As economies reopen worldwide, post the global pandemic, commercial real estate (CRE) businesses are facing the prospect of an operational revamp, to adapt buildings for optimal occupant safety and efficiency. Building automation, key to limiting the spread of the COVID-19 contagion, are embedded HVAC systems. Securing the building community against the spread of infection is of paramount importance. However, building owners are also looking at the challenge from a business continuity perspective. Should there be an outbreak, a CRE business would be forced to shut down the entire building, leading to loss of revenue and reputation. Recognising the risk to the sector, professional associations, such as ASHRAE, BOMA and ISHRAE, have shared comprehensive guidelines and protocols, to help building owners maintain their HVAC systems in the new normal. In order to ensure occupant safety, building owners need to be able to implement these preventative measures meticulously.
A FIVE-PRONGED APPROACH TO OPTIMISING HVAC SYSTEMS
Contemporary buildings, which typically secure premises within glassed walls, have to adhere to a new standard in operations, to curb the spread of the virus and maintain impeccable Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). How effectively building owners are able to comply will determine their ability to attract returning workforces and secure their buildings against a sudden loss of value.
The processes and strategies being stressed, in order for HVAC systems to be operated in line with the guidelines issued by regulatory bodies, can be summed up within five key components, which include:
CONDUCTING REGULAR CHECKS AND ASSESSMENTS: Kickstarting HVAC systems after an extended break requires a careful risk assessment, and gauging the ability of existing infrastructure to meet revamped guidelines. A long break in operations could have led to build-up and contamination in ducts, posing serious health threats and undermining efficiency. Guidelines recommend that:
►►Before HVAC systems are rebooted, building owners need to undertake preventive maintenance to completely disinfect filters, grilles, diffusers and indoor unit coils.
►►Fans, dampers and pump operations, etc., need to be reassessed.
►►Water quality in chillers and boilers needs to be checked.
►►Operations, such as replacing possibly infected filters, must strictly adhere to guidelines.
►►Recommissioning HVAC systems is recommended, to ensure safe HVAC operations.
►►Retrocommissioning is recommended, if an HVAC system has not been commissioned previously.
MAINTAINING THE CIRCULATION OF FRESH AIR: Good ventilation is the key to reducing the risk of infection. It should be the non-negotiable priority of a CRE business to ensuring the expelling of infected, polluted or stale indoor air, even if this requires extra effort or capital inputs. Guidelines recommend that:
►►HVAC systems be allowed to run for longer than usual periods, to minimise re-circulated air, as per ASHRAE guidelines.
►►Additional air ducts should be installed in buildings, if current measures provide inadequate ventilation.
►►Monitoring humidity and optimising exhaust airflows is critical. These and other ventilation standards should be validated using remote IAQ monitoring tools.
►►HVAC systems should be operated in 100% airside economiser mode, whenever the building has occupants.
►►Building owners and operators should expect a spike in equipment wear and tear, due to longer operating durations. Real-time IoT data collation and intelligent analytics can help in predictive maintenance.
►►Sites using less complex HVAC systems can be optimised using as much natural ventilation as possible, with AC systems turned off. This approach also limits the need for risk assessment.
ENHANCE AIR FILTRATION THROUGH REGULAR CLEANING OF COMPONENTS: Frequent cleaning and changing of HVAC air filters have a huge impact on limiting contaminants in airflow. As a bonus, this also promotes optimal energy efficiency and asset performance, as well as reducing operating costs relating to ongoing repairs. Guidelines recommend that:
►►Frequent filter changes are carried out and that the process is monitored in real-time by auto-generated IoT work requests.
►►Preliminary checks ought to be carried out to ascertain if AHU system is compatible with a higher efficiency filter (such as MERV-15). Ensure that fans compensate for decreased airflow with increased speed.
►►Systems incompatible with high-MERV filters could be upgraded with ductwork modification.
►► It is essential to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to technicians servicing or replacing dirty filters, and to dispose such filters safely.
►►Portable air purifiers, with HEPA filter and UV germicidal irradiation could be used for enhanced occupant protection.
MONITOR TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY ON AN ONGOING BASIS: Research has established that optimal humidity can
help contain COVID-19. Ascertain the optimal temperature and humidity for the regional climate and automate adherence to the acceptable setpoint range. Guidelines recommend that:
►►Temperature setpoint is between 24°C and 30°C, as per ISHRAE guidelines.
►►Humidity ranges between 40% and 70%, depending on climate.
►►Data-driven automation of HVAC systems should replace manual inspection routines, so as to prevent out-of-range deviations and to ensure regulatory compliance.
ENSURE LONG-TERM EFFICIENCY AND COMPLIANCE, USING REMOTE MONITORING: Dynamic and remote control of automation systems is non-negotiable, for long-term system reliability and optimization. Guidelines recommend the use of/practice of:
►► IoT-driven remote operations with portfolio-wide Fault Detection and Diagnostics.
►►Automated workflows for field-service personnel.
►►Agile HVAC operations that respond to on-demand tenant needs – based on occupancy, space occupied, and season.
►►Leveraging real-time HVAC data using exhaustive analytics and reporting, to empower stakeholders and overall refined control over asset performance.
REDEFINING HVAC STRATEGIES, IN LINE WITH NEW REQUIREMENTS
In the new normal, HVAC operations need to be redefined in the context of holistic occupant well-being. However, each existing system presents a unique set of challenges, in adhering to revised guidelines and needs. Some existing HVAC systems might struggle to maintain recommended levels of ventilation, while some others might be limited by out-dated technologies.
Building owners will need to embrace innovations such as digitised disinfection operations, dynamic HVAC control, portfolio-wide automation and centralised remote platforms to manage operations. The post-pandemic new normal has escalated the standards to which HVAC systems will need to adhere. Adopting emerging digital solutions will be crucial for building owners, if they want consistent, reliable and compliant HVAC systems, which adhere to these enhanced O&M requirements.
Prabhu Ramachandran is the founder and CEO of Facilio Inc. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.