What HVAC changes are required by COVID-19? Learn from AEI experts

Experts at Affiliated Engineers Inc. weigh in on HVAC, codes and standards and smart buildings

By Joel Boado, PE, LEED AP, and Greg J. Quinn, PE, LEED AP October 15, 2020

Have building owners or clients approached you to assist with changes or updates to their building to help protect against COVID-19? What services has your firm offered?

Affiliated Engineers Inc. has been collaborating with clients by assessing their existing facilities to understand the condition, capacity and configuration of their mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. While HVAC systems are getting the primary focus, our firm has been performing a thorough analysis of all engineering systems to make sure the building utilities can support any changes that may need to happen to provide the safest and most effective environment in the treatment of COVID-19 positive patients. AEI offers suggestions to provide the best possible environment while treating COVID-19 positive patients. Technology systems assessments have been key in helping health care providers maintain the highest level of care while minimizing patient contact and room entry by leveraging telemedicine and remote monitoring.

Most COVID-19 response work has been helping health care clients prepare their hospitals and clinics to address patient and staff safety regarding infectious disease control. AEI has also been helping long-term care clients protect their residents, in addition to clients in the commercial sector who are exploring ways to keep their employees safe if they are unable to work remotely and need to continue working in the office setting. Many individuals continue working on the front line, caring for patients and are supporting COVID-19 research and treatment — AEI has been actively working in various markets to help keep those individuals safe and productive.

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

AEI is helping clients provide the best environment to help protect against COVID-19 transmission while also offering the best treatment and healing environments in all health care settings. Many clients need to work within the existing systems in their facilities due to budgetary constraints. Time and schedule constraints also offer challenges in implementing best practice measures for their MEP systems. Some facilities are already dealing with aged HVAC equipment and systems with insufficient capacity since they were designed and installed before more recent code regulations or best practice standards.

AEI has been helping clients understand manageable investments and changes to existing HVAC systems including ways to increase exhaust air, outside air, filtration standards or by employing surface and air treatment systems. Proper test-and-balance procedures are necessary to understand the baseline system performance and establish a measure to which the system may have to return to once treatment COVID-19 is no longer necessary. Good TAB information enables our firm to do a better evaluation the capability of existing buildings system to provide a safer environment. It also helps our engineers prepare plans for appropriate pressure cascades with moving air from safer areas to more infectious areas.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate increased demand for engineering services? What else is changing in these buildings?

We believe that health care facilities of all types will be looking at ways that their physical environments can be aided by engineering design. There is certainly more attention toward HVAC systems regarding air change rates, outside air capacity, exhaust air and pressure relationships for rooms and whole patient wards. COVID-19 has elevated awareness toward pandemic preparedness and surge capacity that can house a high population of patients due to infectious disease outbreak. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, which there has been concern regarding capacity of medical air and oxygen with the increased number of patients requiring respiratory treatments like mechanical ventilation, high-flow nasal cannula or CPAP.

Additionally, medical vacuum capacity has garnered attention with some facilities trying to increase patient room population to treat COVID-19 positive patients with some facilities employing double occupancy patient rooms. Technology solutions will help medical staff efficiently triage and treat patients remotely or will help to minimize caregiver exposure to airborne infectious disease by enhancing remote monitoring and communication.

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?

AEI already focusses on many different market sectors and we have seen influences in each by the response to COVID-19. While our firm does not anticipate major growth in one market, AEI knows that each market will have changing needs, driving innovative solutions to help protect their employees from transmitting infectious disease within the workplace. AEI supports various markets supporting health care facilities researching and treating COVID-19 patients. Particularly, the science and technology market, where our firm supports clients that are advancing procedures for testing and treatment of COVID-19.

Our industrial market has also supported COVID-19 response by helping clients convert manufacturing and assembly process spaces to produce parts for medical ventilators. AEI does anticipate health care facilities will be impacted most and will need future guidance on surge capacity to help be prepared for high numbers of patients with an infectious disease.

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”?

AEI engineers have been active learners over the past few months, while being educated more about the disease, treatments, built environment impacts to treatment and safety and technologies offered by vendors. Many attend web-based seminars and discussions to continually learn ways MEP engineering can help address issues due to COVID-19 in our world. AEI engineers also serve on industry standards technical committees helping establish guidelines and good practice when designing MEP systems. Most importantly, AEI staff is working directly with clients, listening to front-line experience and collaborating on engineering approaches that help their facilities enable staff to provide the necessary measures while treating patients, keeping their staff safe and working more effectively.

To help improve indoor air quality, what tools, products or systems are you recommending for clients?

AEI looks at various solutions improving indoor air quality that best fits the needs for clients, while working within the boundaries (existing systems capacities, limited resources and compact schedules) to implement system changes. Our firm starts by looking at ways to maximize total air change rates and amount of outside air delivered by the HVAC system. Once-through air or fully exhaust treatment spaces have been desired by many clients, but most existing HVAC systems are not sized to accomplish 100% outside air treatment. Filtration of existing HVAC system is also important in addressing air quality. AEI has been working closely with vendors and paying attention to testing and studies on ways to implement technologies such as ultraviolet lights (in HVAC system and within the space), bipolar ionization and photo catalytic oxidation.

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?

The demand for smart building technologies has been increasing over the years and the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for many clients to leverage smart building technologies to work more efficiently and safely. Budgetary constraints on building systems investments and a decline in building operations and maintenance staff has provided challenges within our industry. AEI has a growing staff of dedicated experts focusing on the latest technologies and applications that help gather, analyze and share building systems information to help address these issues. Our firm makes it easier for building operators to understand issues within their buildings systems by identifying key indicators that help point to the root cause.

Our team can also use this information to help maintenance and operations staff identify sensible predictive maintenance measures to get ahead of issues before they are too far advanced. In addition, smart technologies can help building operators save operational energy and costs to help divert budgetary funds to other investments. Every project and site are different, allowing AEI the opportunity to provide a tailored building technology solution for each specific site while also helping to train the operations and maintenance staff how to effectively use their technologies to maximize efficiency for their systems and their staff.

In direct response to COVID-19, many health care building operators are pushing their systems to their limits by providing the best indoor air quality for patients and staff. Closely monitoring and gathering information regarding systems performance is extremely important to make sure daily temperatures, humidity and pressure relationships are maintained. Simply losing one fan can put patients and staff in danger. Tracking energy usage and optimizing operations will also help to conserve utilities that are already near maximum consumption. Hospital staff need to operate quickly keeping everyone safe, so having information and data that can be processed and identified, should be a high priority goal for smart building technology systems.

What codes, standards or other references will change due to COVID-19? If your firm has members that sit on a code committee, what conversations have begun to alter these guidelines?

AEI engineers are represented on various technical committees for industry codes and standards. They are also encouraged to participate in code reviews prior adoption in various jurisdictions making sure that our design practice experience helps influence and inform codes and standards regulatory agencies for the betterment of the industry in various regions. Due to COVID-19, there is a lot of discussion within our industry regarding regulations around surge capacity for existing hospitals.

AEI has assisted medical facilities preparing quickly to house a surge of patients with an infectious disease. Many of these facilities did not have enough ICU capable beds, could not provide proper total and outside air change rates or keep proper pressure relationships and did not have proper entry sequences into infectious patient wards for proper donning and doffing. In many cases, construction could not be completed quickly enough or the space and systems were far too limited to make changes dealing with a quick increase of patients of this acuity. Regulatory agencies saw the need to operate existing facilities by following code and best practice guidelines as closely as possible knowing that many facilities could not meet these regulations without large investments.

Moving forward, AEI believes that there will be some additional guidance while designing new hospitals to help facilities be prepared to handle a surge of higher acuity patients with measures for infectious disease control.

Principal, health care market leader and executive team member Greg Quinn joined Affiliated Engineers Inc. soon after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Working one some of the company’s most prominent projects, Quinn quickly gained expertise in the design of complex health care and research facilities.

Joel Boado joined the Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s Madison office in 2004 as an entry level mechanical engineer, rapidly developing an expertise in facility planning, design and construction. With the breadth of experience gained over years of project work, he applies his expertise additionally to assisting clients with facilities master planning and project budgeting.

Author Bio: Greg J. Quinn, PE, LEED AP, Principal; and Joel Boado, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.