Following the COVID-19 pandemic, occupiers and end users of commercial space are giving renewed attention to indoor air quality and the important role that HVAC systems play in keeping spaces healthy. In schools, office buildings, restaurants and healthcare settings, HVAC systems have a particularly high obligation to ensure that filtration and ventilation is mitigating airborne contaminants. Specific property types carry unique HVAC needs; their HVAC systems need to be carefully vetted, installed and calibrated. Following are some new technologies, applications and approaches to consider when retrofitting or installing new HVAC systems across some of the nation’s most important asset classes.
Workplace redesign is a major trend accelerating thanks to the pandemic, especially as companies plan for their employees to return to work safely. New, energy-efficient HVAC systems also bring into a focus a renewed emphasis on green design. In New York City specifically, tightened caps on carbon emissions mandated by Local Law 97 are also prompting office landlords to consider retrofitting and installing with smart HVAC systems and their requisite smart meters, thermostats and sensors.
Such software-enabled HVAC systems collect data and synthesize it into reporting on usage levels, system status and historical trends reporting. Such data is helpful for scheduling maintenance before an issue becomes serious. In some cases, smart HVAC systems can run a self-diagnosis and signal when repairs are needed, avoiding a major system outage. More sophisticated systems are able to talk to each other — occupancy sensors track and control indoor temperature, humidity and lighting, while outdoor conditions, like temperature, brightness and the sun’s position are also tracked. Smart add-ons, like automated blinds that open and close based on brightness, show the extent to which smart systems’ capabilities are customizable. For office properties focused on wellness in the workplace, smart HVAC systems are a must.
Air must be kept as clean possible within healthcare centers, medical offices, nursing homes and hospitals. Infectious agents are known to spread quickly within these types of properties. HVAC systems installed within healthcare properties should provide a comfortable setting, but they must also be able to control infection and odor through adequate filtration and ventilation. Within larger facilities, it’s crucial to install and route HVAC systems to provide for a high number of air changes and filtration speed through the number of rooms that can be used at any one moment. Energy-efficient systems that have the backup resiliency to continue operating despite a power outage are also a crucial capability.
HVAC systems are an essential resource for educational campuses. Adequate ventilation improves cognitive performance and lowers absenteeism, according to educational experts. Unfortunately, a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that 54% of public-school districts should update or replace their building systems and that 41% of districts had schools that needed new HVAC systems. According to GAO, across the country, about 36,000 schools need HVAC upgrades or new installations.
MWSK recommends first assessing HVAC systems to identify their failure points, followed by targeted repairs or new HVAC installation with MERV-13 filtration. Within classrooms, CO2 sensors should be installed, and possible designs for delivering outside air to enclosed spaces should also be evaluated.
This is in line with city recommendations. As New York City prepared for schools to reopen last summer, the New York City School Construction Authority and the Division of School Facilities said that it planned to fix windows and HVAC systems for adequate filtration and upgrade central HVAC system filters from MERV 8 to MERV 13.
Hotels & Restaurants
With vaccine distribution leading to increased travel and more Americans opting for indoor dining, a well-maintained HVAC system is a top priority for hotels and restaurants. Hotels are an asset class that must operate around the clock, 365 days per year, so regular maintenance should help ensure their HVAC systems last the typical 15-20 years lifespan.
Increasingly, large hotel operators are prioritizing sustainability and installing energy-efficient systems that reduce the property’s total power consumption. Many hoteliers are opting for motion sensors to be installed within guest rooms, so that HVAC systems only activate when someone is occupying the room. The same technology can be rolled out in lobbies and common areas to limit power usage during slow periods.
There are three typical HVAC systems for hotels. While Packaged Terminal Air Conditioners are basically self-contained air-conditioning units for individual rooms, vertical terminal air conditioners heat and cool multiple rooms as in-wall units. Meanwhile, variable refrigerant flow systems offer a newer, centralized technology that uses energy-recovery principles to move warm or cold air between rooms without a main condenser.
For restaurants, there are a number of crucial HVAC considerations. There must be sufficient air exchange so that air quality and energy efficiency don’t suffer and combustion gases from cooking don’t back-vent. Additionally, fire-suppression systems must be maintained through routine inspection and cleaning to make sure they work when needed. Many restaurateurs are upgrading their systems to provide more robust ventilation, decontamination and air conditioning capabilities. For urban restaurants in particular, some major cities are requiring that 20% of the air circulated comes from outside, prioritizing a total air exchange to occur 15 times per hour and prescribing MERV-11 grade filters.
Both hoteliers and restaurateurs would be wise to consider upgrading their HVAC’s filtration technologies. For restaurants that may occupy tighter spaces, portable air filtration units, including ionization and UV sterilization, may be a viable alternative option.