Playing the Long Game With Your HVAC Systems

By John Salustri

June 15, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work being done by commercial real estate professionals has changed, but it’s more important than ever. As many tenants continue to work from home, occupancy rates in buildings across North America are historically low.

Maintaining building systems during this unusual time is uncharted territory. Many stay-at-home orders were implemented on short timelines, leaving property professionals to quickly come up with a new plan for operating their buildings during a pandemic. The timeline for this crisis is variable and unpredictable, meaning properties need to prepare for re-entry quickly as workers begin to return—perhaps multiple times if another wave of the pandemic occurs. A balance must be struck between operating efficiently during reduced occupancy and keeping the systems in peak working order—all while maximizing occupant health and safety. As work-from-home restrictions continue to be eased across the United States, properly maintained heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems remain an essential factor in helping to reduce the likelihood of coronavirus transmission.

As a result of this vital need, ASHRAE and the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA) have developed guidelines for the ongoing upkeep of HVAC systems in response to the current health crisis. At first glance, these recommendations might seem counterintuitive. But, the intended result is better performance now and for the long term, long after the pandemic has passed and the building tenancy has returned to full capacity.

“First, increase the runtime of systems, by as much as 24/7,” says Bill Collar, enterprise sales account executive for BOMA Cornerstone Partner Trane. “This increases the number of times air molecules pass through the HVAC filtration system. Also, increase the amount of outside air by opening air dampers as much as possible as conditions allow.” Collar also recommends increasing the runtime and velocity of exhaust fans. “Finally, monitor the differential pressure of filter banks and evaporator coils to determine optimal times for filter changes and coil cleaning.”

To ensure peak performance, he says, “always continue to perform the regular, recommended maintenance on all equipment at least quarterly, if not more frequently if conditions require. When changing filters, we recommend the use of a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 or better, as well as environmentally friendly cleaning materials when possible.” Personal protection is always an issue, especially these days, so Collar advises the use of “appropriate personal protective equipment to guard against pathogen exposure when performing maintenance on any HVAC components that involve the building’s air stream.”

If your property is equipped with a building automation system, or BAS, many of these changes will be easier, says Collar. These systems are a powerful tool for building managers to utilize as they make changes to their HVAC systems. This allows optimization of the HVAC system without needing personnel to be on-site.

It might seem counterintuitive to increase the runtimes of your HVAC systems and the ancillary equipment, such as exhaust fans, when much of the building population is still working from home—especially when your building team is looking to increase energy efficiency. And, as Collar explains, for instance, using MERV 13 filters can potentially cause “an increase in the fan energy necessary to filter air through media that may cause a higher pressure differential than a lesser-performing filter.” Energy usage might also increase as a result of employing ASHRAE- and REHVA-recommended air cleaners, such as Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) or Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) systems.

But, as Collar states, there is a long-game purpose here that building managers must keep in view. “The proper and efficient running of your buildings’ HVAC systems will go far in safeguarding the health and safety of tenants and staff alike, as we all pivot toward the eventuality of getting back to our offices,” he concludes.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine.