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Clean Air Is Complicated: Understand the Tradeoffs Before You Act

Indoor air quality is one of the most important aspects of a healthy building environment at any time. Now, this imperative has intensified. Whether in private or public office buildings, schools or universities, operators must act quickly to help keep occupants healthy. But clean air is expensive, and this challenge is compounded by a lack of time and resources forcing many operators to turn to the simplest, or simply, the cheapest solution.

A quick fix, however, isn’t always best for the longer term. Optimal equipment capacity and asset lifecycle costs, as well as energy consumption implications, must be considered. Short-term savings could turn into ongoing costs.

Performance contracts can help overcome budget constraints and broaden the choices for creating holistic health in a building. Let’s take a look at what to expect from various clean air solutions and see how this type of funding works.

Improve filtration to MERV 13

Improving filtration is a common, and typically effective, first step for cleaner air. ASHRAE details its recommendations for COVID-19 including filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13 or greater to catch airborne particles. For solely the cost of the new filters, an immediate positive impact on air quality can be realized. However, since this higher rating was not standard pre-pandemic, this seemingly simple approach comes with a few caveats.

For one, current equipment must be able to handle the new filters. Even if it can, systems will have to work harder to push air through the denser filter — just like a car going up a hill. The equipment will use more energy, require additional maintenance and probably need to be replaced sooner than originally planned. In addition to the upfront expense of the filter, these factors must be incorporated into the longer-term infrastructure master plan.

Of course, sometimes it’s not as straightforward as simply replacing a filter. Moving dampers or adjusting ductwork might also be required to get the desired impact. If equipment can’t handle the new filters, complete replacement could be necessary.

Increase outdoor air intake

More fresh, outdoor air for building occupants is another approach to improving air quality. Outdoor air exchange also moves the stale air out. According to the EPA, “Ensuring proper ventilation with outside air can help reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants, including viruses, indoors.” The agency notes that this approach alone is not effective, but helps boost quality in conjunction with other recommended practices.

Fresh air exchange also requires equipment to work harder both in moving and conditioning the air. Humidity must be precisely balanced to both discourage mold growth and virus life — each of which thrives under different conditions. Thus, this approach may be more practical in warmer, dryer climates.

Over time, expect an increase in maintenance costs, energy consumption and a potential decrease in system life.

Increase run times, control and measurement

Running HVAC systems from 1 to 2 hours before and after spaces are occupied to flush the air can greatly help in the short term. Some experts report this practice significantly reduces the concentration of airborne infectious particles. However, the extended run-time can also create similar long-term, albeit unwelcome, consequences of increased costs and decreased lifespan.

No matter which approach you choose, improving air quality often means increasing control and measurement capabilities. The ability to schedule, monitor and control systems remotely creates safety and efficiencies in and of itself.

Building automation systems provide insight into system and component efficacy and maintenance needs. Smart tools bring agility and allow adjustments to be made in real time based on ever-changing conditions. CO2, humidity and temperature can all be easily measured and controlled. Plus, data-backed information supports better communication to stakeholders.

Funding improvements with performance contracting

Overall, any of these approaches to air quality will improve the health of your buildings. They’ll also have a significant, and costly, impact on your bottom line. Higher ongoing utility, maintenance and replacement costs, as well as decreased efficiency should be expected and built into future budgets.

Alternatively, energy performance contracting can offset many of these costs and allow you to design infrastructure and HVAC systems that are better equipped to meet today’s protocols, while getting ahead of future requirements. Here’s how this innovative funding method works.

An energy service company (ESCO) partners with you to make facility improvements with energy efficient solutions. The energy and operational savings generated would pay for the larger project scope, often with little to no upfront capital. This type of capital improvement project can also be used to secure other funding streams that might include energy rebates, state and federal grants, low-interest loans or CARES Act funding.

To start, the ESCO would make recommendations on where and how to improve operational and energy efficiency, as well as how to make facilities healthier for occupants. The ESCO then guarantees the projected energy savings for the length of the project.

And, although fresh, clean air has become a more vital aspect of a healthy building, the project scope would not be limited to HVAC. The funds can cover updates to modernize building envelopes, IT/telecom technology, security and even specialty spaces like athletic facilities, kitchens and medical offices. You may even discover new revenue streams by leveraging energy and operational efficiencies.

While clean air is an important part of any healthy building plan, you should understand the tradeoffs between the benefits and costs before making a technology choice. Also, consider solutions that enhance your current systems to balance short-term and long-term needs.

Partnering with an expert that can provide a holistic plan that includes all your systems and operational requirements will help you make the best choices to ensure occupant health, building performance and budget stability.

Indoor air quality is just one element of a healthy building. Read more about all five elements needed to ensure a safe, comfortable indoor environment.