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Let's Talk About Ventilation

Originally published
Originally published: 9/1/2020

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an article in The Atlantic titled, “We Need to Talk About Ventilation.” Of course, it caught my eye and really got me thinking.

The article questions why, six months into a respiratory pandemic, we are still doing so little to mitigate airborne transmission? All the safety precautions, the author argues, focus mainly on what he calls “hygiene theater” — constantly deep cleaning everything — while paying little to no attention to the air we breathe.

I suppose, when the pandemic first hit in the U.S., most offices closed and employees were sent home to work. Urging the public to wash their hands, keep a proper social distance and wear masks made sense. After all, why talk about ventilation if no one is actually occupying any of the buildings where disease can spread.

But as states began to reopen and people started to populate offices (and schools) again, surely there would be a push for a greater awareness of the air we breathe! And, as it happens, just a few days ago I saw a story on NPR titled, “As We Return to Work and School During the Pandemic, Can the Air Inside Be Kept Safe?”

It’s an interesting piece that really answers a lot of questions everyone should actually be asking. The author interviewed Kathleen Owen, an air filtration consultant in Cary, N.C., who works with ASHRAE, as well as another ASHRAE member, Dennis Knight, the founder of Whole Buildings Systems in Charleston, S.C.

What caught my attention, mostly, were these two sentences: “And as the science on COVID-19 has been evolving, the right actions haven’t always been clear. Now, some building operators are intimidated or overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge.”

After reading this piece I immediately texted my brother, Jake, for some insight. Jake is a senior sales executive with Siemens Building Technology and deals with this kind of thing every day. I must have struck a chord with him, because rather than text me back, Jake called me.

To say we haven’t been talking about ventilation is a misnomer, because that has been the majority of what Jake has been talking about for the last six months with his customers. Sure, maybe the general population isn’t well-informed about the importance of proper ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ), but building owners and managers are discussing these topics in depth with their service providers.

Jake tells me, among the many challenges with getting buildings ready during the coronavirus era, is the increase of fresh air being brought into buildings and what effect that has on the HVACR system.

Some clients, he says, are bringing in up to 60 percent outside air as opposed to the 30 percent they had been. It seems like a good idea to help combat an airborne virus in an enclosed space to bring in fresh air, but the mechanical systems need to work harder to condition that air — especially during these hot summer months.

The long-term affect this will have on the cost of running a building’s mechanical system has yet to be seen — and with winter right around the corner, you can bet building managers will run into similar issues as boilers begin to work overtime.

Still, he says, mechanical systems have gotten much more sophisticated and efficient than they used to be, so it isn’t a total disaster. Rather, building managers and mechanical contractors simply need to rethink how a building operates.

While there is no magic solution to eliminate the issues presented by the coronavirus or other airborne pathogens and viruses, ASHRAE experts agree there are several things that can be done to clean the air and decrease potential risk. ASHRAE has identified many strategies to help provide superior quality indoor air, including filtration, ventilation, relative humidity, and UV lights.

This is the new normal, which I suppose is a phrase we can apply to just about everything we do from now on. An article on back in June summarizes this perfectly:

 “While people spend 90 percent of their time inside, indoor air quality has not been a large focus of attention for facilities management and tenants until recently. The coronavirus outbreak is bringing indoor air quality into the spotlight as hospitals work to mitigate the spread of disease and offices, retail, and education facilities are considering strategies to reopen safely and minimize infection.”

Finally, IAQ and ventilation are getting the recognition they deserve when it comes to what we should be talking about. Sadly, it took a pandemic to bring this important topic to the forefront.

As experts in this area, it’s up to you to get out there and ensure your customers have accurate information. Be the resource they need and let’s talk about ventilation.


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