What’s that Smell?
Contractors address identifying and eliminating pungent IAQ problems
Thanks to greater public awareness, building owners and managers are becoming much more sensitive to problems concerning IAQ. But, according to a new report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings 2016,” released by Dodge Data & Analytics, that concern is not always shared by architects and contractors who sometimes seem to underestimate their clients’ desires to create healthier buildings.
For example, the report showed that 75 percent of building owners want to achieve improved employee/tenant satisfaction by investing in healthier buildings, but only 68 percent of architects and 51 percent of contractors see this as a top goal for their clients. The report also states that around half of owners/managers do not know the degree to which they may see financial benefits from creating healthier buildings. This is a prime opportunity for contractors to fill the void and explain how to achieve healthier buildings through improved IAQ.
Unpleasant odors are a primary IAQ issue encountered by many contractors, including Chris Baardsen, president of Central Supply and Metal Co. in Phoenix. “The cause of these odors usually varies from building to building. We see issues as minor as breakroom odors in offices to chemical exhaust in manufacturing plants.”
When the IAQ problem is exhaust from a manufacturing process, the solution can involve adding an outside air hood to an existing air conditioning unit or adding a dedicated outside air unit to make up the exhaust air, said Baardsen. “More recently, we have been installing RenewAire energy recovery ventilators [ERVs] to reduce the load on the existing system while providing the exhaust required for the processes.”
Christopher J. Stone, vice president of Hyde-Stone Mechanical Contractors Inc. in Watertown, New York, is also a fan of ERVs. “We’ll often get calls from owners or managers saying, ‘We have a smell,’ or ‘I feel tired,’ or ‘We have some people who are sick,’ and the first thing we look at is outside air. Conditioning outside air can be expensive, so in order to save money, a lot of faculty managers will reduce the amount of outside air or even shut it off so they don’t have to heat or condition incoming air.”
That is a big mistake because a lack of outside air can result in a buildup of indoor air contaminants, such as carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds [VOCs], and odors, which can then adversely affect occupants. If, after performing an initial assessment, Stone finds that lack of outside air is the problem, he will often recommend installing an ERV. “ERVs are efficient ways to handle outside air issues, because they bring in outside air, exhaust stale air, return air back to the unit, and help preheat that outside air. That saves energy and improves IAQ.”
Dry plumbing traps are also known causes of odors, noted Ken Misiewicz, CEO, Pleune Service Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, and infiltration can be a problem in offices next to or in manufacturing plants if a positive pressure strategy is not used. “Diesel fumes from delivery docks can also infiltrate warehouses and office spaces, and this is usually most prevalent in late fall or early winter when buildings get closed up and trucks idle longer. Each situation is different, but air management is the key. Creating positive pressure zones in combination with an exhaust strategy directly often solves the problem.”
James C. Mooney, president and CEO of Enginuity LLC in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, said most IAQ issues stem from either too much or too little outside air. “The root cause is often improper maintenance of the equipment or the failure of a control system. Occasionally, it will be design-related or the result of a change of usage. For example, a private office might be altered to house numerous employees in cubicles or a conference room.”
High humidity is another issue Mooney encounters regularly, and, surprisingly enough, it’s often the result of more efficient lighting retrofits, which can drastically reduce interior loads. “Basically, the HVAC equipment becomes oversized as the result of the energy improvement measures, and it cycles too frequently to allow sufficient dehumidification. We have addressed these issues in several ways from equipment modification to replacement.”
PROVING THE POINT
While most building owners and managers are willing to tackle high-profile IAQ problems, such as mold, they may be less willing to invest in solutions for other problems, such as high CO2 or too much — or too little — outside air. When there is no clear payback, except in terms of increased productivity or better employee retention, which can be subjective and difficult to prove, it can be more challenging to convince owners to invest in IAQ solutions.
One way to confront that problem is to use one of the many tools available that can help contractors investigate, diagnose, and document building control and air quality issues. “One tool we’ve used frequently and with great success is AirAdvice, which does a terrific job collecting pertinent data like temperature control, CO2, and occupancy,” said Mooney. “We also interview the tenants to understand what problems they are experiencing. A set of mechanical plans and the balancing report complete the basic requirements to start finding a solution.”
But owners and managers are always sensitive to price, so the solution needs to be worth the cost of solving the problem, noted Misiewicz. “We always try to provide a solution that solves their unique problems, whatever they may be. If it’s worth it to them, we move forward, if it’s not, the problem goes unresolved or they look elsewhere for shortcuts.”
Stone acknowledges that it can be difficult to convince owners to invest in IAQ solutions, especially when that cost can be upwards of $20,000, depending on the size of the building and the extent of its issues. “We explain the benefits of giving employees fresh, clean air, and that is often enough to change their minds. There are also state-funded energy grants, which can help offset initial costs. For many of the owners we work with, the ability to have a healthy building with healthy employees is considered enough of a return on investment.”
But if a building owner truly cannot afford to make all the improvements recommended by Stone, he will offer as many alternatives as possible — to a point. “We always start with the best system they can afford, and then we work backwards. I’ll only go to a certain level, though, then I have no problem walking away from a job. If we’re going to do it, we’re not going to cut corners.”
Sometimes, it’s a question of timing, so every year around September and October, Stone starts contacting customers who have shown interest in making improvements involving IAQ or their HVAC equipment. “Usually, at that point, they’re working on their budgets for the next year. We offer to give them prices on the services or equipment they’re looking for, and then they can put it in their budgets for the following year. We also let them know that if they plan to put it off another year, the cost will probably be about 5 percent more. We actually get a lot of business that way.”
The payback for some IAQ solutions can be substantial, though, which makes it easier to present the benefits of the solution. “We’ve been fortunate that every situation we’ve investigated has resulted in an energy savings for our clients,” said Mooney. “We always present a cost-benefit analysis, and when you consider the capex multiplier for a building, the payback can be dramatic. But if you’re adding fresh air to a building, there is no obvious payback; it costs money to heat and cool more outside air. In these circumstances, the focus is on better employee health and productivity or improved tenant retention.”
That should be reason enough for building owners to invest in IAQ solutions, said Misiewicz. “The bottom line is that removing toxins, including fumes and odors, from the environment and providing high-quality air is part of maintaining a safe work space. Poor air quality negatively impacts employee productivity and commitment, which should be a concern for all building owners.”
Publication date: 12/26/2016