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Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

Indoor air quality has become a major concern in places of business
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Air filters have become big business in the age of COVID-19, for the HVAC companies that can get their hands on them.

As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems.

Air filters, it turns out, are made of similar materials used in face masks and other personal protective equipment, putting them in short supply, says Gregg Little, president of Springbank Mechanical Systems in southern Ontario.

“We work with dozens of different developers, and they are all looking at that,” Little says.

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering Ltd., says his HVAC company is jumping to buy inventory of high-grade filters to keep clients from facing four-to-six-week turnarounds.

"The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost," says Mastronardi.

The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver dubbed "indoor air quality” as a top real estate trend to emerge from the pandemic, noting that the pandemic "created more demand for air purifiers, ranging from stand-alone models to sophisticated smart systems.” Portable air purifiers are also getting harder and harder to find, notes Jeffrey Siegel, a professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering who studies indoor air quality.

That doesn’t mean business has been easy for HVAC companies, notes Little, who says that many clients have slashed their maintenance budgets because they can’t afford to stay open. Demand has been on a roller-coaster, as some clients who initially upgraded to fancier filters couldn't carry the cost, while purchases from dentists' and doctors' offices that “went crazy” buying air filters this spring and have since levelled off.

That said, HVAC operators have noticed a newfound recognition for their expertise in light of COVID-19, Little says, and engineers have their pick of clients who might previously may not have given much thought to the person turning on their heater, says Mastronardi.

Demand for HVAC companies has spiked as local jurisdictions push tenants to look at their buildings' HVAC systems. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health on Nov. 14 told businesses to review their HVAC systems to make sure they work and that they have increased air-exchange settings, are using the highest efficiency filters and aren’t blocking air vents or putting furniture directly beneath them.

But the city’s public health officials also advise that “there is no evidence to show that air purifiers on their own are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” noting that they may be useful to “supplement to HVAC ventilation or if there is no outdoor air exchange.”

Little says he recommends steady HVAC maintenance plans, but has spent a good deal of time this year personally reviewing some of the newer air filtration products on the market. Little says he’s still skeptical of some of them, such as dry hydrogen peroxide.

Another technology that is taking off, bipolar ionization, doesn’t have much independent data to back it, Siegel says. The process has been around for decades but many of the studies around it are of “questionable independence,” says Siegel.

“I know they're being promoted very heavily …. but the technology is an unproven technology, you want to be very, very careful if a manufacturer presents some reports and shows you that it works,” Siegel says. “It may have a role. It just hasn't been demonstrated to be effective in this context.”

That has not stopped some landlords from betting on air purification.

Brookfield says it is piloting advanced air ventilation and filtration systems in its New York, Toronto and Calgary offices, with plans to expand the system to all its office properties. Brookfield’s system, which uses bipolar ionization, was under consideration before the pandemic as a way to reduce energy usage and emissions. But the company is now wagering that tenants will view buildings with older air systems as “obsolete," said Brian Kingston, chief executive of Brookfield Property Partners, at an investor event this fall.

Air filters can be used to slow the spread of COVID-19, and it is very important for buildings to meet minimum ventilation standards assessed by professionals, but Siegel warns that adding better air filters is no silver bullet.

“If you have an infected person and an uninfected person close together, even if there's a great filtering system somewhere else, it's not going to capture the virus,” says Siegel.

“I consider it to be a secondary measure. The primary measures are wearing masks, people physically as far apart, hand-washing and surface cleaning … and making sure spaces are not poorly ventilated.”

A portable HEPA filter can work in almost any space, Siegel says, as long as it is the right size and not positioned to spew unfiltered air onto a person or high-touch surface. But upgrading the filters of a centralized system can be more cost-effective, Siegel says, if the system can handle it.

Siegel says proper installation is make-or-break, especially with thicker filters and more high-tech air cleaning technology like ultraviolet lamps. Little warns that building owners should look for HVAC companies that can give customer references in air filtration.

“There are a lot of people who take advantage of bad situations," Little says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2020.

Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press



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