HVAC disinfection: fighting COVID-19 inside your system

Grace Li is an IFM project manager with a background and expertise in HVAC systems. She has overseen many HVAC disinfection projects in her career and now works with Aden in West China. We sat down with Grace to discuss the vital role of HVAC disinfection and duct cleaning in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19)

Why is HVAC disinfection so critical to the fight against COVID-19?
If I ask you to imagine your workplace right now, the image in your mind probably won't include any HVAC systems. That’s because HVAC systems are designed not to be noticed. But, in fact, HVAC is a huge component of almost every workplace, and has an extensive infrastructure that runs throughout the building, a bit like veins and arteries do in the human body. Unfortunately, the fact that HVAC systems connect so many space and are designed to quickly circulate air also makes them a major risk factor during viral outbreaks like coronavirus.

So, if you want to truly disinfect your workspace and make it safe for operation, you have to think about HVAC. You have to think about sanitization and hygiene in the places you don’t see – the inside of your air ducts, for example – just as much as you do for visible surfaces like floors, desks and door handles.

What is most common misperception about HVAC sanitization?
The biggest mistake is thinking that HVAC sanitization just means cleaning your filters. Really, disinfecting filters is just one piece of the picture; the filter is only the end point. Behind every filter sits a huge system that can continue circulating viruses and breeding bacteria. You can’t ignore that. Fighting coronavirus in your HVAC system also requires cleaning the inside of ducts, your fan coil units (FCUs) and air handling units (AHUs).

We also have to remember that HVAC disinfection should be coordinated with a larger hygiene strategy. I’m talking about measures like systematic surface disinfection, staff hygiene training and even taking advantage of some very exciting new innovations that have come to the world of IFM. For example, there are now many types of workplace robots which can significantly reduce the amount of face-to-face and skin-to-surface contact employees make during the workday.

What about just switching off the HVAC? Does this help reduce COVID-19 transmission? 
We know some workplaces are taking measures like this, but it doesn’t address the root problem. If you haven’t removed the virus from your space, it is still going to circulate. Meanwhile, you‘re leaving everyone sitting in the cold, working in conditions where they will be less comfortable, less productive and probably more likely to get sick.

Listen, business needs HVAC. There’s no way around it. The only solution is for us to be as vigilant and systematic about sanitizing HVAC as we are about wearing masks, washing our hands and staying indoors.

You’ve mentioned robots. How do they fit into HVAC disinfection services?  
Robots are a real game-changer. They let us go places, and clean places, that people can’t easily get into. And, because of their small size and versatility, we can do this with far less disruption to the workspace.

But this is not the biggest impact that robots make. The real key is that robots can sanitize HVAC systems with zero blind spots, and while they do this, they are creating a full, digital record of work done, which is trackable in real time. We also get to show our partners before-and-after images from inside their HVAC system, which always makes for a satisfying comparison.

How often do you recommend carrying out HVAC disinfection?  
Actually, we set different schedules depending on the component. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to have your ducts cleaned twice per year. Cleaning AHU and FCU needs to happen more often - we recommend a quarterly sanitization. Lastly, filters should follow an aggressive schedule of one sanitization per week.

That’s the regular schedule, but this is a crisis. If you have a workplace in China, it is vital to have a comprehensive, complete disinfection of your HVAC system as soon as possible.

In the long term, how will this coronavirus crisis impact workplace hygiene management?
Right now, companies are scrambling to meet new hygiene regulations that have been introduced because of the crisis. But even after the crisis ends, many of these regulations will stay in place. So doing HVAC disinfection isn’t just about getting through the crisis this month. It’s about setting up a key component in your business’ hygiene and environmental strategy.

Besides that, everyone in China has felt the crisis in a visceral way. Employees and customers will have new expectations related to disinfection and hygiene; these expectations won’t go away after the crisis. Remember, since the crisis started, people have been educating themselves, learning all about viruses and particles, masks and filtration. When people know more, they expect more and behavior changes.

It’s a new world with new rules, and if your business is serious about health and hygiene, that’s a good thing.


Click here to get in touch with Aden about your HVAC disinfection needs.

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