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Retrofitting for better IAQ

Bin Dasmal Contracting says it is flying against the face of conventional building-retrofit objectives to focus not only on energy efficiency but also on improving indoor air quality. Surendar Balakrishnan in conversation with Sahul Hameed, General Manager of the company. Excerpts from the interview…

| | Dec 23, 2021 | 9:23 am
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What is your model of engagement in executing building-retrofit projects?

We follow the design-build approach and work directly with the client, without a consultant in between.

Sahul Hameed

You say you are undertaking design-build projects? How does that give you an objective perspective?

If you had the intervention of an MEP consultant, would you not benefit from a third-party expertise? There are certain projects where we work directly with the client, which involves the client’s engineering team to execute regarding the things to be replaced. They would select the models, the capacity, the requirement. Everything is defined. So, sometimes we also go as per the consultant’s design.

It is interesting you are retrofitting existing buildings with up-to-date air-handling units, at a time when building-retrofit projects are unidimensional with the sole focus on energy efficiency. Could you tell readers of Climate Control Middle East what prompted you to take a different approach?

From the client’s point of view, it is not only about the replacement of the equipment or an existing system. If they insist on air quality and ask for air purifiers and other devices to be installed, we will deploy them. Generally speaking, the client does not have the kind of awareness unless we give it as a value addition to the package.

Are you seeing a trend in the market, though, where clients are saying, ‘Could you also look into IAQ and not just energy efficiency?

Obviously, IAQ is the area we are associated with, and we see a lot of new interest, especially when customers are interested in a new technology – whether it’s a retrofit project or a new project. They start to look for evidence, so there are two different approaches. We try to monitor before we make any changes and then afterwards.

We do have retrofit solutions for IAQ monitoring, which is highly scalable. It’s remote and battery operated. So, we can easily take a project consisting of 100s of apartments and implement solutions at a very low cost. The baseline information is there, and we can continue monitoring to see the change. We typically monitor for CO2, humidity, particulate matter and VOCs.

Traditionally, IAQ has been about CO2 and condensation leading to mould. Are you also getting enquiries for IAQ with the pandemic in mind? Are building owners wanting to improve their buildings from an infection-control perspective? Or, are you seeing this only from a ‘I have a problem, and I need to address it’ standpoint?

I do believe COVID has brought a lot of attention to two aspects we can look at through monitoring IAQ. The first is, how many people are given space, considering the airflow. And the second aspect has to do with VOCs, which are a very good indicator of disinfection practices. So, we can very easily see where we have a spike in VOCs every four hours, we can see that there has to be a disinfectant, and there are interventions that we can execute.  

What value are you adding with your AHUs to improve air quality? What are you offering that are missing in earlier systems?

There are AHUs that are almost 25 years old. They measured the design CFM and the actual CFM, and they are not getting even 40- 50%. And that’s why they are going for new equipment. After installing, we are getting the required CFM. Apart from that, there is a 25-30% increase than the requirement.

Are we seeing any innovation?

In the case of some projects, clients do not want to go for any new equipment or new brands. Whatever they install is the same pattern, same make and the same conditions, as per the existing arrangement.

You said you have replaced existing AHUs with new AHUs. What features in the new equipment make them appealing?

We try to give better facility with our Trosten specs, and we can easily comply with the standard requirement. If the client insists on not upgrading, we would have a challenge. As a retrofit contractor, at the end of the day, we need to satisfy the client’s requirements and to go with additions and new features. The client must accept them, and it is here that the consultant plays the major role. The consultant also may have recommendations and revisions.

The pandemic has forced a debate on the minimum number of fresh air changes, but studies carried out have revealed a 30% increase in energy use, which goes against the grain of thought of combating global warming through energy management. As an organisation, are you recommending more fresh air changes to clients?

Unfortunately, we cannot do that. Even though we are changing the duct work or the chilled water piping, clients are expecting a big reduction in energy bills. This is the mindset of 90% of the residents, and we don’t have an answer for them, even though we have solutions and procedures. At the end of the day, we work with the lumpsum value that this is the amount, the make, the design, and this is how we work.

As a contractor, how do you ensure the treated air is delivered to the intended zone?

In a new construction or a new building, air balancing is easy, Everything is open, and you have direct access. Now, one of the projects we worked on – Azure Apartments – was fully occupied. You are talking of 170 flats, and you have 17 flats in one floor. To do the air balancing, to keep the required air flow, to check the air flow itself, you cannot control it. Somewhere, it is 50% more than that, 100% more than that.

We requested the FM team there to give us access to a complete floor for one day or two days, with the promise that we would complete the commissioning and do the complete balancing. It happened that in some floors, the residents were not available, they were outside the country or their working hours were different. And so, these were the challenges we faced. Still, we were able to get the required air flow as per the design. We got it certified by the consultants.

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