together to accommodate building load flexes. Many buildings are not operating at a consistent occupant capacity. Control systems can auto-monitor building load and respond appropriately by dictating the optimal blend of return and outdoor air mix. Having that control system in place ensures buildings are maintaining appropriate IAQ levels, even with fluctuating building loads.”

Wherever your facility is on the IAQ improvement journey, examining existing equipment and procedures is a step that will take you in the right direction.

Cosgrove is Editorial Director of Facility Executive.

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