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The Case for COVID-19 Safe Building Certification

G.J. Graziano

The Case for COVID-19 Safe Building Certification

Posted: December 18, 2020 | Project Management

As COVID-19 virus infections continue to grow exponentially, so does fear among the general population in our country. Even after the virus starts to abate due to vaccination, fears may not be alleviated. Vaccination is not an instantaneous solution — there will be an extended transition period before the virus is completely controlled in our connected world.

During this transition period, fear could potentially drive a major portion of our population to avoid returning to indoor spaces. Schools could be delayed from fully reopening for on-site learning. Other businesses that help drive our economy, like restaurants, movie theaters, and retail establishments, will not be able to survive if patrons are afraid to return.

It is therefore necessary to look at means to assure the public that it is safe to return to these facilities. One possible way to do this is to certify that building interiors have had their HVAC systems retrofitted to filter the virus in circulated air. However, since scientists do not know how many virus particles are needed to trigger infection,1 merely reducing the number of particles in the air alone may not be effective.

Recent information indicates that the safest way to prevent virus transmission in public buildings is retrofit HVAC systems to both reduce viral load and actually kill the COVID-19 virus. The American Society of Heating Refrigeration Engineers (ASHRAE) is uniquely suited to provide information on retrofitting existing HVAC equipment. They have volunteered to advise the newly formed National COVID-19 Task Force. They have also issued a position document, “ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols,”2 which explains the use of engineering controls to control/eliminate the virus. The document recommends dilution and filtration of air to reduce the viral load, and also outlines the parameters for the installation of both in-duct and ceiling-mounted ultraviolet units to essentially kill the virus.

While ASHRAE resources provide general design guidance, specific designs must be prepared for the various HVAC systems and facility types and sizes. A design that is effective for a small HVAC system in a mom-and-pop restaurant will differ from that for a high-ceilinged building of a national restaurant chain. Various types and sizes of schools and office buildings will require different designs. That said, retrofit prototypes could be developed and then adapted for each type of HVAC system, incorporating the various modalities in a synergistic, economical manner.

What could an effective HVAC retrofit program look like that would reassure the public that is it safe to gather indoors in public and retail establishments? Tests confirming the efficacy of retrofitted systems could be conducted and verified by public health personnel.

A certification should then be issued by the public health department indicating that this establishment has been certified as a “Safe COVID-19 HVAC Equipment Establishment.” This certification could be recorded and made available publicly. A national advertising campaign could be initiated to explain this certification program ensuring that the air in these establishments can be kept virus free and therefore assure safety.

At present, Congress has done nothing to develop any type of physical infrastructure response to the COVID-19 virus, which has already killed over 260,000 Americans. In 1986, Congress responded to the much lesser threat of asbestos in school buildings by passing the “Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).” The very name of the act caused school boards to spend substantial funds to physically remove asbestos in school buildings. Epidemiologists had estimated that the AHERA act, when fully implemented, would only save a small number of lives. So far, Congress has refused to pass legislation to require physical building modifications which would ensure that all buildings, especially schools, are provided with funds for HVAC retrofits that have been shown to prevent the spread of this virus.

Congress must act quickly to pass the Corona Pandemic Relief Bill (CPR) to resuscitate our ailing economy by providing long-term, low-interest loans to facility owners that could fund the retrofitting of existing HVAC systems. The first priority should be schools, with the second priority small businesses owners. Owners of large buildings should be a third priority, since they can more easily access capital. Both the Democrats and Republicans have expressed an interest in improving infrastructure.

By certifying that the HVAC systems of buildings have been retrofitted and are producing virus-free air, people will be encouraged to return to public buildings. This will allow the safe reopening of the economy and allow furloughed workers to return to their jobs. This will free up unemployment funds normally paid to these workers. These funds can then be immediately used to jump start this retrofitting program and reopen the economy.

About the Author: G.J. Graziano is a former director of project management for Johns Manville Corporation (JM). His roles included developing and implementing programs to expand production facilities, domestically and internationally, for many of JM’s products. As the director of process engineering, he provided engineering expertise for the commercialization of many of JM’s innovative products, primarily in the building products arena. He is a retired Professional Engineer who holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Management and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. In his retirement, Mr. Graziano has been published in national magazines as he advocates for the use of existing engineering technology to solve current problems. In this regard, he urged ASHRAE to share their technical knowledge of eliminating the threat of COVID-19 by using engineering controls to supply virus-free indoor air quality. As a result, ASHRAE has appointed an experienced engineer in this field to provide advice to the new COVID-19 National Task Force. In this article, Mr. Graziano suggests a nationwide program to certify that the existing HVAC equipment in buildings has been retrofitted to eliminate the COVID-19 virus. Upon successful testing, certification would be awarded by Public Health Departments and be noted in public record.

References — (URLs)
1. What We Do and Do Not Know about COVID-19’s infectious Dose and Viral Load
2. ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols