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HVAC Safety: Why Businesses Should Check their Systems After the COVID-19 Lockdown

As a commercial building owner, you should consider the warnings of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force that HVAC systems need to be checked before you reopen your businesses after the COVID-19 lockdown ends. It’s part of your responsibility to make sure your business operations proceed not only smoothly but also safely after we all get out of quarantine and go back to work.

  1. Dennis Knight, an engineer at Whole Building Systems in Charleston, Carolina and a member of ASHRAE, refers to an ASHRAE statute that we’ll review in this article, as well as the resources you need to review and the steps you need to take to ensure that your commercial buildings are as safe as possible for your customers after the quarantine lifts.

The Guidelines

The guideline mentioned by name by is Standard 180-2018. We recommend that anyone who owns and operates a commercial building to read the guideline for themselves in ASHRAE’S Standard Practice for the Inspection and Maintenance of Commercial Building HVAC Systems. We will summarize it here.

This standard was instated to ensure that commercial buildings’ HVAC systems would meet guaranteed inspection and maintenance requirements before opening to the public.

This guideline is for commercial structures only and does not apply to single-family homes or to HVAC systems located in buildings that are used for industrial or manufacturing processes. It only applies to commercial buildings that receive human traffic from the outside.

The standard practice outlines the property owner’s responsibility in terms of maintaining their commercial property. All air distribution systems, air handlers, boilers, chillers, radiators, humidifiers, and so on have to be inspected. Review the ASHRAE guidelines to ensure that the proper procedures are carried out.

 

Instructions

There are a few basic steps recommended by Knight and outlined by the ASHRAE Standard that should be followed in situations related to a commercial building’s HVAC system.

The priority is to begin startup procedures for systems that have been running minimally or not at all during the lockdown. These procedures include inspections and testing as well.

  1. The first thing to do is to check with the local building authorities about inspections required in your area dealing with HVAC systems returning from inactive duty to a state that meets the guidelines for customer safety.

This step is especially important to ensure the operations of systems that are critical to life functions in your commercial building, such as fire alarms.

  1. Review the engineering records provided by the original HVAC servicers to view specific guidelines related to errors in your system or maintenance procedures mandated by the manufacturer.
  2. Visual inspections can be useful as well to determine if air and water distribution systems are leaking or have accumulated dirt during inactivity. When you’re dealing with systems related to people’s safety, a visual inspection can help you see evidence of a damaged insulator or any fungal growths.

When HVAC systems are turned off or functioning on minimum for extended periods of time, mold can accumulate on ceilings, drain pains, casings, air distributors, and coils. These are items that all need to be thoroughly inspected visually to ensure that they are safe to use when you reopen.

  1. In addition to the indoor air systems, the air intakes on the outside of your building need to be checked as well for function and debris. If the intakes are obstructed, they won’t be able to function in their intended range (the control valves won’t either). By checking the seals on this system, as well as testing the bearings and drive belts for functionality, you can ensure that your HVAC system will achieve the variable-speeds that it needs to so it functions properly when your building is operational again.
  2. Water quality in the building is something to check as well, according to Knight. Hopefully, chillers and boilers were not turned off even during quarantine since building administrators warn against this. If they were, your building could be dealing with stagnant water that has accumulated dust and mold and turned into sludge.

This can be an expensive mistake as sludgy water can ruin heating coils and cause corrosion in all the components of the HVAC system. If a previous administrator made this mistake or you did unwittingly, you may have a lot of components to replace and re-inspect before they can be made operational.

Why take these steps?

Without these maintenance procedures to inspect the integrity of your HVAC systems in your commercial buildings, you could be putting your business, your customers, and your employees at risk.

The backup power supplies and sensors that make your business work behind the scenes may have become faulty without you realizing it. Critical safety systems like smoke alarms may be dusted over and nonoperational, as could be your heating and cooling systems and air ducts.

You don’t want to find out that your building has no working fire alarms by receiving a federal inspection and a hefty fine, or when you need an alarm to save your building from a fire later down the road. All of these systems have to be meticulously inspected. If you have to replace any due to the lockdown, whether from being nonoperational or from the buildup of water, mold, or dust, you need to do so with the help of a maintenance professional and then have those devices re-inspected as well.

If you have any doubts about how to prepare for reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown, ASHRAE has an extensive guide for resources related to these procedures.

What tests do you need to perform?

Knight recommends recommissioning the HVAC systems after the COVID-19 lockdown in order to ensure their working condition and update their documentation.

Several people need to be contacted to get your building’s operations up and running. These include the staff you have hired to be in charge of these systems in your building and the system’s engineer. They will be able to retrieve the documents that contain the designs and project requirements of the original system.

With them, you can view changes to the building’s occupancy requirements and the history of the building’s usage. It will help you figure out the procedures you should follow to recommission the system.

In addition to the ASHRAE Standard mentioned, the ASHRAE Indoor Air Quality Guide and Refrigeration Commissioning Guide for Commercial and Industrial Systems could come in handy, as well as the Strategic Guide to Commissioning.

Does my building require additional quarantine?

This may not be preferable but for commercial buildings that have been converted into healthcare centers at any time during the quarantine, additional lockdown time may be required.

If this is the case, after repairing and recommissioning your HVAC system, you need to run it at normal operational settings for temperature, humidity, and occupancy for an extended period.

This applies to outside air ventilators as well, which should be put on the maximum capacity to normalize the airflow in your building for the sake of temperature and humidity. You want to restart the climate conditions in your building as much as possible, particularly if there’s a possibility that COVID-19 contagions could be living in your HVAC.

Air filters also need to be cleaned, tightened, or replaced. Areas in your building that are frequently touched such as door handles need to be disinfected even if no one has been in the building for a while. If your commercial building was ever used as a healthcare center, you need to take these extra precautions.

What should I tell my clients as a contractor?

Contractors need to educate their staff on recommendations outlined by ASHRAE. As a building owner, you need a contractor that you can trust to help you minimize the risks to your operations.

The most important thing is frequent communication, letting owners of corporate buildings know the services that their HVAC provider can offer and how they can help them adhere to specific guidelines.

The Takeaway

COVID-19 is changing the standards that help us determine how commercial buildings operate. If your building’s HVAC system has been operating on low levels or has been turned off entirely, you may have issues waiting for you when you try to reopen.

These could include mold in your HVAC’s coolers, obstructed air intakes, or dirty ducts and valves that inhibit operation. In addition, safety-critical systems like the fire alarm could be less than fully operational. If your building ever served as a healthcare building during the lockdown, you may need to take even more precautions to purge your system from the inside, even wiping down frequently touched surfaces for good measure.

Knight suggests that you refer to ASHRAE’S Standard Practice for the Inspection and Maintenance of Commercial Building HVAC Systems for a complete set of guidelines on how to deal with this unique situation. Contractors and building owners alike need to remember that business will not be usual as soon as the lockdown lifts. There will still be a lot of work to be done to make sure commercial buildings are safe for their occupants.

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