Air filters have become big business in the age of COVID-19 for the HVAC companies who can get their hands on them.
As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in businesses, HVAC companies struggle to keep up with the demand for high quality filtration systems.
It turns out that air filters are made from similar materials used in face masks and other personal protective equipment and are therefore in short supply, said Gregg Little, president of Springbank Mechanical Systems in southern Ontario.
“We work with dozens of different developers and they all look at this,” says Little.
Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto office manager at Carmichael Engineering Ltd., says his HVAC company is jumping into buying inventory of quality filters to discourage customers from facing four to six weeks turnaround time.
“The demand is very high right now. People put their health and safety above cost,” says Mastronardi.
The Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board identified “indoor air quality” as one of the major real estate trends emerging from the pandemic and noted that the pandemic “created greater demand for air purifiers, ranging from standalone models to sophisticated intelligent systems “. Portable air purifiers are also becoming increasingly difficult to find, notes Jeffrey Siegel, a Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering professor who studies indoor air quality.
That doesn’t mean business has been easy for HVAC companies, notes Little, who says many customers have cut their maintenance budgets because they can’t afford to stay open. The demand for a rollercoaster ride was high as some customers who had originally switched to fancier filters could not afford the cost, while dental and medical office purchases that went “crazy” this spring and bought air filters and have since calmed down.
Even so, HVAC operators have seen new recognition for their expertise in the light of COVID-19, Little says, and engineers have a choice between customers who may not have thought much before about the person turning their heating on, Mastronardi says.
Demand for HVAC companies has increased as local jurisdictions force tenants to look at their buildings’ HVAC systems. The Toronto Medical Officer of Health urged companies on Nov. 14 to check their HVAC systems to make sure they are working and air exchange settings are improved, using filters with the highest efficiency, and not blocking vents or placing furniture directly underneath .
However, the city’s health officials also note that “there is no evidence that air purifiers alone are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19,” and that they may be useful to supplement HVAC ventilation or when it does is not an exchange of outside air. “
Little says he recommends steady HVAC maintenance schedules, but has spent a lot of time this year personally reviewing some of the newer air cleaner products on the market. Little says he’s still skeptical of some of them, such as dry hydrogen peroxide.
Another technology that is catching on, bipolar ionization, doesn’t have a lot of independent data to back it up, Siegel says. The process has been around for decades, but many of the studies are of “questionable independence,” says Siegel.
“I know they are being promoted very heavily. But the technology is an unproven technology. You want to be very, very careful when a manufacturer comes up with some reports and shows you that it works,” Siegel says. “It can play a role. It just hasn’t proven effective in the context of this.”
That hasn’t stopped some landlords from opting for air purification.
Brookfield says its offices in New York, Toronto and Calgary are testing advanced ventilation and filtration systems. The system is to be extended to all office properties. The Brookfield system, which uses bipolar ionization, was considered prior to the pandemic to reduce energy consumption and emissions. But the company is now betting that tenants will see buildings with older air systems as “obsolete,” Brian Kingston, managing director of Brookfield Property Partners, said at an investor event this fall.
Air filters can be used to slow the spread of COVID-19 and it is very important that buildings meet minimum ventilation standards set by professionals. However, Siegel cautions that adding better air filters isn’t a panacea.
“If an infected person and an uninfected person are close together, the virus will not be captured, even if there is a great filter system elsewhere,” says Siegel.
“I consider it a secondary measure. The primary measures are wearing masks, people who are physically so far apart, hand washing and surface cleaning ΓÇ, and making sure rooms are not poorly ventilated.”
A portable HEPA filter can be used in almost any room, Siegel says, as long as it’s the right size and isn’t positioned to spit unfiltered air onto a person or touch-sensitive surface. However, upgrading the filters of a centralized system can be more cost effective, Siegel says, if the system can handle it.
Proper installation is a breeze, according to Siegel, especially with thicker filters and more high-tech air cleaning technology like UV lamps. Little warns that builders should look for HVAC companies that can provide customer testimonials on air filtration.
“There are a lot of people who take advantage of bad situations,” says Little.
This Canadian press report was first published on November 22, 2020.