By Gord Cooke
There is so much going on to raise the public’s awareness of the challenges and opportunities in providing safer, healthier, more comfortable indoor environments. CBC’s Marketplace recently aired an episode where they measured the air quality in several homes and evaluated five commonly available portable air “purifying” devices. There have also been multiple stories in national newspapers and on national network news broadcasts on the efficacy of air cleaning devices in schools and workplaces. Even my community newspaper ran a story about air cleaners being used in local schools.
With consumer awareness and angst regarding indoor air quality (IAQ) at all-time highs, let’s explore the opportunities for HVAC professionals.
There are at least four business opportunities in helping your residential and commercial clients breathe the healthiest possible air: testing and diagnostic services; remediation and restoration; installation of HVAC products targeting indoor environmental quality (IEQ); and maintenance programs specific to air quality control.
While most HVAC professionals are undoubtedly offering elements of each of these opportunities now, I would advocate tuning up your approach to match the heightened expectations and needs of clients. Those expectations include relevant credentials or, at the very least, demonstration of training and experience in the specific field of indoor environmental quality IEQ.
In workplace environments, the expertise and services of a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) are usually expected to create remediation plans for hazards such as mould, asbestos, lead and soil gases (radon). Creating a protocol for reducing viral infection spread in a workplace may also best be handled by a CIH. A CIH designation involves a college or university level education in a science or engineering related field, in addition to a field mentoring experience.
There are other recognized designations such as those offered by The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, Restoration Certification (IICRC), or the Building Biology Institute. While some readers may wish to pursue these designations, in the short term I would advocate developing a relationship with accredited professionals who you can refer clients to as needed. Use their knowledge to guide you in finding the most effective resolutions to indoor air challenges.
In most residential applications and even in many general commercial applications, such as offices or small retail stores, HVAC contractors with commonly available industry training and appropriate tools can provide a thorough and comprehensive diagnosis and air quality remediation or enhancement plan to clients. Start with information from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Environmental Protection Agency (U.S.). Information from these sources represents the findings and opinions of consensus documents and independent research.
For training, a great start would be the two-day Indoor Air Quality course offered by the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute (HRAI) through its SkillTech Academy. The course covers a range of building issues that can lead to air quality problems. It discusses tools, techniques and protocols for investigating IAQ issues and identifies the range of solutions available. Contractors who take this workshop will immediately want to get some field experience to apply and reinforce the information they have learned.
For remediation or cleanup of specific events such as floods, fire, mould or other insurable events, you would be advised to align yourself with a “disaster or restoration company” or take the training yourself through organizations such as the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, Restoration Certification (IICRC) or the Center for Disaster Recovery. They have day-long modules for specific restoration projects and they all include provisions for mechanical systems assessments and remediation you should be aware of.
When it comes to providing equipment and maintenance solutions, it is important to broaden and deepen your offerings to be true to the needs of clients’ environmental quality. Seldom will one piece of equipment be sufficient to make claims that air quality concerns have been addressed. Be ready to confidently offer proper temperature and humidity control. That is, humidification and whole house dehumidification equipment to maintain the optimal 40 per cent to 60 per cent RH level year-round. Then, offer appropriate ventilation options that include source control devices such as bathroom fans, kitchen range hoods and garage exhaust fans, as well as whole building ventilation systems.
Next, would be appropriate filter systems, to include both filtration of central air handling systems, as well as in-room filtration systems for vulnerable occupants. Offering appropriate filtration includes the responsibility to measure and assess pressure drops and make fan or duct work adjustments accordingly so that you can offer MERV 8 to 13 filters in air handling systems.
Effective maintenance requires verification of cleanliness of coil and drain pans and adjustments to allow for thorough inspection. Adjustment of dampers and fans to ensure appropriate pressure differences across different sections of a building are another item to add to your seasonal or annual duties. Finally, some specialized situations may benefit from application of deactivation strategies such as ultraviolet light. Verify the efficacy and safety of such technologies for each application using the design services offered by the manufacturer, as there are few industry wide standards for their use.
If you are offering both diagnostic testing and equipment solutions based on those tests, clients will expect a “before and after” test to validate the performance of your solution. This can be problematic in that there are so many possible daily variations and site conditions that will affect results. Be careful to set proper expectations. For example, a particle counter can be very effective in showing the percentage reduction in particles across the new filter you installed.
However, you may not be able to effectively demonstrate a reduction in particle counts in their office or bedroom since ambient levels of particles are highly dependent on occupant activities and outdoor air concentrations that can change by an order of magnitude in a matter of hours. Therefore, tell your clients how you will be demonstrating success before you install the equipment.
Indoor environmental quality will be top of mind for at least the next three to four years as both homeowners and business owners re-evaluate the best opportunity for safe spaces for work, schooling, relaxation and rest. All professional HVAC contractors should enhance their level of knowledge and the services and products they offer. It provides great opportunities, but more importantly, provides clients with effective and efficient solutions.
Equipment and service offering checklist
- Air handlers with ECM fan motors
- Bathroom fans, range hoods
- ERVs – ECM motors
- Humidity control – humidifiers, dehumidifiers
- Make-up air
- Filtration – MERV 8 to 13, HEPA
- Sealed duct work
- IAQ monitors and controls
- Planned maintenance to include coil and drain pan inspection, pressure control
- Radon testing and control
Tools you will need
From my experience, if you are offering diagnostic services, your client’s expectations will lead you to needing at least the following testing equipment or capabilities:
- Thermometer (both a probe type for inserting into ducts and a surface sensor)
- Hygrometer for humidity measurement and material moisture meter
- Gas leak detection
- Carbon monoxide measurement
- Carbon dioxide (ideally a device you could leave for logging over time)
- Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) meter/logger
- Particle counter/logger to measure particulate down to at least 2.5 Microns
- Manometer to measure pressures in cavities and spaces
- Air velocity and volume measurement devices to confirm ventilation rates
- Radon monitors (or access to a facility that tests for radon)
- Access to a material testing laboratory to send samples of dust, mould, etc. for analysis
Be sure you have appropriate calibration certificates for each piece of equipment. An investment of approximately $7,000 to $8,000 can be expected, with the particle counter being the single largest investment. These industry tools are a great complement to the primary value your eyes and nose, and your experience bring to clients. Use the industry tools to confirm and demonstrate your diagnosis to your client.