Ask an expert: Justin Garner provides input on COVID-19

Learn from an expert at Engineered Air Balance Co. about the engineering, commissioning, test and balance and business aspects of COVID-19

By Justin Garner, PE, LEED AP, CxA December 1, 2020

Learn about commissioning and test and balance of facilities from Justin Garner, PE, LEED AP, CxA, Vice President, Engineered Air Balance Co. Inc., Houston.

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?

Justin Garner: Given our large market share in the health care sector, we were called upon to assist the front-line efforts to increase patient bed capacity for COVID-19 patients. This was accomplished in a variety of ways depending upon the limitations of the facility systems. Our test and balance personnel are uniquely skilled and experienced in evaluating operating conditions and making adjustments to achieve the Owner’s requirements.

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

Justin Garner: Given that there is no clear code or design direction for converting health care spaces into pandemic response centers, we were challenged with maxing out exhaust system and outside air system capabilities in affected areas without affecting overall building pressurization and critical sterile area operation. This was done in close coordination with the building owners and other design professionals engaged as part of the pandemic response teams.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate demand for specialty or pressurized environments? What else is changing in these buildings?

Justin Garner: I think the industry will learn a lot from this event. We anticipate that health care design codes will change to allow rapid transition of normal patient care areas to handle isolated pandemic response either at the room level or by unique treatment areas within the facility. We also anticipate that prime equipment (air handling units and exhaust fans) and associated systems will need to have reserve capacity in the future to handle unforeseen changes to adapt to increased patient care area ventilation demands. Under normal conditions, code compliance and energy efficiency will still be key factors. The ability to convert spaces rapidly and systematically in the future will probably be a new requirement.

How do you keep your engineers and subject matter experts updated on the latest technologies and tools? How will these professionals enhance their engineering skills in the “new business world”?

Justin Garner: Training is a cornerstone of our organization and is a key to our success in our business. We capitalize on our project experience and invest in training programs for our team members. We recently built a corporate training center that we will use to further train our personnel as well as outside test and balance, commissioning, design and building operations professionals to further enhance the industry overall.

Do you think the demand for smart building technologies will change over the next six months? If so, how will you meet this increased demand? If not, how will you continue to work with clients to stay connected to their buildings and engineered systems?

Justin Garner: We think technologies will continue to evolve, but only at the pace that there are skilled personnel to effectively implement them in the built environment. One of the biggest challenges that we face on projects today is the lack of skilled automation and control personnel that can effectively implement the latest technologies and code mandated energy efficiency measures. Sound designs are great, but there must be skilled technicians to install and program the systems. Thereafter, system testing and commissioning is key to ensure the design intent is achieved. We will continue to work with our automation counterparts in the industry to develop new training and quality processes to try to improve system delivery on commercial projects.

Do you anticipate your firm’s professional office spaces will change in the next six months? Be redesigned or changed in size?

Justin Garner: Our office space will not change in the next six months. Most of our team members are in the field and work remotely.

How are engineering or technical aspects of the job being completed remotely?

Justin Garner: Many of our projects have switched meetings to remote video or teleconference sessions. Our team members are on project sites for testing when required, but work remotely on administrative tasks. Our office personnel have continued to come to the office during the pandemic to support our field efforts, but we have implemented social distancing policies and additional sanitizing protocols within our facilities.

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

Justin Garner: Our primary business is testing, so we continue to visit our client facilities and projects to complete our scope of work. Our projects are mostly in the health care, research, K-12 and higher education markets. We were also tasked with assisting our key health care clients with modifying additional treatment spaces to accommodate the anticipated patient loading due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we are now being asked to convert some of those spaces back to regular patient care areas because, at this time, they are not needed for COVID-19 patients.

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

Justin Garner: We had challenges procuring sanitizing products for our instruments and personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves. Because we were deemed essential health care personnel, we were able to utilize PPE provided within our clients’ facilities to complete our tasks.

What financial implications do you think COVID-19 will have on the engineering industry in the next three months? Six months? Twelve months?

Justin Garner: In our area, we are anticipating a reduction in health care projects presumably due to lost revenues during the peak quarantine times. We anticipate this will continue for the coming year until revenue streams stabilize in the health care sector and the overall economy recovers. The K-12 and higher education markets seem to be unchanged and are proceeding with projects as scheduled.

In down markets, retrofit/renovation and maintenance/repair/operation tend to increase. How is your firm working with clients and building owners to keep this conversation going (and keep the money coming in)?

Justin Garner: While a large portion of our business is new construction or major renovation, we have always participated in remodel/retrofit/upgrade projects for all our key clients. This work seems to be unchanged in the K-12 and higher education market. We are seeing additional projects in the health care sector due to delays on major capital projects and increased needs in existing facilities. Our test and balance and commissioning services can be equally applied to all types of projects, so we are always looking for ways to help our clients maintain their facilities in optimum operating conditions.

Author Bio: Justin Garner, PE, LEED AP, CxA, Vice President, Engineered Air Balance Co. Inc., Houston.

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