It is said that the only constant in life is change, but few of us likely ever expected to live through as much change as we did in 2020. Many of us are still trying to get a grip on the current situation, and we’re all left asking, “So, what’s next?”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first left many commercial buildings empty, little was known about how SARS-Co-V-2 spread, what measures would need to be put in place to slow it or how long those measures would last.
At McKinstry, our customers began to ask what would be required to reopen buildings, and to allow people to return to them. As a result, we developed our “Return with Confidence” program in response to those questions, and to provide peace of mind to occupants in those buildings.
Since no two buildings are the same, especially when considering their use, we took the best and most current information available and developed a consultative approach to deliver recommendations that addressed customers’ specific needs and concerns.
As the understanding of SARS-Co-V-2 has improved, and as additional approaches and technologies have been promoted for use in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been careful to take a measured approach, and to keep using the best and most current information available. We’ve applied that approach with customers across the country, from commercial buildings and universities to K-12 schools and more.
Experience is a great teacher and we’ve learned a lot along the way. The information available to us has improved, and the needs of our customers have changed as the pandemic has continued. As a result, our approach has evolved as well.
Warning bells are now being sounded that we are entering a period of higher risk with winter weather and more people staying indoors, along with the recent holidays and the associated risks from shopping and social and religious gatherings.
Buildings are also not being reoccupied en masse. Low occupancy has become the norm and will likely remain so for some time, and that has significant impacts on the indoor environment, building systems, such as HVAC and domestic water, energy use and more.
So where does that leave us? Right where I started: The only constant in life is change …
Return and operate confidently
Always listening to customers, and seeking to understand where their needs are, is the key.
What started as a program to help people “Return with Confidence” to buildings, has evolved into helping buildings “Operate with Confidence” as they remain in low occupancy for extended periods of time – balancing indoor air quality and energy use as well as ensuring the safety and integrity of domestic water systems and the buildings’ mechanical systems.
We continue to use a consultative approach to thoroughly understand the needs and goals of our customers, as well as the concerns of those in their buildings, and we are developing individualized plans to address them. We leverage appropriate tools and technologies based on their needs, the design of their buildings and systems, how they are being used, and budgets.
No matter the building or its use, we still recommend proven, primary approaches to limiting the spread of SARS-Co-V-2 as a focus: Wearing masks, social distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, cleaning surfaces, encouraging people to remain home when they feel sick, and so on.
At the same time, there are commonly agreed upon approaches that can be taken to help limit the spread of illnesses in buildings through mechanical systems, including:
Implementing these measures without leveraging additional communication tools, like signage, active displays, and so on, makes it difficult to convey to building occupants what is being done to keep them safe, and what they can do to help. In other words, “confidence” can be left lacking. Because of this, we also focus on communication tools and techniques with our customers.
No silver bullets
Unfortunately, our society has been conditioned to look for the silver bullet. For example, we want a pill to help us lose weight, when diet and exercise are a proven path. Like that diet pill, customers may come to us asking for a technological solution for COVID-19. So, what about other technologies, like ultraviolet light or bipolar ionization? The answer is, “it depends.” A few examples:
Upper-room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation has been well documented to kill viruses and bacteria and is used in many medical and lab environments for that reason.
Independent tests verify effectiveness, and industry standards exist to apply this technology safely and effectively. There are significant considerations for its use, however, not all applications are good ones for this technology.
At the same time, UV systems designed for use in HVAC equipment (primarily to reduce biological growth on coils), are not typically suited for killing viruses in the airstream, even though they are sometimes being promoted for that use.
New UV lighting technology (such as down-lighting for use in occupied spaces) is being pushed to market, but it is early yet, and it doesn’t have the independent testing or guidance for application and design to make widespread use something we would advise yet.
Bipolar ionization also shows promise, and testing of this technology is increasing, but we still lack standards around design and application. Recent testing is showing it to be generally safe and effective, however, so we do believe it can be part of an effective solution, just like UV light can be, when properly applied as part of an overall approach.
Still, there is still no silver bullet. When customers ask us what they should do, our answer remains “it depends,” and we then work on a holistic approach to meet their needs and concerns (and budget).
The most effective measures we have at this time are behavioral, coupled with improvements in ventilation, filtration and humidification. But if looking for other tools, upper-room UVGI and bipolar ionization can be effective.
The caution is to ensure building occupants know that their actions are still the best defense against this virus and other airborne illnesses. Simply put, nothing beats masks and social distancing – every other recommendation depends on the application and the goals customers are trying to achieve, along with the budget they have at their disposal.
We don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, but we don’t expect it to end quickly. If nothing else, it has shown us that we need to be prepared for future crises that are sure to come.
As we move through this crisis, and beyond it, McKinstry will continue working with our customers to make all buildings safer, healthier and more efficient, from design and engineering to construction and operations and maintenance, and also with retrofits, remodels and adaptive re-use so they can “Operate with Confidence.”
About the author: Adam Gloss is director and general manager, service, at McKinstry.