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“We are seeing engineers, distributors, and contractors specifying and promoting technologies that are not proven to be effective in the claims the manufacturers are making.”

Aaron Engel, business development manager at Fresh-Aire UV, sums up a particular segment of the HVAC industry’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many HVAC professionals have likely seen at least a couple of emails with statements that have seemed a little out in front of the science or that have raised an eyebrow for other reasons.

Engel offered one tactic — touting the results of tests conducted in conditions that do not reflect in-the-field environments or realistic usage — and the repercussions go past making a sale or not.

“Unrealistic marketing claims often put HVAC professionals in a very precarious position regarding effectiveness,” he cautioned.

David Schurk pointed out another part of the HVAC community’s imperfect IAQ response.

“HVAC professionals have long understood that fine particles and pathogens can linger in the air and travel considerable distances,” said Schurk, who is business development manager at Global Plasma Solutions.

However, “with so much unknown about [the virus] in the early days of the pandemic, HVAC professionals underestimated the extent” to which fine particles presented a threat.

While some professionals warned about not only droplet but airborne transmission early on, prevailing wisdom largely ignored that component and took most of last year to arrive at a broader definition of COVID-19’s transmission threat.

Evidence and interpretation of varying quality, aided (again) by the power of the unknown early in the pandemic, led to the circulation of yet another claim: Maybe people or facility owners were better off just turning off their air conditioning or heating.

That kind of rhetoric blurred critical differences between conditions where no outside air gets introduced and traditional systems that bring in outside air. Such anxiety migrated to worrying if HVAC filters could actually spread the novel coronavirus.


AHRI Fights Back

The pandemic’s unavoidable dangers were more than enough in 2020, but sowing doubt over key weapons like filtration and ventilation? Not helpful.

AHRI’s vice president of public affairs, Francis Dietz, added some nuance around the filtration conversation and confusion.

“In this instance, the issue is maybe less that any traditional filter, no matter how tight, is going to let some pathogens through, and more that adding a too-tight filter on a system without a professional assessment can cause it to malfunction and even fail if the air handler is not equipped to push the air through it.”

Filtration and expertise both factor into AHRI’s recent multifaceted ad and informational effort, which is partnering with HARDI, ACCA, SMACNA, and others. It included a paper called “Anatomy of a Safer School.” The paper contained a Six Steps campaign. The first step?

“Find an experienced contractor,” which the paper stated is “vital to installation and operational success.”

The second step is ventilation and increasing outside air, followed by filtration and MERV 13 or better to mitigate aerosol transmission. The fourth step was UV light treatment to complement filtration, with a nod to Dietz’ earlier comment that some unwanted particles can slip through even a well implemented filter.

The fifth step is humidity control, advocating for the 40% to 60% range. Adequate humidity has often been not so much a victim of misinformation as simply an overlooked weapon for fighting pathogens indoors. It does it help to bring potentially harmful droplets down to the floor faster, and it also supports multiple layers of the body’s own resistance.

The sixth step, perhaps less familiar to some prior to the pandemic, is ionization. In ionization equipment, positive and negative ions are used to actively clean the air, killing mold, bacteria, and viruses in the coil and throughout the breathing space.

AHRI followed the schools paper with “Anatomy of a Healthy Commercial Building” and then used that as a foundation for digital ads targeting building owners and engineers.

AHRI Six Steps for Safer Schools Chart.

Click chart to enlarge

TOP OF THE PYRAMID: AHRI’s Six Steps campaign for schools, delivered as part of a broader advertising and info effort, starts at the very end of the supply chain with some welcome advice. Courtesy of HARDI and AHRI


Expect To Be On Both Ends Of Due Diligence

It is worth remembering the pandemic has presented a genuine need, with many professionals looking to combine good business with good solutions.

“It only makes sense for contractors, wholesalers, engineers, facility directors, and health care providers to want to offer IAQ strategies to help end-users improve their air quality,” acknowledged Engel.

While that impulse can explain part of the impatience in introducing and implementing new products or technologies, it can also guide contractors to avoid getting ahead of the science with any solution.

Fresh-Aire UV’s Engel and Global Plasma Solutions’ Schurk work for IAQ-related manufacturers (ultraviolet light systems and bipolar needlepoint ionization, respectively). The pandemic has presented their particular product areas with exceptional business opportunities. That did not stop both men from separately confirming that what the process really needs at this point is more homework. They even quoted the same recommendation.

“Consumers should request efficacy performance data that quantitively demonstrates a clear protective benefit under conditions consistent with those for which the consumer is intending to apply the technology,” with Engel attributing it to the CDC.

The recommendation advises consumers to seek information from multiple sources, some of whom should be independent third-party sources.

That all may sound like a mouthful and a lot of trouble for a homeowner or facility manager with a day job, but stack that task and its potential impact next to the amount of internet research that many customers had already started doing to make a typical air conditioning decision before anyone knew what COVID-19 was. A contractor perceived as unprepared for that conversation would be easy to filter out of the process.

Meanwhile, contractors are customers, too. What should they be asking?

“It’s not enough that a manufacture states on their marketing, for example, ‘99% destruction of viruses,’” Engel said.

“Is that 99% destruction over one hour in a small plexiglass box? Was there a control to show how the virus decayed that was not tested against the IAQ product and to compare the two? These are questions that must be asked to better understand the manufacturers’ claims in order to offer the best IAQ solution to their customers.”

Equipment selection does deserve scrutiny, and another element of that is to keep thinking systemically when evaluating individual equipment and design options. Ventilation, filtration media, and any IAQ-related measures have their own advantages as potential ingredients in a successful strategy. Representatives for a wide variety of HVAC and IAQ equipment have grounds to talk up their components, but be mindful of exaggerations about importance of any one item on that menu (intentional or otherwise) at the expense of the others.


Through The Pandemic And Beyond

Circumstances may require everyone in the supply chain to up their game in terms of education and information, but that is only because the pandemic has presented the industry with an opportunity to do an unusual amount of good.

“HVAC professionals have a chance to make a major contribution,” Schurk said, mentioning its unique positioning to tackle a virus that can linger in the air for an extended period. “With the heightened focus on this critical issue, we can get IAQ technologies implemented that have a real impact on the health and safety of our communities.”

Engel pointed out that there are tested, proven, validated solutions, but he also looked beyond the current emergency.

“It’s not just about the virus. It’s not just about the pandemic,” he said. “HVAC professionals should look at IAQ with the same importance as they look at conditioned air. As important as it is to distribute heated or cooled air, it may be just as, or even more important to make sure that air is clean and treated.”

With that, Engel advocated for the industry to use its pandemic lessons learned to reshape its own conventional thinking about the role of IAQ. The pandemic may have already done the same for end-users.