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Prevent Airborne Illness: Maintain Your Commercial HVAC Systems

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coworkers taking precautions against airborne viruses

When seasonal colds and flu spread through your workplace, the lost productivity is costing your business. For a company with 25 employees, the cost can be as high as $33,000 per year in lost productivity, sick days and temporary help expenses. (To figure out how much your company is losing, use the absenteeism calculator at Healthyworkplaceproject.com.)

The costs of spreading COVID-19 in your workplace could be considerably higher.

Airborne viruses can spread more easily in buildings with poor ventilation and poorly maintained HVAC systems. In this article, we’ll review strategies for preventing airborne illness.


Poor ventilation can lead to poor air quality and illness

Many modern buildings, especially in New York City, are tightly sealed to conserve energy. Unfortunately, if building systems are not properly maintained, the air can become stagnant and contaminants such as bacteria, viruses and even dangerous mold can become trapped inside. Even worse, they are actually circulated throughout the building through the heating and air conditioning ducts. No wonder so many people are sick!

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), some of the most common causes of poor indoor air quality include high humidity caused by poor upkeep of ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems. Bacteria and viruses that cause respiratory infections can more easily multiply and spread in uncontrolled humidity conditions.

Take control of your air quality to prevent airborne illness

Take these small steps to fight illness and make a big impact on the air quality in your building:

1. Replace air filters on schedule.

For many businesses, this is the single most effective step you can take to improve air quality. Check with your HVAC service provider about the recommended frequency for your equipment and usage.

To improve filtration of undesirable particles, go with at least a medium efficiency filter with a pleated surface and an ASHRAE dust spot rating of 30% to 60%.

Keep in mind that high efficiency or HEPA filters may not be recommended for your system or usage, and can cause equipment problems if you choose the wrong filter for your system. Always consult with your HVAC service company before buying filters.

2. Schedule regular inspections, cleaning and maintenance for your furnace and air conditioning equipment.

Your heating and cooling systems need to be cleaned and serviced to keep them working as designed. Filters and belts need to be cleaned or replaced, condenser and evaporator coils need to be cleaned, parts need to be lubricated, and electrical connections tested. Keeping parts in good condition and keeping dust, pollen and airborne particles out of your system will keep your building’s air healthy and prevent air quality issues.

3. Clean and repair ducts.

Some businesses remember to clean the furnace and the air conditioner, only to neglect the ventilation system. Your ductwork needs to be regularly cleaned and serviced as well, to remove dust, mold, and microorganisms lingering there. If ducts have holes and leaks, those need to be repaired to maintain proper air flow and decrease humidity.

4. Consider air purification technology.

If you are concerned about preventing the spread of COVID as well as overall indoor air quality in your space, it’s worth considering adding modern air purification devices to your HVAC system. New technologies such as UV light, bi-polar ionization and oxidation can greatly reduce your risk of transmitting the virus within your space. Here’s a helpful guide that outlines the options.

guide to HVAC strategies for COVID

5. Perform air monitoring tests to regularly check the temperature, humidity and air flow in each individual space in your building.

Humidity levels can vary widely throughout a building and need to be monitored and set appropriately for each area.

6. Remove any standing water in in humidifiers, air conditioning units, on roofs and in boiler pans.

If you find any leaks or water damage, bring in experts to check for mold contamination.

7. Evaluate design & effectiveness of your HVAC system.

If you’ve undergone any renovations or changed the usage of parts of your building, bring in a reputable HVAC company to make sure your system is still performing according to the specifications for your building’s use and occupancy.

8. Calibrate controls.

Make sure all system controls for temperature and humidity are working accurately by having them tested and calibrated as part of your HVAC maintenance plan.

9. Improve access to equipment.

This is big problem in New York City, where space is at a premium and HVAC equipment is often closed up in ceilings and crawl spaces. Adding access doors to equipment and ductwork can help technicians do a better job cleaning and servicing your equipment. You may even spend less for your service contract if it’s faster and easier to get at your equipment.

Partner with professionals to improve your air quality and prevent airborne illness

Fighting airborne illness and getting the best possible air quality means working hand-in-hand with qualified professionals who understand and can service the equipment that moves the air in your space.

A correctly designed and properly maintained HVAC system keeps humidity at correct levels, decreases the spread of bacteria and viruses, improves comfort level, and even saves you money on your energy bills.

A qualified HVAC contractor can perform an analysis of your HVAC system using ASHRAE guidelines to make sure the design is adequate for the space and building occupants. In addition, regularly scheduled maintenance of heating and air conditioning systems is imperative for keeping your systems working effectively and keeping air quality at optimal levels.

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