Landlords should be Proactive in Protecting Building Occupants

Opinion Feature in Puget Sound Business Journal by Gus Simonds:

These Steps will Help Keep Tenants Safe

The big question I’m hearing from landlords and commercial building owners these days is when and how can they safely bring employees back into the workplace. Many employees have been working from home since March because of COVID-19 fears. Seven months later, companies want to bring them back – to benefit from team collaboration, face-to-face contact and camaraderie. Zoom meetings are fine, but nothing compares to sharing a workspace – at least part time. Other businesses – those in healthcare, production and manufacturing, haven’t been able to send workers home. They have been working to make their buildings safe from COVID-19 since the beginning.

The key consideration, of course, is safety. The CDC this month acknowledged that COVID-19 is an airborne virus, something that many have suspected and have worked around for months. Now that it is official, landlords, tenants, and those tasked with building safety must work even harder to protect workers from this airborne illness when in the workplace.

Here is what you should know when servicing, maintaining and considering upgrading your building’s HVAC systems in the age of COVID-19.

  1. Be overly cautious. Review guidelines from the CDC, the state, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) to make sure you’re aware of and are complying with the latest recommendations. Tenants will pressure landlords to ensure their safety and the safety of their employees.
  2. Bring in experts to inspect a building’s HVAC system who can offer suggestions to meet the latest, highest safety standards. Unlike standard model cars, each building is different – designed with customized HVAC systems based on the number of floors, footprint, layout, age and construction materials. Therefore, each building needs its own inspection and customized solution.

We want to make sure inside air is as safe to breathe as clean outside air. To do this, ASHRAE recommends the following solutions:

  1. Increase ventilation in the building to bring in more outside air to dilute the amount of potential airborne contagion. For example, the air in high-rise buildings should be completely flushed at the end of the workday so that employees return to clean air the next morning. Even when workers are in the building, try to flush the building more than in the past, even if it makes occupants a bit uncomfortable because of temperature and humidity fluctuations and uses more energy. We are lucky that we live in a relatively mild climate and that our energy costs are low compared to other parts of the country. This will help mitigate the cost of this solution and can keep local workers safer than elsewhere in the country where building owners may be unwilling or unable to face the higher energy costs associated with improved ventilation. Some landlords are increasing ventilation to reduce the spread of seasonal flu as well as COVID-19.
  2. Regulate humidity. A study published in the journal PLOS One showed that maintaining humidity levels above 43% cuts the ability of viruses like the flu to spread. Unfortunately, most buildings other than hospitals and labs don’t have humidity controls. It’s challenging and expensive to retrofit a large building that doesn’t have humidity controls. Instead, consider putting portable humidifiers in high-traffic areas such as a lobby or entrance – especially in the coming winter months, which tend to be dryer than our summer months.
  3. Increase filtration. Viruses attach to particles. Fewer particles in the air means reduced virus spread. Most filters won’t filter out viruses, but they’ll filter dust particles that viruses can attach to. It’s important to understand the capabilities of an HVAC system and install the most effective filter without stressing the system so much that it stops working. Filters are rated MERV 1 to 20. MERV 13+ filters are recommended for COVID-19. However, not all systems can accommodate that filtration level. For systems that can’t accommodate MERV 13 filters, MERV 11 are the next best choice. It’s also important to change filters more frequently to keep them working at an optimum level. HEPA filters also work to arrest very fine particles. However, retrofitting an HVAC system not designed for HEPA filtration is difficult. Rather than replace an entire system, consider setting up a smaller, recirculating HEPA filtration system in high-traffic areas such as a lobby or building entrance.
  4. UVC germicidal irradiation is getting a lot of attention. However, installing high-intensity UVC that can kill viruses on the fly in a system not designed for it is expensive and most airborne viruses don’t make it back to your air handling unit anyway. UVC light can also harm humans exposed to it. While this is a good, specialized solution for hospitals, it’s not typically recommended for office spaces.
  5. Bipolar ionization is becoming a popular solution in commercial buildings and costs about one third the price of UVC irradiation. The latest iteration of it does not emit harmful ozone and is safe. Bipolar ionization units, which fit into duct work and are slightly bigger than a smoke detector, flood an area with positively and negatively charged ions that can kill microscopic organisms, such as viruses in the air and on surfaces. When dispersed, ions seek out and bond with particles in the air, creating clusters that are large enough for an HVAC system to filter out.
  6. Flush water systems. Water systems in buildings are designed to be used. All water systems (toilets, sinks, etc.) should be flushed any time a building has been left dormant for more than a week to keep Legionella bacteria at bay. Although Legionella is not related to COVID-19, it could be growing in buildings left vacant because of COVID. Landlords can test to make sure Legionella is not present after flushing a building’s water systems.

All of these solutions, used in conjunction with face masks and proper social distancing, will increase the safety of working indoors. They offer ways for landlords to visibly show tenants and employees that they are being proactive in reducing the risk for workers and customers to come inside to help get our economy humming again.

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