Ichiran, a chain of Japanese noodle restaurants with three locations in New York City, recently announced plans to reopen the indoor dining room at one of its stores that had been closed for several months. Ichiban was taking several steps to ensure the safety of its customers, including temperature checks at the door and the installation of MERV 13 filters.
Just before the restaurant started welcoming back customers, the state placed new restrictions on dining in response to growing COVID cases. The dining room remains closed. The six New York movie theaters operated by Showcase Cinemas remain open after the chain invested in MERV 13 filters and bipolar innovation air purifiers. But movie theaters in some states, such as Michigan, have been shut down after reopening in October.
Building owners understand the need to invest in IAQ to reopen their facilities. However, they are seeing investments provide little return when state mandates close them down. Lennox is among several manufacturers working to help business managers work through these concerns through its Building Better Air initiative.
“Indoor air quality solutions and upgrades aren’t free,” said Bobby DiFulgentiz, Lennox Commercial’s vice president of product management and marketing. “You really have to identify which ones will make the biggest impact. Every application and every building is different.”
Lennox rolled out the initiative to its national accounts in October. The company then launched a training program for alliance network contractors in November. Lennox offers a variety of IAQ products for its commercial customers, including air purification, ventilation, and humidity control technology.
"Over the past six months, we've all experienced change in the way we work, shop, and socialize," said Elliot Zimmer, president and chief operating officer of Lennox Commercial. "The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the key role that HVAC plays in healthy building environments, and Lennox is making sure that our customers have access to the right products and services to get back to business safely."
Talking About Indoor Air Quality
The conversations have increased, DiFulgentiz said. The challenge comes from making sure HVAC contractors have the right conversations with building owners and operators.
“Indoor air quality is a conversation with every building owner,” he said. “The struggle for most contractors is they never had a structured approach to how to lead their customers through exactly which indoor air quality pieces to look at. It became really evident that there wasn’t a good structure and a good process for contractors to talk to building owners about their indoor air quality needs.”
Gregg Little at Springbank Mechanical Systems in Mississauga, Ontario, has been through the program. Like many contractors, Little experienced an increased demand for IAQ solutions from his customers this year that helped make up for a decline in the firm’s usual retrofit work. He said everyone from restaurants to retailers is jumping on the bandwagon.
“There have been some challenges out there as far as the type of product and the type of building and the type of application,” Little said.
Finding the most affordable approach becomes an issue. For example, there was high demand for filter upgrades, Little said, until customers found out how often they need to change those filters and how much they cost. A MERV-13 filter often costs twice the price of a MERV-8 filter. Availability is also an issue.
Customers also want solutions they have heard of without fully understanding the benefits. There have been a few times Springbank turned down work rather than install an unproven product. There are plenty of vendors today claiming to offer IAQ solutions.
“I can spend a lot of time reviewing all the products that are sent to me every day,” Little said. “They’re coming out of the woodwork.
“It all looks good on paper but the reality is quite different. We won’t install anything unless we see the actual benefit of it.”
A Proven Track Record
Little likes some of the ideas he sees, but what he prefers in the Lennox Building Better Air program is the way it offers off-the-shelf solutions with a track record.
Building Better Air teaches contractors how to evaluate the indoor air quality of a building through a survey of the general condition of the HVAC equipment. The survey verifies proper ventilation and details the status of current air purification capabilities to create a baseline for the building's current indoor air quality. HVAC contractors then identify what products could address the client’s IAQ needs.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, DiFulgentiz said. Focusing on air purification, ventilation, and humidity control, the HVAC contractor tailors a comprehensive IAQ solution for the needs of the building and application, along with the budget of the building manager.
Most IAQ solutions require ongoing maintenance, such as filter replacements. So the Building Better Air initiative also helps HVAC contractors work with clients to develop a comprehensive maintenance plan.
DiFulgentiz said he expects the demand for IAQ solutions to continue even after the pandemic ends. Businesses once attracted building users with HVAC systems that provided comfort. Now they will attract them with systems that also protect their well-being.
“The world has changed and indoor air quality is something business owners, consumers, really everyone will look at differently,” DiFulgentiz said.