How can smart HVAC solutions facilitate a safer return to work?

Gail Hunter, General Manager Energy and HVAC, Johnson Controls UKI, tells elemental how smart HVAC solutions can facilitate a safer return to work.

Remote work has been a considerable lifeline for most of us over the past few months, and the recent announcement means it will remain so for many. But for some, it simply isn’t feasible and a return to the office is the more desirable outcome. Naturally, employers and employees both want a safe, comfortable and productive working environment upon returning to offices. It therefore falls to facilities managers to show how they can keep people safe.

It is not a case of simply bringing back the workforce and hoping for the best. Rather, there are countless new guidelines in place to protect the workforce, from social distancing measures to anti-bacterial cleaning stations. But facilitating a safe return to work goes beyond this, involving technology to help limit a potential spread of the virus along with the servicing and maintenance requirements. Here, the role of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, as well as the role of building and facilities managers (FMs) will be mission critical.

Keeping people safe with smart HVAC

Walking in the building through a new automatic door, most office workers will be greeted with a queue for the lifts and plenty of signage reminding you to sanitise your hands and keep your distance. Some may have their body temperature scanned by a thermal detection camera on entry, which could also count how many people enter to ensure numbers are safe. Others could be met with an anti-virus access point that scans your face using facial recognition rather than a pass, and enforces hand hygiene by dispensing sanitiser before the lifts will open.

All of these measures, however strict, are part of the new normal: ‘contactless’ buildings. Designed to limit the potential spread of COVID-19, facilities managers have plenty of options when it comes to keeping people safe. But not all of them are so apparent when entering a building. Some of the most important measures are those we can’t see.

A healthy and safe working environment has always relied on a building’s HVAC infrastructure – temperature control, good air flow, and a reliable level of comfort are top of most office workers’ priority lists. But the pandemic has taken this to a new level of importance. As a critical part of their wider health and safety plan, facilities managers can look to identify strategies to increase clean air levels further. This could include increasing outdoor air circulation to decrease pathogen exposure, with smart air handling units. These will enable managers to bring in more outside air to displace potentially contaminated air, by increasing ventilation and air change rates.

Improving filtration methods is another possibility, by adding additional filters including high efficiency filters and HEPA filters, to trap more particles and increase the percentage of clean air in a building. Portable HEPA solutions are also an option for those who need more flexibility. In addition to air filtration and circulation, it is also possible to use UV-C lighting to effectively ‘disinfect’ the air or surfaces, using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) to inactivate viral microorganisms. These can be installed brand new or retrofitted into existing facilities, to reduce costs for FMs and speed up implementation.

These innovative uses of HVAC to limit the spread of infection could have a huge impact on the health and safety of occupants in any building – and this is by no means limited to offices. Within healthcare and laboratory facilities, for example, solutions like room pressurisation, air change rates, humidity and temperature controls are all critical to reduce contamination in the air and on surfaces.

Looking after your investments

No matter which HVAC solutions a facilities manager chooses, it’s not a case of installing them and then waving goodbye. As with any good health and safety strategy, constant monitoring is crucial to ensure building occupants are well looked-after – and this also ensures you can get the most out of HVAC investments.

For some this means keeping a close eye on how your HVAC equipment runs, to ensure that they’re reaching optimum performance and delivering the best ROI. Working with a partner who can provide continuous service and monitoring is critical, so that the pressure is off FMs themselves. Especially now, having remote monitoring capabilities is an added bonus, so that minor issues can be fixed without an engineer having to visit the site.

For those with smart technologies in place, such as smart connected chillers, FMs may rather be reliant on predictive maintenance and monitoring tools, which use AI and automation to predict issues before they arise, and ensure equipment runs reliably and downtime can be minimised. Whether in person or remotely, good quality service and maintenance of HVAC equipment goes a long way – both to get the best return on investment, and to keep buildings as safe and comfortable as possible.

A more sustainable workplace

HVAC has always been critical to keeping employees happy and healthy at work – but for a long time this has had a negative impact on the planet. Inefficient HVAC systems can give a building a much bigger carbon footprint than it would ideally have.

Last year, our Energy Efficiency Indicator survey found that 75% of organisations plan to increase their investment in energy efficiency and smart building technologies. The opportunity, then, to overhaul HVAC systems in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 is also an opportunity to invest in more efficient, greener HVAC technologies, built for the future.

Taking a holistic approach to your HVAC equipment is the best way to do this, to ensure efficiency gains can be made across an entire building or estate, by connecting intelligent systems. Chillers, for example, with efficiency and intelligence built in as standard can reduce energy use and carbon emissions for a building, or collection of buildings, helping FMs meet energy targets and keeping costs low.

Preparing for the return to work

Facilities managers have been tasked to help make our workplaces safer and more comfortable. With more of a focus on public health than ever before, they must instil confidence in preparation for the return to work.

To this end, investing in the right HVAC system for your business and keeping track of ongoing service and maintenance requirements will be crucial. By facilitating a good flow of air and efficient, reliable climate control, building managers can reinvigorate workers to drive growth and ensure ongoing business continuity. This will ultimately go a long way in making the return as productive as possible while helping to keep the workforce safer.

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