Poor Indoor Air Quality? Your Building's HVAC System Could Be the Problem

Understanding why outdated or inefficient HVAC systems may be causing poor indoor air quality within your building.

More than ever, Facility managers are focusing on monitoring ongoing maintenance for occupational health and safety. A critical component to this growing responsibility is improving facility-wide indoor air quality. Commercial buildings rely heavily on their HVAC system to distribute clean air inside. However, most aging buildings have HVAC systems not equipped for higher-rated MERV filters and increased 24/7 operation. Therefore, if your building is struggling with poor indoor air quality, you may want to first look at your HVAC system to ensure it is not the problem.

Defining Poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Poor indoor air quality is an indoor environmental indicator that suggests high airborne pollutants, contaminants, and particulate matter (PM) concentrations. Common indoor airborne contaminants include; viruses, pathogens, bacteria, mold spores, dust, dust mites, gases, pollution, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Poor indoor air quality also becomes an employee health and safety issue in-office and business settings. According to the American Lung Association, poor IAQ might contribute to sudden acute illnesses, long-term health problems, or sick building syndrome.

Why Your HVAC System May Contribute To Poor IAQ

HVAC systems are essential to a building's indoor ecosystem. However, poorly maintained HVAC systems may cause further indoor air quality problems when not corrected. Here are the top three indicators your HVAC system is adversely affecting your facilities IAQ:

#1 Your HVAC Filters Are Not Replaced At An Appropriate Cadence

Buildings are heavily reliant on HVAC systems to distribute fresh and filtered air. However, if your HVAC filter is not replaced frequently, this fundamental purpose becomes irrelevant. Without a clean filter, your HVAC system may be allowing airborne pollutants to pass through and distribute throughout the building. 

According to ASHRAE HVAC, filter replacement depends on indoor environmental factors, HVAC system requirements, and the MERV filter rating. ASHRAE states that an initial air pressure drop will occur when replacing HVAC filters with the recommended MERV 13 filter. However, on average, MERV 13 filters have a longer lifespan, allowing the pressure drop to stabilize while the filter captures airborne contaminants. 

#2 Your HVAC System And Ductwork Are Not Regularly Cleaned

A significant part of a building's clean air distribution is the HVAC system air handler and supporting ductwork. Ductwork, air handlers, and vents may collect debris and dust without proper maintenance or cleaning. Debris build-up can reduce airflow and increase humidity levels. This build-up of debris can cause the growth of mold and attract insects.

Depending on the condition of existing ductwork, facility managers may need to higher special HVAC cleaning services. Commercial air duct cleaning providers use special equipment to loosen built-up debris with compressed air and brushes. The loosened debris is then vacuumed out of the ductwork using high-suction HEPA-filter-based systems.

HVAC Duct Work Vent In Drop Ceiling Tile

#3 Your HVAC System Has Not Been Upgraded To Support Building Changes

Commercial buildings are ever-evolving structures changing from tenant usage to building renovations and additions. However, often despite these changes, a building's HVAC system may never be upgraded or improved to better support the building's new purpose. In structure additions, new ductwork is often added without replacing the air handler to account for the additional square footage. Public school buildings are notorious for this issue due to tight budget constraints that can't account for all aspects of supporting their indoor environmental quality. 

As a result, clean air is not fully distributed throughout the building, reducing air exchanges and air filtration rate. More than ever in both the public and private sector, upgrading building HVAC systems to increase ventilation, airflow, air filtration is critical. Another method of upgrading HVAC systems is inline or induct air purifiers. These electronic air cleaners install directly into existing ductwork to provide advanced air purification technology throughout an entire building. Using ActivePure® Technologyhydroxyl generationphotocatalytic-oxidation (PCO), or UVGI technology, induct air purifiers help rapidly improve indoor air quality.

Open Concept Busy Office

Occupant Health Problems Highlight the Importance of Good IAQ

Whether you are a facility manager for a school or office building, indoor air quality directly impacts your occupants' health. When high levels of airborne pollutants go un-mitigated, your occupants' physical and mental health may be adversely affected. Offices with indoor air quality issues are likely to experience higher sick-leave rates. In contrast, schools will experience decreased student attendance and increased absenteeism amongst staff.

The combination of sick building syndromereduce productivity, and impacts of cognitive function, are all occupant health issues that may arise from poor indoor air quality. Therefore, when determining your building's source for poor IAQ, consider examining every indoor environmental system, including your HVAC system. Your occupants' health is essential, and so is providing them with clean and healthy air.

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