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Commercial Indoor Air Quality: Best Practices and Trends

Last updated: 12-17-2020

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Commercial Indoor Air Quality: Best Practices and Trends

Operating buildings in a pandemic-focused world is no easy task. Considerations for occupation levels, sanitation, airflow and energy use are just some of the immediate areas building owners and managers are placing their efforts.

For many, activities to identify and improve a building’s indoor environment (including its air quality) are paying off. There have been no singular solutions ꟷ but rather specific evaluation and research for every unique situation where risk is mitigated within the confines of an owner’s building, equipment and budget.

Why it matters: With COVID-19-related cases continuing across the nation, many businesses remain focused on safely operating and maintaining their buildings. In some cases, small changes are making big improvements and in others, long-term building health is getting much-needed attention.

“There’s a renewed appreciation for IAQ and the benefits it can bring on indoor air quality,” said Ron Cosby, Trane thermal systems and technology director. “The mindset that IAQ can be quickly fixed in the short term until things ‘calm down and go away’ has shifted. People are realizing IAQ has become a permanently important element, critical to a building’s long-term health and sustainability.”

Small changes or improvements can make significant impacts to a building’s overall health. Many businesses using Trane’s IAQ Assessment are discovering the true condition of their buildings and receiving support in identifying short and long term solutions. In some cases, experts are identifying lower cost solutions that can make significant impacts on IAQ.

One common gap experts are finding is with a building’s outside air dampers ꟷ critical components to bringing in fresh air to ventilate and dilute the buildup of certain contaminants indoors.

Building owners and managers may unknowingly have air dampers that can’t be opened, or aren’t operating properly. “Outside air dampers are the primary method of controlling ventilation air introduced to the building,” said Andrew Mondell, Trane business development manager. “Without functioning outside air dampers, a building is like an airplane flying without a pilot. There would be no way to know how much or how little outside air is being introduced to the space.”

Air dampers should be checked regularly as part of an overall maintenance schedule. If dampers aren’t regularly checked, there is a high likelihood the system isn’t introducing the proper amount of outdoor air. 

“If too much is introduced, this can increase energy consumption or create temperature and humidity control challenges if the HVAC system cannot keep up, said Mondell. “If too little outdoor air is introduced, the system may not be able to dilute contaminants optimally.”

Building Automation Systems (BAS) monitoring is the best way to ensure a damper is working properly as it provides visibility into a system operation through BAS alerts to building engineering staff.

Other common issues are related to humidity control ꟷ an important pillar of IAQ management ꟷ that, when set correctly, can create an environment that is unfriendly to airborne contaminants. High humidity can support the growth of pathogenic or allergenic organisms, according to ASHRAE® (formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) of Atlanta, GA, but low humidity levels can also lead to longer microbiological lifespans.

“Humidity has an impact on the longevity of a virus, so it is key to maintain humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent relative humidity at comfort cooling temperatures,” said Cosby. “The Department of Homeland Security has shown the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19) has a half-life of 40 minutes at 70°F and 50 percent humidity. But that half-life goes up to nearly three hours if the humidity drops to 30 percent.”

Actively maintaining humidity is key to reducing the risk of viral longevity in a room. This might involve installing new humidity sensors, re-programming or re-configuring the equipment controller to implement a humidity control sequence, or installing new equipment or components in existing equipment. For cold climates, this could involve adding humidification equipment.

Learn what humidity levels are right for your unique building from your local HVAC expert.

Maximizing the capabilities of a building’s controls systems is critical. When a building’s controls are fully integrated and used correctly, they help identify problem areas before they become serious issues. Building owners and facility managers are able to track and develop long-term service plans and drive down costs around service calls (read more about building management).

“With the collaboration of chief engineers, facilities managers and technicians – and their combined data analysis – you have a superhero support system looking at how to fully optimize these connected buildings and their advanced machine learning capabilities,” said Dane Taival, vice president of Trane digital and energy services. “The data gathered from each unique, connected building gives us the best look into what to do for a building’s specific performance needs, and the subject matter expert interpretation of that data is crucial.”

Connected buildings also help maximize energy savings based on building occupation. If a quick shutdown is required, a BAS will fast track the shutdown process which can provide owners with immediate savings.

The short-term solutions, investments and decisions being made in the realm of immediate IAQ improvements should ultimately take into account a building’s long-term lifespan.

Many businesses are tailoring solutions to fit their building’s unique needs. For the Austin Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, data from a Trane IAQ assessment allowed them to see just how unique each facility was – giving them the strongest look into specific performance needs and identifying ways to increase sustainability through holistic solutions. Austin ISD is now poised to make long-term investment plans and prioritize each building’s requirements.

Optimizing the balance between comfort, IAQ and energy consumption depends on building intelligence and connectivity – the driving forces behind a facility’s sustainability. Trane experts are well versed in creating healthy and efficient spaces and can assess, mitigate and mange a complete solution for each and every unique building.

There is evidence from ASHRAE and other sources that HVAC technologies can mitigate the risk of exposure to infectious aerosols in built environments; however, the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and mitigation of COVID-19 in buildings is yet to be tested and confirmed.

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