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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA) convened for the first time since the pandemic started, and members were happy to be together in person once again. The annual convention offered numerous educational and networking opportunities, as well as plenty of time to socialize, golf, or just soak up the sun.

During the general opening session, Mike Star, president and senior engineer of Lane Associates, a commercial contracting firm that services the greater New York City metro area and chairman of the board of MSCA, noted that the conference sold out in just 10 days, signaling the desire of members to meet face-to-face again.

Mike Star.

SOLD OUT: Mike Star, chairman of the board of MSCA, noted that the conference sold out in just 10 days, signaling the desire of members to meet face-to-face again. (Staff photo)

“It is so great to see everyone in real life and to be back together at last,” he said. “To say the least, what a very strange time this has been. The pandemic certainly put a new perspective on our lives and our businesses. And everyone's experience has been so different. Being from New York as one of the earliest hotspots, we saw some of the worst ups and downs of COVID. At the height of the pandemic, the city was nothing you could imagine. Unrecognizable. It was rough. It was eerie. But thankfully, this past summer, things started to head towards normal. New York is starting to feel like home again.”


Talent Shift

As might be expected, many of the sessions offered at the convention had to do with how the HVACR industry responded to the pandemic, as well as how it moves forward in a post-COVID world. In a session entitled, “Leading High-Performance Virtual Teams: Strategies for Succeeding with a Remote Workforce,” speaker and business performance advisor Seth Mattison addressed the challenges contractors will face in managing in-person talent, along with remote workers.

“There is no one blueprint for the future of work,” he said. “You have to embrace experimentation.”

Mattison said that it is important for contractors to understand that there are several mega trends currently taking place in the area of talent acquisition and retention. One of them concerns what matters now; essentially, workers are reevaluating what is important to them and looking for companies that offer a better balance between work and home life.

“This moment in time right now is a collective existential experience for all of us on the planet,” he said. “What do I mean by this? When the pandemic hit, we all started to respond to the situation. Work was frantic, either you were essential and you had to actually go out and do your job, or you were figuring out how to do it at home. Simultaneously, the pause button got hit in every other aspect of our life. And we all lost something. We lost access and connection to the things that we love to do, places that we love to go.”

Now that the pause has ended, people are reevaluating what’s important to them. This includes figuring out what they’re willing to sacrifice in pursuit of success and how much time they’re willing to spend away from their families.

“There's never been more at stake,” said Mattison. “[As a business owner], the easy thing to default to is, the government gave out all this money and people are lazy and they don't want to work and I can't get anyone to commit and there's no loyalty. If you’re going down that path in your head, you have to quit that and understand that this is not about them, this is about you. This is about you as a leader. It's about you as a business owner, and being super clear about what your value proposition is.”

To that end, business owners need to figure out why people should want to come and work for their companies. And think about ways to attract and retain individuals who may not want to return to the office full time.

“Talent is on the move,” said Mattison. “This is a once-in-a-generation moment and opportunity. More than 4.3 million people left their jobs in August. Does that mean all of them are people that we want? Not necessarily, but I guarantee you that some of them we do. So if you’re going to do that, how do you create a compelling hybrid experience for them?”


IAQ Guidelines

In a fascinating session entitled, “Healthy Building Strategies and Awareness,” Luke Leung, P.E., LEED Fellow, leader of the commercial team for the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force and director of sustainable engineering at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago, discussed the role that HVAC systems play in reducing transmission of the COVID virus. Fellow presenter Steve Horwood, vice president of business development for GDI/Ainsworth in Ontario, stressed how HVAC service providers must make every effort to ensure their customers are knowledgeable about the practical strategies and actions that can be deployed in their facilities to provide occupants with a healthy environment.

Luke Leung.

REDUCING TRANSMISSION: Luke Leung discussed the role that HVAC systems play in reducing transmission of the COVID virus. (Staff photo)

“When the pandemic started 18 months ago, we and our customers were getting bombarded with guidance,” said Horwood. “Customers had people calling them about this product and that product, and they were trying to make sense of all of that. And there were differences of opinion, which muddled things even further. Our role as contractors is to help make sense of that for customers.”

In helping customers make sense of the various IAQ strategies/products that are available, contractors have the golden opportunity to move beyond just being a contractor and to become a trusted service advisor.

“There's a difference between being a normal service provider versus being a trusted advisor,” said Leung. “Part of this is an ongoing effort to try and learn that information so that you will be a trusted advisor.”

Leung then discussed the various particulates in indoor air, which include bacteria, pollen, tobacco smoke, and viruses. “Now the good news is, there's a simple way to take care of that – install a MERV 13 filter, which takes care of submicron level elements. If you forget everything else, just remember that MERV 13 filters can take care of many many issues. And they are relatively inexpensive, with a first cost of about $0.025/cfm.”

The key is to make sure that the filter fits tightly, otherwise particulates — including viruses — can spread throughout an occupied space. According to studies, a 1-cm gap in the filter rack can lower a MERV 13 filter to MERV 8.

As for those concerned with the pressure drop of a MERV 13 filter, the differences are not significant, said Leung.

“In an article from ASHRAE magazine last year, it was found that the pressure drop may not be that significant between a MERV 5 filter and a MERV 13 filter. If you go with a MERV 14, 15, or 16, the pressure drop will be more.”

Horwood corroborated this fact, noting that his company conducted close to a dozen pilot projects using MERV 13 filters over a period of time. They found, without exception, that the MERV 13 filter resulted in either the same pressure drop or an actual improvement in airflow and pressure drop. But he cautioned that not all MERV 13 filters are created equal, so contractors need to do their due diligence in determining which ones to recommend to customers.

Other cost-effective ways of improving IAQ include installing in-room air cleaners with HEPA filters, which cost about $5/cfm or $2/square foot. Leung stressed that with this option, contractors should pay attention to the clean air delivery rate (CADR) of the machine, which is a metric for how many square feet the cleaner can handle. The higher the CADR, the more air it filters per minute.

End users may also want to consider UV-C lights, which cost about $1.30/cfm or $1.30/square foot. Horwood’s company conducted several pilot projects with UV-C lights, and he said it is important to understand that not all products deliver the same results. His company found several differentiators, which included aluminum reflectors (which focus UV-C intensity), lamp life (soft glass vs. LED quartz), lamp quantities, and parallel orientation of the lamp for air disinfection.

“If you look at different products, don't stop at the first one that walks through the door because you like the salesperson. Do your research,” he said.

During the pandemic, many building owners/operators thought that they had to provide 100% outside air (OA) in order to mitigate the spread of the virus, but that was an expensive proposition. And it’s not necessary if a MERV 13 filter is installed, said Leung.

“You do not need 100% outside air; you need minimal outside air, which is sufficient,” he said. “So 100% outside air, no matter in Charlotte, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, will cost you a lot more money. But the effectiveness of cleaning the air is just a little bit better than MERV 13, but not by a lot.”

He explained that with a MERV 13 filter, one air change will catch 89.93% of droplets. Once the air goes through the MERV 13 filter three times, it will catch 95% of the contaminants in the room.

“As contractors, you're sitting on an informational goldmine,” said Leung. “It’s not just about air quality moving into the future, it is about the holistic indoor environment. It's going to be about the air we breathe, as well as the lighting condition and acoustics and odor. If you are the information provider, you can tell owners what they have inside the building before they even know. When you move from just air quality to a holistic indoor environment of information, you are becoming that information technology provider for your owners. If you do that, they will need you for a long time to come.”