Research shows that people stay indoors – whether in their homes or offices – for at least 93% of the time. This may have increased to 100% for some people during the pandemic. Such a situation can increase the rate of exposure to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). Posing little to no risk of cross-contamination in any facility has become a challenge today. With the region opened up now, and schools starting from September, places that people throng will need to be smart when it comes to ensuring that not only are their facilities clean and hygienic but that they continue to implement a top notch indoor air quality maintenance schedule.
Recently, Clean Middle East organized a webinar on Indoor Air Quality - in association with Boecker® - where the discussion touched upon the concept, maintenance and the challenges involved. Here is an excerpt… Indoor air quality is crucial to any building and its occupants’ health. Markus Lattner, Managing Director of Eurovent Middle East - and one of the panelists at the webinar - spoke about how he and his association Eurovent Middle East, have been promoting the importance of IAQ right from the design stage. He said, “IAQ and ventilation systems are a crucial element at every stage of a building - and the onus lies with every stakeholder - the owner, manufacturer, consultants, FM.” Angela Abdel Nour, Group Germ Control Senior Officer at Boecker® Public Health, agreed. She added that - in general - “Bad IAQ has a significant impact on human health; it can cause short-term treatable health issues like fatigue, dizziness or headaches but it can also cause long-term illnesses like lung or heart disease.” And then of course, you have the pandemic perspective. Any microorganism - including the coronavirus - can be transmitted through droplets in the air. Therefore, all facilities must be prepared at all times and function properly to prevent airborne transmission. Nour emphasized that facilities must continuously work to monitor and improve their IAQ – especially during a pandemic where people prefer to remain indoors almost 100% of the time. Michael Rollins, Consultant Healthcare Environment Infection Prevention, cautioned - “Understanding IAQ is very important and a serious issue when it comes to the removal of pathogens from the environment. It is equally important to know the source of any pathogen existing in the indoor air.”
The pandemic has brought with it new understanding of our overall hygiene. IAQ has not been left behind - especially now that studies show that the virus can persist in the air for about 3 hours. Implementing preventive measures by maintaining IAQ is something facilities across the region are focusing on. According to Lattner, there is also increased interest in solutions for better IAQ. However, it is more intricate than we imagine. To improve IAQ in a facility is not an easy task. One may have to replace the entire ventilation system - so this becomes a longterm project or initiative. Hence, the first step is to educate the market. Contractors need to understand the IAQ solutions and options available to them. Building owners must be ready to invest in them and then the public needs to follow simple rules when it comes to equipping occupied space and how to deal with fresh air.
This holds true even more for the UAE with the high levels of temperature, humidity and dust, observed Rollings. All of this has a direct impact on the main HVAC system in terms of its overall efficiency. This is where proper maintenance and optimized operations come into play. In the region, indoor air experts have observed a higher percentage of recirculated air in closed buildings due to the high environment temperature. Lattner said, “If you would have to operate cooling and ventilation systems with only fresh air you would have a huge energy penalty during the hot months. Recirculation alone is not a bad thing; the important thing here is that the systems are operated in the best way possible. That means if you have an air filtration step in the re-circulation function - then you have higher fresh air intake. And this is definitely recommended during the pandemic.” He has also found that the diligent practice of using facemarks is working - there has been an observed reduction in virus presence in the exhaled air. But to reduce contamination or prevent it altogether - fresh air intake, open windows (if possible) and proper filtration are the key.
How does one monitor the IAQ of any facilities. Rollins said that environmental monitoring is pretty challenging - especially for facilities to conduct on their own. While it sounds fancy, particulate assessment, too, is pretty challenging and must be done by experts.
Lattner suggested starting small. Every building and its ventilation system is different so there’s no one formula for environmental loading. He suggested that companies speak to property owners and demand an assessment of the IAQ and the ventilation systems. It is important - at all times - for companies to know what kind of ventilation systems operates in the building and what the property owner is doing to improve IAQ at all times.
One of the best places to start is to observe one’s own facility. An easy indication would be the humidity levels in the space using easily available humidity sensors. Lattner recommended that average levels of indoor humidity be between 40% to 60%.
Maintaining HVAC units
It is crucial to maintain one’s HVAC units. Nour stressed that air duct cleaning be conducted once a year as a rule. However, as Lattner cautioned, there is no specific requirement for increased cleaning during the pandemic. He said, “Viruses do not reproduce out side of the host, so they not sit and breed in the air system itself.” Nour commented that one of her company clients complained of extensive mold growth during the lockdown period. She said that facilities need to understand that whether or not people occupy a space, ventilation is important for any indoor facility. Lattner agreed and said that places closed down for a long period of time must open up earlier and have the entire HVAC system running at least 24-36 hours before it is reoccupied. There is a two-fold reason to this - first, dirt, dust and pollutants tend to settle in air ducts if left unused, and second, there is a need for ventilation especially while disinfection is taking place so that toxic chemicals can be filtered out.
Molding is a huge problem - especially in the region, given the high outside temperature and low internal temperature. A lot of condensation is formed and that is a harborer of mold growth. Hence, it’s never recommended to shut off the HVAC system. Lattner says one should run the HVAC system for at least a limited amount of time everyday in order to avoid accumulation of mold and too much condensation later on.
The cost of not maintaining an HVAC system is high. It starts with a huge penalty in energy efficiency. Then, there’s the quick deterioration of equipment. The lack of knowledge is also a huge detriment to proper ventilation. An example is of how facilities started cleaning their classic bag air filters with warm water during the pandemic. Lattner strongly cautioned against this and said that they must be replaced when the pressure drop in the system is high. It is okay to wash metal filters, but they must be disinfected, he added. All filters must be certified and fulfill all requirements and standards.
Nour advised to introduce as much fresh air as much as possible. Where it is not possible, proper maintenance of the HVAC systems is recommended. She added that the basic air duct cleaning procedure requires checking the layout, access doors and how the areas are connected. It is important to also isolate areas when needed to prevent cross contamination. Moreover, in case of contamination - step one must be to find the source.
Duct cleaning requires mechanical action where dirt inside the duct is loosened and vacuumed. Then disinfection is carried out. Disinfecting products have to be certified. Disinfecting must be done when the facility is empty, and people must be allowed in only after a considerable amount of time after. In case an area has already been contaminated, a properly maintained HVAC system can be very helpful. Moreover, one must consider when the contamination started, when the infected person left the premises, which then determines how long the virus might have stayed on surfaces, and so on. Rollins suggested that UltraViolet light disinfection can be pretty effective in the fight against pathogens. But they process needs to be carried out by professionals - given the health and safety aspects involved.
Training and safety
Training for HVAC maintenance definitely depends on the function of that facility. But the basics include proper hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, proper PPE - glasses, masks, suit, gloves. The team must be trained to first clean then disinfect. They must understanding how to clean the frequently touched surfaces often. They must also have equipment training. Boecker recommends that clients also put up awareness posters for people entering the facility. Lattner adds that cleaners must not enter any contaminated room for at least 3 hours after the infected person has left the room. Moreover, one must never use a blower to disinfect - it is just counter productive! Rollins also highlighted that the mental health of people coming back to work is important. It is essential to engage with HR departments and communicate with staff. Compliance in all measures like social distancing and hand hygiene, etc will improve. Moreover, he added that there needs to be a change in the way cleaning is done. It is important to slow down and think about what is being done to ensure that all areas are covered correctly with the appropriate material and disinfectant.
Products & technology
UV disinfection, Chlorine Dioxide air purification, misting and fogging - the disinfecting solutions are plenty. But are they really effective? Nour said that there are different technologies that use cholrine dioxide - including pouches that will release the chemical into the air and disinfect it. “These are all approved in different forms by the WHO and FDA,” she added, “but they all have certain exposure limits. So as long as you are within this exposure limit you should be safe.” Lattner recalled a trend about 5 years back where chlorine dioxide played a siginificant role in decontaminating an area. He said, “Obviously, it is a noxious chemical and appropriate PPE and sealing of an area is required when using these types of technologies.
Typically, we not used these systems in a healthcare setting because they are so disruptive to the environment and the normal cleaning remains priority, but there are safety issues.” He added that it is effective, but it is all about systems, processes and appropriate training in implementing these solutions. Lattner also commented on how manufacturers tend to overstate the effectiveness of fogging machines in terms of the area covered. “ The problem with achieving suitable coverage along with an effective piece of equipment is the contact time that you allow a chemical to have on a surface. Moreover, people go with ‘adaptive technologies’ – they believe that if a solution works in one area, it must work across the board. It is important to consider all the factors that are involved in that facility and to work with a specialized, experienced and certified contractor.
Several technologies can be used to disinfect air. Nour talked about the cold fogger - a machine that produces ultra-low volume droplets that are released and disinfect indoor air in a room. They remain in suspension in the air for a certain period of time that will help disinfect the air borne pathogens. Regular fogging is also recommended for places with higher contamination - like healthcare facilities. Rollings commented that it is important that - no matter what the solution be - that we are aware of the various contamination sources and surfaces. It is important to empower the cleaning personnel with the knowledge of the crucial role they play and provide them with the appropriate cleaning material to remove foreign pathogens from the surfaces. He recommended cleaning before disinfecting facilities by fogging, using aerosols or vapour. At the end of the day, all the panelists agreed, what is most important is health and safety of the cleaning personnel. And it is important for everyone involved in cleaning & disinfection to slow down, take a step back and assess the situation before going in full force and potentially being counterproductive in IAQ maintenance.