You likely hear the term indoor air quality (IAQ) frequently when it comes to facility management, but do you recognize exactly what this means for building occupants and the overall bottom line? IAQ refers to air quality within and around buildings and structures, commonly as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 90% of our time is spent indoors. Now think about the occupants in your buildings and imagine invisible pollutants, debris, and bacteria in the air and how those can impact their health.

Facility managers face a lot of pressure when it comes to maintaining IAQ and implementing proper practices and prevention measures—and for good reason. The impact of poor IAQ hits on many factors important to facility management. Two to focus on include the health and safety of occupants and a building’s energy efficiency.

There are immediate and long-term health effects from poor IAQ. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) states these can range from minor irritations, such as headaches and dizziness, to serious issues such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

A big contributor to the increased pressure on facility managers is the recent deadly outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease throughout the country and the approval of ASHRAE Standard 188-2015. The disease is caused by Legionella bacteria that can grow within a building’s water system and spread via droplets of water in the air. Cooling towers are one of the more common sources of Legionella. And while cooling towers are primarily located outside, the CPSC says the contaminants can enter a building through ventilation systems, door openings, windows, and other similar areas. The ASHRAE standard puts a greater amount of responsibility on facility management to take proper steps to inspect and maintain systems to minimize the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.

Bjarne Olesen, chairperson for the International Center for Indoor Environment and Energy in Denmark and 2017-18 ASHRAE president, conducted a study that indicated that limiting pollution sources and making improvements to air quality can increase employee performance by 5% to 10%. A study by William Fisk with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that reducing Sick Building Syndrome (allergies, asthma, and respiratory issues) by 20% to 50% could result in savings between $10 billion and $100 billion nationwide through prevention of productivity loss, sick days, and costs for medical care.

Many things influence the quality of indoor air including deteriorating building materials and outdoor sources, but one common cause (and one more easily maintained) is a building’s central heating and cooling system. Proper maintenance and upkeep of HVAC systems can go a long way to improving IAQ. The good news is, by performing routine maintenance and cleaning on heating and cooling systems, you can reduce the risk of indoor air pollution from certain sources, while also keeping equipment running efficiently.

Here are some best practices for maintenance teams to use to take steps toward improved indoor air quality.

Coil cleaning: Dirty coils waste energy and money. Without proper cleaning, air conditioning coils in the air handlers can become breeding grounds for mold and mildew growth—both of which are large contributors to poor IAQ.

Air duct cleaning: Dirty ducts can be a common cause of indoor air pollutants. Because duct surfaces are hidden from view, these are easily forgotten and can accumulate dust, pollen, mold, and more. These in turn can collect on coils and recirculate. Much like dirty coils, dirty ducts can cause the system to run longer which raises energy costs. A thorough duct cleaning every three to five years will keep your system in great working condition. There are several tools for duct cleaning including vacuums, agitation devices, and duct isolation equipment.

Cooling tower cleaning: Cooling towers are used to cool water in air conditioning systems, but they are also a breeding ground for Legionella and other bacteria. Infected towers can spread bacteria into facilities through ventilation and entrances. Many facilities don’t equate the direct connection between IAQ and tower maintenance, and the importance of keeping a cooling tower maintained regarding the energy efficiency of a building’s cooling system. Inspecting cooling towers monthly helps prevent sediment, scale, and slime buildup; if these residues are found during inspection, they can be easily cleaned with tower vacuums to avoid shutting down or draining the system.

indoor air quality
Good (left) vs. bad (right) cooling tower fill (Photo: Goodway Technologies)

Cooling tower water treatments: When it comes to cooling towers, water treatment is very important in supporting system efficiency and good indoor air quality. Simply put, cooling towers are big air scrubbers. Outside air that is drawn into the tower is contaminated with pollutants, which then build up causing conditions for bacterial growth. Throughout the cooling system, the pollutants are precipitated out of the water and are dispersed into the air, or adhere to chiller tube walls, leaving a breeding ground for organisms and bacteria if not properly controlled. Chemical water treatments can protect against these issues helping manage scale, corrosion, and controlling growth of harmful bacteria that can, in advanced cases, cause serious health implications such as Legionnaires’ disease.

Filter replacement and selection: Air filters are often the first line of defense in protecting indoor air from outside pollutants. It’s important to select the appropriate air filter for the system. Most filters have a MERV rating, which stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. This rating is measured from 1 (the lowest) to 16 (the highest) and can be a great indication to the quality of the filter you choose. Filters with MERV ratings between 14 and 16 are recommended.

Chemicals review: It is important to follow EPA and OSHA guidelines and restrictions when using chemical treatments for cooling towers, as well as referring to SDS sheets and following all safety procedures. Make sure the chemicals used have been scientifically tested and are labeled for the specific cleaning process being performed. It is also important to check that these chemicals work effectively to protect the indoor air from contamination. Simple chemical disinfectants like chlorine are insufficient to fight against bacteria and pollutants.

When it comes down to it, facility executives and their teams are at the forefront of costs savings and occupant safety. Through proactive maintenance of HVAC systems, occupant health and productivity along with energy efficiency can be expected to benefit.

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