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By Gail Hunter, General Manager Energy and HVAC, Johnson Controls UKI
After months of working from sofas and dining tables, millions across the UK are starting to consider what going back to the office will look like. Above all else, what office workers want is somewhere safe and comfortable, where they can start to get back some normality. Bosses, meanwhile, are hopeful that heading back to the office will reinvigorate workforces, boosting productivity and ensuring the business is set to succeed.
However, it’s not as simple as bringing everyone back to the office and hoping for the best. Firstly, there are the COVID-19 safety measures we’ve all come to recognise: anti-bacterial cleaning stations and social distancing, for example. But behind the scenes, there’s even more to it than just what we can see and sanitise.
In particular, the role of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) will be critical to making the return to offices as safe as it can be – from the new technologies necessary to limit the virus’ spread, to the importance of servicing these systems, and the wider impact they can have on the planet. In this, facilities and buildings managers (FMs) will play a pivotal role.
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.
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.
Happier, healthier, greener
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.
Every move a facilities manager makes in the current climate will be under scrutiny – after all, buildings themselves are under a closer eye than ever before. Despite this, the most important thing for FMs is to ensure that their occupants’ comfort and safety is top of mind in every decision they make.
For FMs, the right HVAC investments and a commitment to service and maintenance will reduce running costs and help meet energy efficiency targets. In turn, they’re creating a working environment as healthy and comfortable as possible, thanks to smart HVAC solutions.
This will ensure businesses can succeed, employees can return to the office in comfort, and that the potential spread of COVID-19 can be limited as much as possible.
Putting smart HVAC solutions at the heart of returning to the workplace
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