Contractor Offers Hope For PTAC IAQ

March 10, 2004
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These before (above) and after (below) photos show the visible results steam cleaning can make. The process is also designed to kill bacteria and viruses.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Richard Namovich sometimes has difficulty convincing building owners that their packaged terminal air conditioners (PTACs) need to be cleaned regularly.

"It must have been difficult for the first toothbrush salesman to convince people with bad teeth that they should brush," commented Namovich. "Those who preach the ill effects of indoor air face the same uphill struggle. People believe that if the air doesn't look bad, it must not be bad."

In fact, toothbrushes had a relatively smooth course of public adoption - much more so than other types of public hygiene.

"When Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis asked medical students at his hospital in 1848 to wash their hands before seeing patients, mortality rates plummeted," said Namovich, "yet his hygienic preachings were widely attacked."

"In 1865, English surgeon Joseph Lister, inspired by Pasteur and Koch, began using carbolic acid as an antiseptic; despite his successes it took more than a decade for ‘Listerism' to catch on," stated Namovich, who obviously has a great interest in scientific history. "The purest and safest form of sanitation and hygiene is steam sterilization, introduced in 1886." Steam sterilization is how he cleans PTACs, with equipment designed specifically for his company and this particular application.

This 30-year former Maytag employee has taken his now seven-year-old company into an area few HVAC contractors seem interested in: PTAC cleaning and maintenance. Rejuvinair not only provides steam cleaning of through-the-wall PTACs, it offers full, quarterly maintenance that helps keep the units looking good and running as they were designed to run.

Because of the abysmal condition of most PTACs when his company first sees them, all the people who go into the room to perform the maintenance wear masks and gloves, said Namovich; the steamer operator also wears special arm protection.

Although they use barricades and tape to keep the public away, Namovich calls it "a lot of sizzle." He said, "The steam is only dangerous for 3 to 4 inches from the wand. You could hold your hand up 18 inches from the wand's tip, and all you would feel is the warm vapor. At 2 inches, though, you'd burn a hole in your hand."

In addition to its other good work practices, "We wrap the air conditioners so people like hotel guests don't see this garbage," Namovich said.

Business is on the upswing. "Right now we have seven people and four trucks," he said. "We're going to be hiring a bunch more people" because of a new business agreement with a major property management firm. Although he has a license to franchise, it doesn't appeal to him at this time. "When you sell a franchise, you lose all sense of quality. It takes 18 to 36 months to get rid of a franchise."

For the hotel-motel industry, owners' chief concerns are system operating costs and odors. There are other PTAC applications, however, where a lack of cleaning and maintenance does more than cause odors. In some cases, it can undermine health. The units are commonly installed in nursing homes, for example, where the resident population is prone to infections and pneumonia.

PTACs are cleaned and sterilized with 305 degree steam. The company’s equipment was custom made for the application.

Rampant Infections

Namovich cites the following information from the Second NSF International Conference on Indoor Air Health, held Jan. 29-31, 2001, in Miami Beach:

  • 75 million people in America suffer from allergies and asthma.

  • Two million people in America are infected with nosocomial (hospital environment) infections yearly; 60,000 of the 2 million die every year.

  • Pneumonia has increased exponentially since 1950.

  • As many as 7,000 people die each year from Legionnaire's Disease.

    Namovich explained that emergency rooms and surgery theaters often use PTACs to keep the rooms as cold as 40 degrees to 45 degrees F, to help slow down the processes of the body being treated.

    Sterilized hotel units are ready to be reinstalled.
    Often, there are no guarantees that these PTACs are being cleaned, unless the health care facility in question is trying to achieve or maintain Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) accreditation.

    "We've had swabs on PTACs that had more than 100 different colonies of bacteria and viruses," Namovich said. "That's 100 completely different types."

    He recalled one nursing home with a resident room that was dubbed a "death" room; one resident after another died shortly after being moved into that room. The director finally approved a new PTAC for the room. Problem solved.

    Some states have mandated that air conditioning systems are properly cleaned and maintained. In Florida, for instance, the state's American Health Care Agency (AHCA) Surveyor Guidelines re-quire air-handling equipment to be maintained, documented, and logged as having been maintained. In 2000, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) was instituted, requiring the inspection of PTACs in the hospitality industry. However, "as of July 2004, there will not have been one packaged terminal air conditioner inspected in the state of Florida," Namovich said. This is representative of the lack of inspectors around the country.

    "The finest engineered and built equipment will not perform as built or engineered if it is not cleaned and maintained regularly," Namovich said. "Everything concerning good health starts with cleanliness."

    Rejuvinair owner Richard Namovich inspects a cleaned and sterilized hotel PTAC.

    Hospitality Demands

    The hospitality market - hotels and motels - may be an even tougher nut to crack. It has been acknowledged that, regarding PTAC maintenance, "If there isn't enough of a market force, change won't happen."

    It's a given that hotels lose revenue when people refuse to stay in their rooms due to odors and stale air. The question is, how much revenue do hotels lose due to odors and poor IAQ? Is it enough to prompt owners to start paying more attention to HVAC system design and maintenance?

    Customers who travel with their own Lysol®, or who refuse to stay in hotel rooms that do not have operable windows, are aware that there is a problem. However, unless they become ill, they seem to have no interest in complaining to hotel management. Management, for its part, seems reluctant to address regular PTAC cleaning and maintenance.

    Namovich is convinced that cleaning and maintaining PTAC systems is something management can't afford to ignore. He cites the following benefits of his company's preventive maintenance program:

  • Utility costs reduced as much as 37 percent.

  • Replacement A/C purchases reduced as much as 90 percent.

  • A/C repair bills reduced as much as 100 percent.

  • Sleeve replacement costs reduced as much as 100 percent.

  • Odors from air conditioners removed (guaranteed 100 percent).

  • Mold and mildew growth prevented.

  • Life of room furnishings, carpeting, and wall coverings ex-tended.

  • Room deodorizer costs reduced as much as 100 percent.

  • Room refunds reduced.

  • Patient/family complaints reduced.

  • Chemical use, IAQ, and injury litigation reduced.

  • Employee sickness and injuries reduced.

    "Steam provides the safest and purest form of cleanliness," Namovich said. "Steam is safe for the environment and kills everything. Steam leaves no harmful residues, and is the acknowledged antiseptic leader."

    He had the prototype HVAC steam cleaner built for $23,000. "The company let me use the machine before I had to pay for it," Namovich said. The machine hits colony growth with 305 degree steam.

    Of course, it can also damage some areas of the equipment. He knows what he is dealing with in the field, and he takes proper steps to protect the equipment. For instance, high-temperature steam can damage the box controls on some PTACs, he said.

    The average PTAC will stay clean six months, he said. His company monitors the facility's utility bills; at the point they start going back up, he knows it's time to return for a cleaning.

    "It's like taking care of your teeth," he said. "If you decided to save money by not buying toothbrush and toothpaste, you might save a few dollars over the year - but your teeth fall out of your face, or you get complications from an abscessed tooth."

    Namovich's niche market is one he would like to see other reputable companies get into. "We want competition. We don't want to be the only horse in town."

    Publication date: 03/15/2004

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