While physical security and facilities maintenance are very obvious daily priorities, our commitment to occupant health and comfort includes a serious focus on indoor air quality (IAQ) including temperature, humidity, lighting, CO2, CO, VOCs, airborne contaminants, and other unwanted matter.
ASHRAE Standard 62, our industry’s governing document on IAQ, provides valuable prescriptive and strategic information for preventing problems. Although standards and codes are typically written for new construction, we can be expected to use these tools to evaluate existing facilities and find out how they measure up.
Don’t bet for a minute that engineer-turned-John Q. Attorney hasn’t read Standard 62 and wouldn’t ask your boss, “So, Mr. CFO (if that is indeed your real name), my client is very sick because of your building. Do you expect this jury to believe your facilities manager was unaware of ASHRAE Standard 62 and the industry’s accepted fresh air ventilation rates for occupants?”
So what can we do? After “source control” investigations that include identifying anything that might be creating specific IAQ problems (like roof leaks, dry plumbing traps, malfunctioning bathroom exhaust fans, chemical spills, or my personal favorite–the burnt popcorn hit and run in the break room microwave), our HVAC operations are a first line of defense against IAQ problems.
Fortunately, sophisticated controls and systems can do an excellent job of maintaining appropriate temperature and humidity ranges while introducing enough outside air to prevent airborne contaminant buildup. For older systems and not-so-state-of-the-art controls, manual operations can still be very effective–if you know what you’re trying to achieve and how your systems work.
One of the first things I recommend–whether a building is just being commissioned (I’ll save my commissioning rants for another column) or if it’s more than 100 years old–is to get a solid understanding of where you are today. This calls for a benchmark.
If you’re like me and can’t justify investing thousands of dollars in IAQ data logging instrumentation, you can contact your company’s insurance company (or your workers’ compensation carrier) and ask if the company has an industrial hygienist you could borrow for some air quality sampling and testing. I told our insurance carrier that we were benchmarking our facility’s HVAC operations (our facility was about 18 months old at the time) and wanted to be sure that we were properly ventilating the space. I also wanted to ensure that construction related VOCs from new furniture, paint, carpet, adhesives, etc. had dropped to acceptable levels. (I think my carrier actually enjoyed getting a call from someone who wasn’t in trouble!)
My carrier informed me it would be happy to arrange this service, since it was in the insurance company’s interest to help us confirm we have healthy facilities (i.e. no claims for it to pay). However, my insurer could only provide testing for temperature, humidity, CO2, CO, and VOCs; it no longer offered testing for airborne biologicals (molds, etc.).
Instead, the company recommended I contact a local contractor for that scope of the project. We arranged a multi-day testing strategy during a normal week, and I faxed some floor plans and notes about where I thought testing should be conducted.
Since we have 13 major air handlers over our 230,000 square feet of office space, we planned on 13 office data sample areas, in addition to measurements in our server room and outside in the adjacent parking lot. (Did I mention this was all done at no cost?) Finally, I contacted a local contractor about the biological scope, and for less than $3,000, the contract provided testing and a very comprehensive report and analysis.
The testing generated a beautiful mid-week profile of the building and gave me a very clear understanding of how my HVAC systems were performing during occupied and unoccupied hours. The temperature and humidity control were excellent, and the outside air dilution rates were, as I suspected, more than adequate for my occupancy. VOCs, CO, and airborne biologicals were practically non-existent, so I was extremely pleased!
My insurance company’s hygienist remarked that these were the cleanest results he had seen in a non-hospital application. Of course, he is probably called in most frequently after the problems have been reported and the subpoenas are in the mail. But since I’m a mechanical engineer, that kind feedback on my systems’ performance had me flying high for a few weeks!
I mentioned to my inspector that I suspected we might be over ventilating the building, and in coastal South Carolina, this means incurring a huge expense associated with conditioning too much hot, humid, outside air. Of course, energy efficiency is another priority of facility management, so this was valuable information.
Following the benchmark testing, I asked my controls contractor to reprogram our HVAC sequence of operations so we could have independent control of our outside air systems. This would allow us to customize their run times and try to get the ventilation to achieve just the right balance of energy efficiency and acceptable IAQ.
The outside air adjustment quickly resulted in a drop in our daily energy profile (we monitor our transformers’ KW loads on 15 minute intervals with our HVAC controls), so I’m confident the money we spent with the contractor and the effort we put into the testing has already paid for itself a few times over.
In addition, we began an application with the Environmental Protection Agency for an “energy star” certification on our building and found we needed to trim about 15% from our consumption. We hope these steps and some other efficiency measures will help us reach that goal by the end of next year.
Another great benefit of the testing knowledge and IAQ awareness is apparent when Suzy H. Occupant sends down an e-mail to “facilities” (copy to HR) and says she suspects the building is “making her sick.” If a person is not experiencing an allergy to something specific in his or her work area (and that does happen), these concerns are usually quickly resolved with a phone call explaining some of the things that ensure the building’s IAQ is healthy and in compliance with industry standards.
People really appreciate knowing we are on top of this issue and can educate them when they have questions. With increased awareness in the community about “sick building syndrome” and toxic mold, the burden is on us to stay ahead of potential complaints and legal action.
My next step is to retest the building in a few months and see if the outside air adjustments were perfect or if I need to adjust a little more. I consider this type of performance testing preventive maintenance, since I will be able to compare future test profiles to the original benchmark and look for system performance degradation. I’m considering some type of hand held IAQ instrumentation investment, but it might be more cost effective to keep working with a subcontractor.
I’m fortunate to have a CFO and budget process that grant the resources to keep the facilities in great shape. I have seen far too many commercial facilities abused by lack of owner awareness and appropriate funding (but that too could be another column).
If you would like to drop me a note about your IAQ experiences or would like further details about our suppliers or test results, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.