FM Frequency: AH-CHOO! Indoor Air Quality Revisited

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By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the April 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Yes, spring is in the air! High school students are preparing for final exams and counting the days until summer vacation. Facilities managers (FM) are waking up sleepy chillers and looking forward to a few months of relief from budget busting heating bills. Spring also signals the return of the annual TFM Show. Did I see you in Chicago this year?

Longer days, singing birds, and pollen coated air filters remind facility managers that indoor air quality (IAQ) challenges are upon us once again. Unfortunately, seasonal allergens are harassing many of our building occupants; some of them will assume the work place is the cause of their discomfort.

Are you nodding in agreement? Have you ever received an IAQ complaint during allergy season?

Most people suffering from the symptoms of seasonal allergies insist on coming to work no matter how they feel. They typically refuse to wear a respirator or wrap a pleated filter bag over their heads. But with so many runny noses and watery eyes, it’s important for building environments to remain as healthy as possible.

Building occupants probably don’t realize that a well managed facility can have cleaner air than the great outdoors, but it’s true! So how do we maintain healthy IAQ in our buildings?

Speak the language!

  • Know what healthy IAQ means before receiving a complaint (or a subpoena from a personal injury attorney). ASHRAE Standard 62 is the industry’s comprehensive reference for indoor air quality.
  • Search the Web, especially the TFM archives, for related articles.
  • Share experiences with peers and contractors; learn from one another.

Maintain an aggressive source control strategy.

  • Quickly identify and correct any and all moisture events. Mold incidents are often traced to faulty roofing, windows, doors, and other building penetrations. Plumbing problems (kitchens and bathrooms) should also be suspects in IAQ investigations.
  • Make sure your property drains properly. Standing water around and under facilities can cause environmental health—not to mention structural—problems.
  • Be able to recognize the smells of natural gas, sewer gas, and mildew. (Is FM a glamorous gig or what?) Be prepared to troubleshoot the most likely sources of each in your facility.
  • Develop effective operational procedures. For example, don’t steam clean carpets before closing a building for an extended time (locking in moisture without running HVAC). Schools sometimes make this mistake right as summer vacation begins.
  • When mold is detected on building materials, know how to respond and do it quickly. There is no “one size fits all” solution for mold; each situation is distinct. Know the difference between active and “dead” mold and find out how to deal with each.
  • Ask furniture, paint, carpet, and other product suppliers about their products’ VOC (volatile organic compound) properties. Use HVAC controls to maximize ventilation in remodeled spaces in order to dilute pollutants quickly.

Monitor the HVAC systems and understand what they do.

  • Verify that building exhaust and outside air ventilation rates are appropriate. Most buildings’ air systems are not properly balanced. Restaurants and office cafeterias frequently have air balancing problems caused by large kitchen exhaust hoods.
  • Keep mechanical rooms clean and don’t let them become storage closets. Boxes and chemicals in mechanical rooms can pollute air streams, restrict flow, and earn a fire inspector’s citation.

Consider a proactive IAQ documentation program.

  • “Risk averse” organizations should consider budgeting for routine IAQ testing as preventive maintenance. Benchmarking and periodic testing for temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, particulates, carbon monoxide, VOCs, formaldehyde, and biological pollutants can help identify problems before they become severe. Preventive testing can also be a proactive defense against unfounded complaints.

Practice proactive communications and expectation management.

  • Educate facility occupants about the ways you keep the building clean and safe. Assure them that you comply with industry standards and guidelines.
  • Talk to human resources and determine the best way to educate the masses about the building environment and facilities’ commitment to safeguarding it.
  • Talk with folks dealing with relocations and/or remodeled spaces. Advise them that new finishes often require a few days or weeks to “breathe” but reassure them that VOC levels (sort of like “new car smell”) typically drop off very quickly.

Get help!

  • If you’re new to FM or if you don’t feel comfortable discussing IAQ and HVAC with occupants or senior management, seek education from outside sources. Take a BOMA or IFMA class or talk with licensed mechanical contractors or architects. Industrial hygienists, health care professionals, and mechanical engineers are good sources of IAQ information, education, and advice.
  • The EPA and state health departments are excellent sources of free information and troubleshooting checklists.
  • Personal health Web sites such as www.webmd.com and www.pollen.com feature valuable allergen related information.
  • Your organization’s property liability insurance carrier may have maintenance guidelines or special advice or requirements for handling IAQ complaints or mold remediation. Remember, mold has been called “the next asbestos.” Operational ignorance can result in big paydays for lawyers. Your insurance carrier would probably rather take your call before facing a claim.

IAQ is an important part of FM, but you don’t have to be a biology Ph.D. to be effective. With continuing education and a healthy dose of common sense, FMs can confidently manage healthy buildings and effectively respond to IAQ complaints.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with ChildressKlein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.

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