These are tough days for businesses, as many have been forced to temporarily shut their doors as the current pandemic affects owners, employees and customers. But it won’t last forever. Already some businesses are reopening, from restaurants to office buildings and retail.
If your commercial building was forced to shut down for some time, you may be preparing to reopen shortly. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to let employees work from home, you’re probably still considering your eventual reopening plans.
Whether you’re about to bring your building back online now, or planning to do it sometime in the future, the fact is that keeping a building closed up can have consequences, too. It may not have been cleaned, managed, or inspected for weeks, maybe months. So reopening safely is more than a simple matter of unlocking the door.
Whether you’re planning the reopening of a professional office, restaurant, retail store, medical office, meeting facility, gym, or some other commercial building, there are steps you can – and should – take to ensure the health and safety of future occupants. And some of those steps relate directly to your HVAC system.
These are some of the things you need to be aware of when it comes to your HVAC system, including those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as you plan the reopening of your commercial space.
Watch Out For Mold
Mold will grow wherever there is moisture, and that’s one thing we have plenty of here in New Jersey – especially as spring rains and rising temperatures give way to summer humidity.
It can also result from condensation on roofs, windows, pipes and ducts. And mold is not picky about where it grows, either. You’ll find it on carpets, walls, ceilings, furniture, even on the insulation within walls.
When a building is in use, you can keep mold in check by monitoring temperature and humidity, cleaning up leaks and excess moisture, or taking action if it seems to be a bigger problem. But when nobody is looking, mold can creep in quickly and quietly, posing a health hazard to the returning humans. And you may not even see it.
Before you reopen your building, the CDC recommends having it professionally checked for mold. If mold is found, it should be remediated immediately, including the source – like a leaky pipe or excess condensation from poor insulation.
If no mold is found, that’s great news. But before you get too comfortable, be sure to check your HVAC system. If it hasn’t been active, run it for 48-72 hours to “flush it out” before anyone returns to the building. During the flushing period, be on guard for musty odors that could mean mold growth in the system. If you notice any unpleasant odors, get the system serviced and the mold remediated before inviting people back into the building.
Control mold in the future by ensuring that your HVAC system is properly installed and properly maintained. Keeping temperature and humidity in check is a key function of your HVAC system, so make sure it can do its job.
Check Your Filters
If you missed spring maintenance this year because your building was closed, then your HVAC filters were probably never cleaned or replaced. That means they could be harboring everything from allergens to bacteria to – yes, mold.
*Before* you flush your system, check and clean or replace the filters if needed. The last thing you want to do is start blowing worse things around in the air than you’re trying to filter out.
After the flushing, and especially if you’ve detected any musty or off-smells, you may want to replace them again. In fact, you may want to check your filters more often than usual during your reopening period. If the building has been closed up for a while, even if it’s cleaned , there could be excess dust, allergens and bacteria being pulled through the system.
Legionella is the bacteria responsible for Legionnaires’ disease, a specific type of pneumonia that can be exceptionally dangerous and even deadly for certain groups of people. Hotels have taken some flack for outbreaks of Legionnaires’, and the air conditioning system usually takes the blame. Before you panic, however, it’s important to understand why.
First, the bacteria grows and thrives in warm, stagnant, standing water, not in your air conditioning ducts or on its filters. The reason that air conditioners take the blame is because stagnant water can accumulate if you have a water-based cooling system that is poorly designed or isn’t properly maintained.
If you don’t have a water-based cooling system, then there’s no reason to worry about your HVAC system. If you do have one, then you’ll need to be diligent about keeping it clean and maintained so there isn’t any pooling water.
But there’s more to it – because Legionella can grow in any standing water, not just water from your HVAC system. If your building has been closed for a while, you may have water from leaks, condensation, or other parts of your plumbing system. That can include ice machines, hot tubs, decorative fountains and even the fire sprinkler system.
Since Legionnaires’ is contracted by inhaling mist from a contaminated water source, it’s possible that the disease can be carried on the air currents from your air conditioner. Contaminated air can eventually contaminate your HVAC system, which can then spread the bacteria further.
The first step in reopening your commercial space is to check for standing water. If you find any, test for Legionella and remediate if necessary. It’s important to keep your facility clear of stagnant water that can be a breeding ground for disease. If you have a cooling tower, then one of the ways you can do that is with proper HVAC installation and maintenance.
Consider Extra Precautions
If you’re wondering, like many, whether illnesses like the novel coronavirus can be transmitted through the HVAC system, there isn’t a clear answer. It’s an evolving situation, with new information and big gaps where none is yet conclusively known. So if you operate a commercial building, diligence is your best bet.
The means keeping your HVAC system clean and well-maintained, free of mold, and ensuring that filters are replaced regularly.
While there isn’t conclusive evidence yet to support them, extra precautions certainly can’t hurt – and can be a benefit during the course of normal operations.
One option to consider is upgrading filters. Use filters with a higher MERV rating, and change filters with more frequency. Choose the MERV rating carefully, as some may be too high for your particular use case and will only end up putting excess wear and tear on your HVAC system.
Another option is UV light treatment in HVAC ducts. For facilities like restaurants, gyms, small professional offices, childcare centers, eldercare centers, dentist offices, and others, devices can be installed in HVAC vents that send out ionized hydrogen peroxide particles that attack and kill many kinds of bacteria, viruses and mold spores.
In the meantime, continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines for hand washing, sanitizing and social distancing.
If you’re preparing a plan to open your commercial building and would like your HVAC system inspected and serviced, or if you want a recommendation for a new installation or component, contact us and let us know. We provide honest assessments without a sales pitch. Your health, safety and comfort are our top priorities.