Tue. Jul 7th, 2020

Technology

Guide to Operating Buildings During the COVID-19 Pandemic

4 min read
By Michael Tobias The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has issued...

By Michael Tobias

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has issued a brief report on the best engineering interventions that can be used to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the air. It also discusses how effective these interventions are likely to be.

The Society’s stated position on the transmission and control of the virus is that engineering controls should be implemented to reduce the viral droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 that travel through the air and cause COVID-19. ASHRAE also draws attention to the fact that their advice, which hinges on changing building operations, is not in conflict with the guidance offered by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Neither the CDC nor WHO are able to explain all incidents of the community spread of the disease and both recommending using some engineering controls.

ASHRAE’s stated position is that because transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is “sufficiently likely” to lead to airborne exposure of the virus, steps should be taken to control this. They recommend changes to building operations including the way heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems operate. Obviously, this would involve the input of a qualified HVAC engineer or engineering company.  

How the Virus Spreads

It appears that in many parts of the world COVID-19 is spreading very easily in some communities within certain areas. The issue is that many people have no idea of where or how they became infected.

The CDC guidance states that the virus spreads via droplets that become airborne when a person coughs or sneezes. Of course, not everybody is infected, but if that person is infected, and the droplets land “in the mouths or noses” of nearby persons, or are inhaled into their lungs, they could catch the disease. The CDC warns that the spread of COVID-19 is more likely when people are in close contact with one another, a distance they specify as about 6 feet (1,8 meters).

Guidance from WHO is very similar. People catch the virus from other people when the droplets are “expelled” from the nose or mouth if the infected person sneezes or even speaks. They don’t travel very far and tend to quickly sink to the ground, so WHO recommends we all keep at least 3 feet or 1 meter from each other.

The ASHRAE Brief on Airborne Transmission and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Short and to the point, the new ASHRAE Environmental Health Committee (EHC) Emerging Issue Brief titled Pandemic COVID-19 and Airborne Transmission discusses the issue and its history and then discusses the role that ASHRAE has set for itself in the pandemic.

Two issues highlighted are:

  1. Which engineering interventions will be likely to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the air.
  2. How effective these interventions will be.

Of course, a lot is conjecture because COVID-19 is so new and so different from anything we have previously experienced. But when engineers have a clear understanding of how the disease is transmitted through the air, and how controls can be effected, positive intervention becomes a potential reality.

There is considerable concern about the ways various pathogens related to the disease can be transmitted through the air. Everybody is at risk including you and me!

The focus of ASHRAE is varied and includes healthcare facilities, office, and retail environments, private and public facilities, manufacturing workplaces, and public transportation. Ultimately, it provides guidance on the design, operation, and maintenance of HVAC systems so that they can be reconfigured to help reduce the fatal dangers that result when pathogens are transmitted through the air.

The two statements that ASHRAE has released state that:

  1. By changing building operations we can control exposure to the airborne virus. This includes making changes to HVAC systems.
  2. It is possible to reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 by reconfiguring the ventilation and filtration operations in HVAC systems.

But how do you know what to do?

Get Professional Assistance to Make Sure Your Building is COVID-19 Resilient

It doesn’t take rocket science to realize that you need to identify any vulnerable areas in your building. If and when it is found that there are vulnerable areas, you will need a specialist to identify the best prevention measures.

Your ventilation systems will need to be optimized to help prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Generally, this can be done by upgrading HVAC filters and ensuring the air purification is maximized.

So why delay? ASHRAE, WHO, and the CDC all agree on how the virus spreads. It’s up to us to take steps to stop the spread. 

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, which is an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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