If our walls could talk, they would be asking us what the hell is going on. Healthcare buildings have gone into overdrive, hotels are being converted into hospitals, fashion-houses transformed into high-volume PPE factories, auto-manufacturing into ventilator-production, and everyone is at home while an unprecedented amount of our commercial real estate sits empty. We were not prepared for this pandemic but we are showing incredible innovation to adapt to these challenges. As we move from emergency to new reality, and on to recovery, our buildings are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the solution.
This is a biological war with our health workers on the frontline. Like those hospital staff, the crisis is also pushing hospital building systems beyond their limits. Like those doctors and nurses, it is essential to ensure that building systems are working optimally and the risk of failure is reduced as much as possible. A faulty HVAC system could make large areas of a hospital uncomfortable, or even uninhabitable, which can directly increase fatality numbers in a crisis where hospital space is in shortage.
Those buildings with remote monitoring of HVAC systems are in a great position for remote workers to foresee potential problems and enact solutions before problems occur. For the rest, a socially-distanced visit from an HVAC technician may be well worth the risk to avoid bigger issues at crucial times. This novel disaster may also serve as a warning sign that encourages us to ensure someone is looking after the building while hospitals are overflowing.
“Like all hazards, risk can be reduced but not eliminated, so be sure to communicate the limitations of the HVAC system and our current state of knowledge about the virus and its spread,” Lawrence J. Schoen, P.E., Fellow/Life Member at standards authority ASHRAE. “We all have a role to play to control the spread of this disease. HVAC is part of it and even more significant are social distancing, hygiene and the influence we can have on personal behavior.”
Schoen recently produced a Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The document sets out the complexity of the current situation, underlining the limits of HVAC systems for the style of contagion through droplets rather than air, and reinforcing the need to prioritize cleaning in the building environment. It also gives specific guidance for HVAC actions that can be taken, including methods for increasing outdoor air ventilation, improving central air filtration, as well as other considerations. “The consequences of overwhelming the capacity of our health-care systems are enormous and potentially tragic. The sooner we “flatten the curve,” the sooner we can return to safer and normal economic and personal lives,” he added.
In addition to increasing the risk of system failure, the increased usage also drives up hospital energy inefficiency, which has been largely ignored in the crisis. In smarter hospitals, where power consumption patterns are monitored, analyzed, and predicted to optimize for energy efficiency, this is the time to recalibrate for our new reality where possible. Energy efficiency may not be the top priority for hospital managers, but this is a chance for the HVAC sector to learn, innovate, and support wherever possible.
An early CDC release of a July 2020 research paper from the Guangzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention even suggests that the air-conditioning in one restaurant in Guangzhou, China, dictated the spread of the virus between customers. Involving three family clusters, the researchers found that the airflow direction was consistent with droplet transmission and recommended increasing the distance between tables and improving ventilation. As we continue to understand the outbreak, we will find new and more effective ways to help.
“Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 many building engineering staff in non-medical facilities are being asked to do what they can with their existing systems to help slow the spread of COVID-19 through enhanced cleaning practices and revising their HVAC sequences of operation,” said Justin Lee, head of engineering at InSite, in his own message to the building systems community, which references the ASHRAE COVID HVAC guidance.
“Providing building engineers with new tools available through digital enablement of their facilities and systems will allow building operators to rapidly respond to these evolving circumstances. Even though many of these suggested sequences are atypical in non-medical facilities, digitally-enabled assets are able to quickly adjust their operations and provide verification that the extra effort to protect their assets is effective,” Lee continued.
We still don’t know how long it will be until the lockdown finishes and we can go back to our offices. It is also uncertain how companies will approach the problem of bringing employees back safely. We are not waiting for the virus to run its course, so we can end the lockdown and return to normality — we have applied the lockdown to curb the impact of the virus while we work out what to do next. For the sake of the economy, people will start returning to work while the virus is still active, cases will rise again as governments find a balance between health and the economy. The role of our building systems is the safety of occupants, as it has always been but different.
“Building operators must maintain a focus on balancing operating costs while maintaining a safe and healthy building environment during extended periods of varying occupancy levels. Some buildings are completely empty and have shut down, while many are operating at a fraction of their normal occupancy levels while supporting essential workers and businesses,” explains Lee. “This requires constant communication between building operating staff and the tenants, as well as adjustments to building operations while persistently measuring the impact of revised operating strategies.”
Lee also recommends that building managers significantly reduce the number of building operating staff, by as much as 75% in some cases, in addition to applying social distancing strategies and anticipating sudden staff quarantine. And, as we discussed for hospitals, digitally-enabled buildings, especially those with remote monitoring and control functionality, offer the greatest flexibility, for the current crisis and the unknown future.
We may have been taken by surprise and put the efficient operation of our buildings aside as we moved into emergency response mode. This is a different type of disaster, however, one that requires us to adapt to a new reality, for a while, rather than bounce back from adversity through sheer will and communication. We’ve got to be “smart” about this one.
“The power of providing building operators with the tools that come with digitally enabled facilities to rapidly adapt to evolving circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated,” concludes Lee. “Digitally enabled facilities provide building operators the tools to measure new safety protocols in real-time and keep their facilities running with less staff on-site; this provides a key piece to ensuring a robust and resilient response to the current crisis."