Facility Manager's Guide To Upgrading Your HVAC System

HVAC Systems Are Complex, And So Are Making Upgrades And Repairs. Learn What Potential Upgrades Are Available And How To Make An Informed Decision.

As complex as heating, ventilation, and air condition (HVAC) systems are, businesses and their facility managers often face HVAC inefficiencies. With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing broader focus on indoor air quality (IAQ), many HVAC systems lack the capability to properly ventilate indoor spaces and provide high-level air filtration. 

There are numerous reasons why HVAC upgrades are critical, but ensuring the health and safety of your building occupants is of the utmost importance. Therefore, Sanalife's team of indoor air quality experts has constructed this guide for FM's on upgrading HVAC systems to support IAQ improvements.

Understanding Your HVAC System And Potential Upgrades

Whether you manage a high-rise office or a sprawling school, these buildings have HVAC systems with vast networks of ductwork, air handlers, heaters, cooling terminals, and VAVs (variable air volume units) to control ventilation and temperature. 

Without the proper monitoring, it is hard to tell what parts of the HVAC network fail, need replacement, or require an upgrade. Here are some indicators and dependencies to better understand whether you should replace a component of your building's HVAC system.

  1. What is the primary function of your HVAC system? Is it to provide building-wide ventilation, control indoor climate, reduce humidity, or all of the mentioned?
  2. How old is your building's HVAC system, components, or ductwork?
  3. How often has your HVAC system been maintained by certified HVAC technicians and repair professionals?
  4. Are there any known efficiency problems with particular HVAC components or parts of the building?
  5. Have any building renovations impacted the building's HVAC efficiency or airflow?
  6. Are there any governmental, regulatory, or industry requirements for your building's indoor air quality?
  7. Are there new requirements in your area regarding HVAC system efficiency and energy consumption?
  8. Does your HVAC system have multiple zones or multiple disconnected HVAC networks?
  9. Are there any know problems with poor indoor air quality in specific sectors of your building?
  10. Are there noticeable signs of HVAC system strain, overload, or component deterioration?

The 4 Steps Needed To Propose HVAC System Upgrades

As a facility manager, you'll likely have set protocols you are required to follow, including routine HVAC maintenance and scheduled part or filter replacement. However, when it comes to proposing HVAC upgrades, your opinion and decisions regarding the work are critical. As an FM, you are the primary source for understanding your building's complex ecosystem of environmental systems. Therefore, consider the following steps and recommendations when drafting a proposal for HVAC system upgrades.

Step #1: Get Your HVAC System Assessed

You may already know the problems with your building's HVAC system, but getting it assessed by a certified HVAC technician will bring better insight. HVAC technicians can test and diagnose any issues regarding airflow, system pressure loss, or decreases in heating or cooling efficiency. These trained HVAC professionals will also provide insight into what HVAC components may need upgrades or an entire replacement.

Step #2: Research And Gather Information On HVAC Upgrades

Once the HVAC technician provides their estimate, you'll better understand the labor and timeline required to perform the necessary upgrades. They may also provide you with the load calculation details for your facility so that you make more informed and cost-effective decisions. These new insights make it vital to conduct further research into HVAC system component compatibility and new indoor air quality technology to improve long-term HVAC efficiency.

Metal Ductwork Installation In Basement

Step #3: Determine Budgetary Restraints And Financial Approvals

Once you have the list of HVAC work needed, it is now time to identify any budgetary restraints or avenues for funding the improvements. Currently, in the spring of 2022, government funding and grants for HVAC upgrades may still be available. Suppose you are an FM in the public sector, such as schools. In that case, there are significant amounts of potential grant money dedicated to HVAC upgrades and building ventilation. Be sure to work in coordination with your purchasing and financial departments to determine the total allotted budget.

Step #4: Schedule Your HVAC Upgrades And Repairs

After receiving budgetary approval and estimated scope of work, you can now schedule your HVAC upgrades and repair work. For facilities that remain occupied daily, you should plan the work for completion during times with minimal disruption to building occupants. With some HVAC upgrades requiring significant construction or zone downtime, consider temporarily relocating occupants to areas with functional environmental systems within the building. This type of construction may also contribute to increases in airborne pollutants, be sure to implement supplemental IAQ controls such as industrial fans and HEPA-equipped portable air purifiers.

Replacing Ductwork? Here Is What You Need To Know

Many of your HVAC upgrade estimates will involve replacing existing or installing new ductwork. Though often out-of-sight, ductwork plays an essential role in HVAC systems and their network of components. Whether hidden in ceilings, walls or visibly constructed in industrial settings, ductwork helps deliver clean and temperature-controlled airflow. Therefore, when completing your HVAC system overall, it's essential to know the different types of ductwork that may be installed.

Metal Ductwork (AKA Rigid Ductwork)

The primary type of ductwork used for an HVAC system is metal ductwork. This rigid form of ductwork is commonly constructed using sheet metal. Either boxed or cylindrical in shape, the ductwork is cut to size to fit the desired used and installation space. With solid durability and airflow, metal ductwork is used for the main pillars in a trunk-and-branch ductwork design. These pseudo arteries to the HVAC system help deliver substantial airflow throughout a facility.

Metal HVAC Ductwork Being Trimmed Or Cut

Flexible Ductwork

Compared to metal ductwork, a key benefit of flexible ductwork is that it is easier to install and customize to fit usage. With the unique challenges of building design or location of HVAC equipment, flexible ductwork can easily bend to connect rigid ductwork to additional sections or components that may be out of reach. In HVAC system design, flexible ductwork is often used to carry air to ceiling vents or the central plenum of the air handler.

Despite flexible ductwork's "flexibility" in design, it does have a few downsides. Firstly flexible ductwork is more prone to poor installation and susceptible damage. The flexible material is more impervious than sheet metal, and without adequately secured joints, it can become disconnected. Additionally, the flexible material and creases in design can significantly reduce airflow. That's why flexible ductwork is either installed at endpoints or only when necessary within the HVAC ductwork network.

4 Cost-Effective Methods To Improve Your HVAC System

With all the different avenues for HVAC system upgrades, it's essential to know the options available. Not every HVAC system upgrade works with every facility type. However, new and emerging methods accomplish goals such as improving ventilation/airflow, air filtration, indoor air quality, energy savings, system monitoring, and HVAC system longevity. Here are the top 4 simple and most cost-effective methods you can take to improve your HVAC system.

Method #1: Improved Air Distribution With HVAC System Zones

For many facilities, especially in aging or non-energy efficient buildings, there are always rooms or sections with limited air distribution or climate control. To solve this problem, one of the best solutions is to add additional HVAC zones to better control the indoor environmental quality of these spaces. The construction of a new HVAC zone may require extensive new ductwork installation alongside additional HVAC cooling, heating, filtration, and air handling equipment. Although one of the more expensive HVAC upgrades, adding new zones provides the most significant long-term investment.

Method #2: Upgrade HVAC Filters To A Higher MERV Rating

Not all air filters are created equal, and this especially rings true to the filters in your HVAC system. Most facilities nationally have minimal air filtration, if not none. Facility managers have routinely discussed having the right MERV filter in public schools. When the National Air Filtration Association (NAFA) released its 2012 guidelines, MERV 13 filters were recommended. However, schools did not consider improving IAQ over the years with consistent budgetary constraints.

Only now, almost 2-years in with COVID-19, Schools are receiving the necessary funding to implement HVAC upgrades. A substantial sum of those upgrades is directly contributed to using MERV 13 filters or MERV 8 filters at a minimum. With guidance from the Center For Disease Control and Prevent (CDC), MERV 13 filters are strongly recommended to improve air filtration and reduce the presence of airborne pathogens. MERV 13 filters, although not as effective as True HEPA filters in portable air purifiers, provide similar particle size capture rates. Therefore, make sure MERV 13 filters are on the purchase order list if you consider any HVAC upgrade.

Diagram Showing MERV Filter Lifespan
Demonstration of MERV HVAC Filter Lifespan With Typical Usage

Method #3: Install Smart IOT Programmable Thermostats

When your goal is to reduce overall heating and cooling energy costs, there is no better HVAC system upgrade than commercial smart programmable thermostats. Initially developed for household usage, smart thermostat manufacturers are now offering enterprise whole building solutions. Not only do these smart thermostats can save on average over 8% on heating and cooling costs. But these business-level solutions allow for complete and seamless climate control for entire buildings.

Method #4: Install HVAC Induct Air Purifiers

Lastly, one of the best upgrades you can make to an HVAC system is installing induct or inline air purifier. There are currently numerous HVAC air purifier solutions on the market using electronic air cleaning technologies ranging from NPBI (Needle Point Bi-Polar Ionization), UV-C light, to Hydroxyl Radical Generation. For Facility Managers, it is crucial to know the safety and efficacy testing surrounding these electronic air cleaning technologies. NBPI, which has been commonly installed in HVAC systems within schools and corporate offices, has become widely known for its potential adverse health effects

ActivePure Induct Guardian Installed In HVAC Ductwork

At Sanalife, we only offer HVAC air purifiers that are backed by extensive real-world and scientific efficacy testing to ensure we only provide safe, clean air solutions. Easily installed into any existing HVAC ductwork, our ActivePure® Induct Guardian can provide building-wide air purification. When combined with optimally running HVAC systems and higher-rated MERV filters, the ActivePure® Induct Guardian provides an extra layer of airborne contaminant protection.

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