Engineering aspects of COVID-19 with RTM’s Marc Anderson

Learn about engineering HVAC systems from Marc Anderson of RTM Engineering

By Marc Anderson, PE, HFDP, LEED AP July 14, 2020

Marc Anderson from RTM Engineering Consultants reviews the many ways mechanical engineers can affect change in buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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?

Anderson: Several of our clients have reached out to us with questions about their office HVAC systems and what changes they can make to create a safer work environment as employees return to the office. We have recommended some basic measures such as ensuring the HVAC system is air balanced, supply fans are running continuously while the building is occupied and ensuring there is the proper amount of fresh air to the system (based on your type of workplace).

Additionally, building owners can look into commissioning for their building systems if it has not already been done. This will identify and help solve issues to increase fresh air, improve air filtration and effectively distribute the air.

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

Anderson: Some of our chain retail clients have reached out with concerns for how they can adjust their HVAC systems to provide a safer environment for brick and mortar locations when they are reopened. This environment presents a challenge due to the fact that typical retail HVAC systems are limited in what can be achieved as a source of contaminant control or elimination because air circulation in retail applications is intended for space temperature control and comfort using economical equipment and installations.

There are other approaches that can be implemented to improve HVAC system performance in a retail environment such as setting rooftop unit fans to run continuously for consistent air flow, increase standard unit filter efficiencies and install a dedicated air purification device in the rooftop unit system.

In addition, changing from return systems to 100% exhaust systems, especially in health care settings where the work must be done in active hospitals, can be a challenging endeavor. We have been working closely with owners to install patient room pressurization monitors as well and educating them on allowing sufficient time for rooms to be ventilated before entering them to clean for the next patient.

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

Anderson: Absolutely. We have demand for both emergency temporary systems and permanent systems, including converting entire patient wings, intensive care units and emergency departments into 100% exhaust (100% outside air) systems. This includes high plume lab-type exhaust fans located on the highest roof. High-efficiency particulate air filters may not capture all viruses due to their size and there is also the concern about changing filters that may be contaminated.

Additionally, our clients have inquired about ultraviolet (UV-C), bi-polar ionization and other in-duct powered technologies to capture or kill viruses. The pandemic has exposed a lot of shortcomings with hospital HVAC systems and many are rethinking changing from recirculating systems to 100% outside air. One of our major health care clients already has this standard in most of their facilities. Due to the energy costs of going with 100% outside air , heat recovery solutions will play a vital role in implementing these changes cost effectively.

We are also seeing more interest in copper plumbing fixtures (handwash sinks, scrub sinks, drains, etc.) as copper is a passive technology, having an inherent ability to kill viruses. We expect that architecturally, copper-based metal products will be more widely specified (handrails, doorknobs, etc.).

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?

Anderson: Any space where people are clustered in close proximity is going to be affected: theaters, concert venues, indoor sporting arenas, airports and other transit stations, classrooms, multipurpose/conference/meeting rooms, restaurants/bars, hotel/resorts and hospitals and other health care facilities. These markets will see a growth in engineered systems specifically designed to be potent enough to reduce virus strength within the indoor environment. Looking at practical systems that can reasonably retrofitted into existing HVAC systems and are highly effective against SARS CoV-2 virus (or a future pandemic) will be key.

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”?

Anderson: We are active members of ASHRAE and the American Society for Health Care Engineering and attend multiple seminars/ webinars on relevant topics to stay current. This includes information from our state (California OSHPD and others).

Author Bio: Marc Anderson, a principal at RTM Engineering Consultants, has more than 30 years of project engineering design experience, including conceptual design, project management, team mentoring and business development. As a certified health care facility design professional, Anderson specializes in the technical aspects of health care design. Additional specializations include low-energy use building design and focusing on providing cutting edge building technologies with proven results. He encourages “out-of-the-box” group collaboration and applies innovative methodologies to find creative solutions to engineering challenges.