Air ventilation and HVAC with Brian Sharkey

Brian Sharkey with Airadigm Solutions offers test-and-balance professionals tips on air balancing and other HVAC issues in nonresidential buildings

By Brian Sharkey, NEBB CP, LEED AP July 8, 2020

Brian Sharkey from Airadigm Solutions provides guidance for air balancers working in buildings to adjust for changes required by COVID-19 issues.

Have building owners or clients approached you to assist with changes or updates to their building to help protect against COVID-19? What services can you offer?

Sharkey: Our firm has been approached by businesses in several industries who expressed concerns about their ventilation systems. They are looking for suggestions to make the air as healthy as possible for their tenants, customers and staff.

We used our 25 years of air balancing experience and ASHRAE guidelines to develop an air ventilation plan. The basics remain the same for every business: We check to ensure the building is operating under positive pressure, we increase the outside air intake, we calculate air turnover rates, we determine if the system can handle higher quality filters and review the fan operation scheduling.

Hospitals seem to be the most significant exception. We have been asked to verify pressures and air changes per hour after they converted standard pressurized rooms to negative pressure rooms.

Not all systems can be adjusted, but we do provide solutions even though they may be more expensive. For instance, if a system cannot handle the added restriction of a filter upgrade, we recommend ultraviolet lighting or a portable high-efficiency particulate air filtration unit.

What test-and-balance or air balancing challenges have you encountered? What unique challenges are you solving?

Sharkey: The biggest challenge we all face is providing safe air to breathe in indoor spaces. As air balancers, we are in a unique position to help businesses minimize the spread of the virus through the existing ventilation system.

We are encouraging building owners to get their ventilation system tested by a certified air balancing company. Evenly dispersed airflow will help mitigate stagnant pockets and spreading the virus to other occupants. Additionally, we encourage owners to set their mechanical systems back to design intent as a minimum.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate further demand for specialty or pressurized environments? 

Sharkey: The lack of isolation rooms took hospitals by surprise. We will likely see hospitals add more isolation rooms during new construction or as part of a remodel.

The best alternative is to add a new exhaust fan and install a variable air volume box to the exhaust and return grilles. This will allow the medical staff to convert a room from positive to negative by turning a switch on the wall.

From an engineering standpoint, what other markets or building sectors do you anticipate will grow due to the changes occurring due to the coronavirus? Is there a new engineering sector you plan to focus on to meet these needs?

Sharkey: Control sequences or control retrofit changes might be in more demand in the future, especially on business where keeping 6 feet away or reducing occupancy by 50% is not possible. In these cases, controls would need to be modified to operate the fan continuously when possible and bring in as much outside air as the systems can handle.

The coronavirus has required several facility managers to remotely control all aspects of their building systems (lighting, HVAC, etc.). What building automation or controls projects are you working on to meet these needs? How will this impact future design?

Sharkey: ASHRAE is now recommending a two-hour, 100% outside air flush before opening and a two-hour flush after closing each day. But most economizers open based on outside air conditions, which may or may not be met when the business opens or closes.

There are often limited ways a business owner can schedule the economizer or manually open the damper without a complex control system. We feel one of the most significant changes could be converting these economizers to open based on a schedule to help meet these new ASHRAE recommendations.

The next change is to consider running the fans continuously as this will ensure continuous air changes per hour and consistent positive pressure. Units will need to be specified with a dehumidification option to handle the constant fan operation, as this could lead to a humidity issue. We don’t believe all of the units will need dehumidification, but a strategic percentage will.

Lastly, engineers will need to consider specifying units to overcome MERV 13 or MERV 14 filters, because customers should have this filter type as an option in the future.

What might other engineers/building professionals need to know when tackling COVID-19 projects?

Sharkey: Any changes made to an existing system could make the building worse. Randomly increasing outside air flows, installing more restrictive quality filters or setting the fan to run continuously could have adverse effects on the heating and cooling system. It will be crucial that building professionals obtain an updated audit of the existing system to determine what changes the system can take and what is doing more harm than good. We do recommend small incremental changes to allow time to monitor the effects.

Business aspects of COVID-19

How has your staff/team adjusted to the new work-from-home environment? What tips or suggestions do you have to help other firms remain connected while working remotely? 

Sharkey: Our firm is currently doing 90% of our intercompany meetings via video instead of voice. We feel video, more than voice calls, helps keep our teams connected and productive.

We are using a platform called Ring Central. In addition to the video chat feature, we have created messaging groups for each of our teams, as well as a group for our entire company. This platform proved critical in the first few weeks of the pandemic because our CEO could give the whole company updates and take questions in real time.

Is your firm conducting any travel to visit clients or projects? If so, what types of projects are you working on? 

Sharkey: Our firm performs test and balance for chain stores and restaurants nationwide. Fortunately, our company has technicians located throughout the U.S., which allows them to drive to many of our projects. We have had some airline travel since the pandemic began, but it has been very minimal.

As of May 2020, most of our clients are still working from home, so we have not reinstated customer visits. When restrictions are lifted, we will reevaluate visiting clients. But we feel it may be longer before customers feel comfortable with face-to-face meetings.

What engineering or technical aspects of the job are now being done remotely?

Sharkey: Test and balance is not a trade that can be done effectively via remote access. We need to touch dampers, verify airflow with our instruments and adjust units in person.

Fortunately, test and balance and commissioning are performed at the end of a project, when the jobsite is less crowded. It is much easier to keep a safe distance from others.

Even coming in at the end, all jobsites are requiring our technicians to wear masks. In some cases, general contractors are requiring our technicians to complete a health questionnaire and have their temperature taken before starting work each day.

What supply chain issues are you experiencing? Is your firm dealing with any challenges with materials or products from manufacturers or suppliers?

Sharkey: We are not currently experiencing any supply chain issues.

What financial implications do you think this will have on the engineering industry as a whole?

Sharkey: From a balancer’s perspective, it’s hard to say if there will be a financial impact on the engineering industry. But we do think the owner’s project requirement and basis of design will need to be modified to include increased ventilation and filtration in addition to revised sequences of operation.

Do you expect to see pent-up demand hit once shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted? How do you think business will trend three to six months after?

Sharkey: Currently, we have pent-up demand on construction sites that have been closed down for the last several weeks. We do feel that demand for essentials such as dental or optometrist visits and barber shops and salons will boom after the lockdown.

As people adjust to working at home, our firm believes the demand for office space is going to decline in the next three to six months and potentially over the long term. And as a nonessential business, the travel industry will likely be slow to rebound. We estimate that hotels and airlines will take much longer than six months.

Author Bio: Brian Sharkey is the Chief Training Officer Airadigm Solutions. His primary focus is on the technical on-boarding and development of Airadigm Solutions’ test and balance technicians nationwide. He has worked in the field of test and balance and commissioning for more than 25 years. He is NEBB Certified and NBC certified.