As director of technical services for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Wes Davis manages the development of standards and oversees the organization’s contractor accreditation efforts. “But, a long time ago, I was in hot attics, damp, dirty crawl spaces and sitting around kitchen tables with homeowners talking about heat and air and duct systems,” says Davis.

Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on HVAC work around the country, ACCA was essential in advocating for an “essential” status among heating and cooling workers.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon, and ACCA did a great job leading and joining with others to demonstrate how important our industry is to maintaining health and safety, as well as comfort across the country,” Davis says. “Essential personnel, I’d only heard that term used for special situations before February. Now, all of a sudden, that’s the name de rigueur; that’s a new qualification for our industry. So, I am hopeful that the lesson we learned here is not unlearned somewhere else, and we retain that essential personnel label. Because I think it is apt and correct.”

Business for HVAC contractors is undoubtedly moving along around the country, but it is hardly business as usual. After years of preparing the HVAC industry to embrace technology, no one could have guessed that the moment would arrive like this.

When we last talked, you didn’t know anyone personally or professionally who had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. How has that changed since then?

I’ve been very fortunate; everyone in my family has been healthy. I have had a few friends and friends of friends who have contracted the virus, but everyone recovered and is healthy. This is a nasty virus, and just because we’ve been fortunate, not every is as lucky.

As the pandemic changes the structure of HVAC business, how do you anticipate operations changing for HVAC contractors?

That’s going to lead to new metrics, new key performance indicators, new ways to monitor what a dispatcher is doing, what a record keeper is doing, or the accounting office.  All the different things that can be done at a desktop in an office may happen at a desktop in someone’s home. So, the commute is a whole lot shorter, and the work environment may or may not be more conducive to proper operations, but owners and managers in the HVAC industry are learning how to accommodate that. I think that’s going to be the next significant shift with how we will do things differently.

We still have to send someone to a shop to fabricate sheet metal or send someone to a project to assemble and install this duct system. But, it might be that you can segment the business and the operations that don’t need to be done at the shop. After embracing the tech, reimagining operations, I think that, depending on how the business is built, it may be that some operations can be moved off-site.

If I am a commercial sheet metal fabricator, or sheet metal contractor, I still might need a place that fabricates sheet metal. I might have to do a cost-benefit analysis and say maybe I should outsource that to someone who does just the fabrication, and then I will keep the duct crews handy so that we get that project, and go down and do the work.

Or do you just go to a supplier?

Do I just go to a supplier that fabricates the stuff and say this might be the new normal because I don’t have to worry about fabricating? I can rely on that source to provide that material. I might focus on keeping minimal staff that can manufacture unique, customized, hard to get items. And then just keep either a relationship with the Local hall to have people who can assemble the duct systems or have a staff on hand that can do that.

How do you foresee the pandemic potentially changing HVAC standards? While thinking about duct cleaning, there are a number of misconceptions. What happens when certain services start to become mandated?

I think the short answer is, I don’t know. When ACCA developed our Standard 6, which is about HVAC system restoration, it was meant to deal broadly with after a catastrophic event. How do we clean systems so they can be returned to service?

We’ve since learned that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is easy to inactivate and remove from duct surfaces with soap and a disinfectant. We’ve also learned that it will perish after a few days after it lands on most common surfaces. For any contamination caught on a reducing transition, an elbow, or other fittings, it will probably perish soon after. 

If the virus is encapsulated in an aerosol and moves through an HVAC system, it may be trapped in the filter, but it is possible to move through the duct system and out through a supply diffuser. There is still more research needed to ascertain what levels of concentration are required to infect someone. 

Now, we get into that whole nebulous thing of when we mandate duct system cleanings. In my opinion, if we control who enters a building or dwelling, and practice good hygiene and housekeeping, then the chance of viral contamination is significantly reduced. The need to mandate duct cleaning will then be reserved for severe cases or for medical facilities that have the most significant risk of circulating the virus.

COVID-19 in HVAC mini split

Traditionally, residential HVAC services have been under the discretion of homeowners. Yet, because of the pandemic’s viral nature, how do you expect that to change? 

I am sure every reader has a slightly different perspective based on their experience with having things mandated, so I am not going to tread on that ground. I will say that there is another aspect, which is sort of ancillary to the duct fabrication and the duct cleaning industry, and that is treatment. I hope there will be more research into the impact of let’s say UV lights. Based on the research and the reading I’ve done, there has been studies on how much exposure a specific virus or bacteria must have found on a particular band of UV light, UVC typically.

But there is not necessarily a good standard that says this specific bulb emits this much of that flounce, of that radiation. If that bacteria or virus is zooming by that UV light 700 feet per minute, how much exposure does it get? Is it enough?

Fortunately, some standards do specify the efficiency of filters. Now there has been some research about the size of these viruses, and how easily they are caught in filtration. So yes, handling air filters may have a new process. There may be a whole lot more garbage bags on trucks that service HVAC systems in all types of buildings to isolate these filters. 

In the end, it all has to do with indoor air quality. Does the industry as a whole need to revisit our views of IAQ?

Great question. And I think my answer would be only to the extent that new research demonstrates the need to develop or rewrite existing standards to make them more applicable, more usable. If this research is revealed for air filtration, we need this, and for UV lights, we need this, it should be written into the standard.

That even gets back to what we are trying to do when we say clean. Is it to remove dirt and debris? Is it for indoor air quality, meaning health?Are we more concerned about the pathogens than in the duct system?  Is it possible that there could be different standards for the desired results, general cleanliness, or a level of medical purity?

That is the discussion in the industry, right? What are we more concerned about now?

I think that No.1, there are a variety of opinions. I think the reason there is this wide range of opinions is that a lot of times, it is based on hearsay. Or potentially the hyperbole from the person selling a product or service. So, I think research separates fact from fiction and helps us develop ethical standards, and then we can make informed decisions.

The industry has been concerned about IAQ for a long time. I don’t believe that this is a new phenomenon. I think by default, it is getting more attention these days, and it’s almost a matter of managing disinformation than it is putting out the correct information. With any crisis, there is a propensity for spreading knowledge that may not be completely accurate.

Generally, when proposing a standard, how much research is attached to that?

I think there is probably a couple of different responses to that. It might be only one study, but if its sufficient the standard can be developed from its findings. Further, new research may emerge that provides new information to improve the standard.  The key here is to ensure that standards are based on research rather than opinion.

Can you see, or have you heard of new standards being developed in response to the pandemic?

Most of what I’ve seen and heard is how to use existing guidance for ventilation and filtration standards rather than new standards.  But I would not rule that out.

Of course, we want a vaccine developed and available as soon as possible. Until then, is battling the virus an HVAC fight?

Sure. I hope that we are aware, and are continuing to learn more about this and other infectious viruses. We will do our best to take preventative measures, but then it is up to us to use the research to improve the standards in place to ensure that we are dealing with it as best we can.

This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of SNIPS.