Changing regulations and the need for a new perspective to operating HVAC systems

"Given the role of HVAC in impacting Covid-19 spread, emphasizing HVAC health is at the heart of evolving strategies".

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Prabhu Ramachandran is Founder and CEO of Facilio

As buildings around the world resume staggered operation, or prepare to reopen, concern over whether the aging building HVAC systems can provide improved ventilation continues to be the biggest challenge.

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Given the role of HVAC in impacting Covid-19 spread, emphasizing HVAC health is at the heart of evolving strategies. If there’s an outbreak within a building, commercial real estate operators will be forced to shut down the entire building.

Not only will this disrupt business continuity, but also augment community spread of the infection. Replete with problems in fans, ducts or other parts of HVAC systems, they are simply not up to the current codes for both safety and efficiency.  

Dennis Knight, ASHRAE’s Epidemic Task Force, recommends that building systems must be recommissioned — or retro commissioned (if they were never commissioned in the first place) to navigate the ongoing crisis. Regulatory agencies are releasing new guidelines for operating equipment almost every week. Accordingly, the need for compliance has been catapulted for paramount safety of building occupants.

To ensure consistent SOP adherence, MEP consultants and contractors must closely realign and monitor if systems function in the same capacity as commissioned. Fine tuning building systems to adapt to dynamic SOPs requires efficient monitoring. On-site changes and scheduled maintenance are proving to be inefficient in the new norms - rapidly making way for remote access, monitoring and control of systems. 

By exploring better models of operating HVAC systems, MEP service providers are uniquely positioned to introduce innovation for occupant comfort and energy efficiency.

Here are 5 steps to channel HVAC equipment performance to effective IAQ(Indoor Air quality) compliance-

1. Conduct assessments and checks to evaluate operational ability

As systems kickstart from dormancy, it’s critical to carefully assess risk exposure with existing infrastructure and their readiness to meet new guidelines. Shutdown may have induced contamination in ducts and air spaces. This may hinder the HVAC system from sufficient fresh air intake and ventilation and poses serious health hazards to building inmates.

So here’s a concise checklist to get started with HVAC reboot before buildings are re-occupied-

● Run preventive maintenance on all units for complete disinfection of components, like filters, grilles, diffusers, indoor unit coils, and so on.
● Inspect fans, dampers, water quality, pump operations, etc. for condition assessment.
● Observe safety measures and ensure compliance with pre-requisites to reduce the risk associated with workers replacing possibly infected filters.
● Check on water quality in chillers and boilers.
● Recommissioning your HVAC systems is desirable to ensure the HVAC systems are safe and operating as designed.

2. Maintain fresh air circulation to provide clean air

It can’t be stressed enough that increased ventilation can greatly reduce the risk of infection. It helps expel polluted or stale indoor air. Recirculated stale air, on the other hand, can expose a person to potentially infective respiratory droplets for a prolonged time.
This is the time to prioritize indoor air quality even if it takes extra effort/capital. Some effective steps to deploy this measure, while also dealing with the immediate effects, are outlined below-

● ASHRAE recommends running systems for longer hours to minimize recirculated air for occupants.
● Install additional fresh air ducts if buildings don’t have adequate ventilation.
● Avert increased moisture by monitoring humidity levels and maintaining a balance of outdoor and exhaust airflows. Remote IAQ monitoring tools can prove very helpful in validating preferred ventilation.
● 80% of public institutional facilities caution about increased wear and tear of equipment owing to longer operational hours. Data-rich insights from intelligent analytics can provide great help in optimizing assets to deter mundane faults and repairs.
● For buildings with less complex HVAC systems, keeping doors and windows open is a simple yet highly effective way for natural ventilation. Keep AC systems switched off. Bonus is this doesn’t even need risk assessment on a site-by-site basis.

3. Step up on improving air filtration and cleaning

Protocols mandate frequent cleaning and changing of air filters in HVAC for optimum air quality. Krissi Hewitt, a researcher on microbial life in offices, emphasizes that filtration has an impact on how contaminants flow through the air.

Incidentally, this also supports good performance and energy efficiency. Costly repairs when components strain to purify air through dirty filters - an unwarranted OPEX overhead amid strained margins - are kept at bay. To achieve this -

● Change filters as scheduled or more frequently based on the clog status of the filter. This can be monitored in real-time by IoT platforms to auto-generate work requests.
● Perform preliminary checks to find if the AHU system can accommodate a higher efficiency filter(like MERV-15) for improved IAQ. Check if the fans make up for the decreased airflow with increased speed.
● If a system can’t handle high-MERV filters, due to issues like undersized ductwork, perform ductwork modifications to implement better filtration.
● Closely supervise proper disposing of all used filter components per the guidelines. PPE(Personal Protective Equipment) should be worn by technicians while servicing/replacing dirty filters. These filters should be sealed in plastic bags for disposal.
● Install portable room air cleaners with HEPA filter and perform UV germicidal irradiation for added protection to occupiers.

4. Keep a close watch on temperature and humidity conditions

Growing research consistently points to a weakening of the virus in good air humidity. Preferred conditions for building temperature and humidity may vary depending upon regional climate. It’s best to seek local authority guidelines to accurately capture the acceptable setpoint range for every building’s geographical location.

● ISHRAE recommends a temperature setpoint between 24°C and 30°C.
● Maintain a relative humidity between 40% and 70%. (In humid climates, use fans to increase air movement). In dry climates, do not allow relative humidity to fall below 40%.
● Data-driven systems can eliminate tedious manual inspection routines to prevent out-of-range setpoint deviations. With technology-enabled supervisory controls, it’s possible to automatically monitor and control systems conforming with minimized outdoor exposure and regulatory compliance.

5. Ensure sustained efficiency and compliance with the new remote world

Though it’s a one-time effort to reassess HVAC operations, adjusting schedules, re-aligning the O&M framework around it, and the entire exercise can prove futile if MEP consultants and service providers do not have access to dynamic and remote control of automation systems in place - considering the substantial investment of time and spend associated with efficiency loss and the risk to health with on-site changes to systems.

On top of it, regulatory bodies are penalizing violators with hefty fines for non-compliance to building norms.

In this context;
● IoT-based remote operations with portfolio-wide Fault Detection and Diagnostics can continuously course-correct equipment behavior and normalize operations in real-time.
● Adopt workflows that automate anomaly resolution to field-service personnels.
● Find nimble tech-enabled ways to operate HVAC that complies with on-demand tenant needs -  based on occupancy, space occupied and season.
● Leverage systems that harness HVAC data (and all automation data) to provide deeper analytics and reporting, encourage stakeholder communication, and overall better control over portfolio performance

Conclusion
While it’s still early to perceive what the new normal may require, MEP consultants and contractors must start to transform the incumbent approach to an adaptive one.

With technology, they can easily incorporate solutions for improving equipment conditions in new ways - be it remotely executing operations or integrating workflows with maintenance.

Today, there is a great opportunity for MEP to introduce new services by optimizing system performance in buildings. In alignment, innovative solutions embedding predictive analytics are seeing a surge in adoption.

They can deliver agility and responsiveness into managing building equipment performance in any future scenario - and that will be the focus of MEP services even beyond the pandemic.

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