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COVID-19 public health guidelines may be downplaying building systems solutions

Emphasis on cleaning surfaces overlooks importance of mechanical infrastructure.

July 01, 2020 |

Courtesy Pixabay

As scientists learn more about the COVID-19 virus, opinions are changing on how it is spread from person to person, and that has implications for how to reopen buildings safely.

Emphasis to date on protocols for reopening buildings has focused on surface cleaning and occupant density. But, if as some scientists suspect, the virus can live for at least three hours in aerosols—tiny particles that can be carried through the air for long distances—HVAC systems could play a key role in spreading the virus. There are opposing views on whether aerosols actually can transmit the virus, but if they do, then ventilation systems could spread the virus through unfiltered re-circulation of indoor air.

In April, ASHRAE addressed the issue of possible aerosol transmission with recommendations that include:

· Maintain a relative humidity of 40% to 60% inside buildings instead of the usual 20% to 40%.

· Install air filters rated at least at MERV-13.

· Minimize re-circulation of indoor air, and bring in outside air either by mechanical means or by opening windows.

The humidity recommendation was made because higher humidity makes aerosols heavier, causing them to drop to the floor faster. ASHRAE has also recommended that the intake of outside air be set to the highest level permitted by the mechanical equipment. Some specialists recommend a full re-commissioning process for reopening buildings.

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