Not-So-Open-Office, Part II

October 13, 2020 by Drew Smith

More than seven months into the COVID19 pandemic, American industry still faces a daunting dilemma: how to safely return employees to the workplace. Even while some (primarily white collar) business sectors have swiftly pivoted to remote work, others are hard pressed to resume or ramp up in-person services. Health experts are increasingly focused on preventing airborne transmission of COVID19 as more workers return to their offices.

“Believe me,” said Keith Oberman, V.P. of sales at Copiers Plus, “this is not a concern that any of our customers can afford to take lightly. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into reconfiguring indoor space and deploying safety protocols. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition either.”

Just Breathe

Harvard Medical professor, Edward Nardell, warns that inside buildings, social distancing may not be enough to prevent the spread of COVID19. While increasing ventilation inside can be effective in slowing transmission, Nardell stresses that ventilation systems in many corporate settings limit how much fresh air can be brought in. New studies show links between HVAC systems and the spread of COVID19.

Two Solutions

To counter spreading virus particles via heating and air conditioning systems, Nardell recommends two scientifically-proven methods.

Commercial germicidal lamps, first developed by Westinghouse in the 1930s for hospitals, employ ultraviolet light (UVC) to kill floating pathogens. Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, using far (overhead) UVC light, have demonstrated effectiveness in killing airborne particles of COVID19. This technology is ideal for indoor spaces like offices, gyms, and schools, where germicidal lights should be placed high overhead. Here, air in the “upper-room,” carried by natural convection flow, is constantly disinfected by UVC irradiation.

Air Filters

Reconfiguring HVAC systems to increase the exchange rate to bring in more fresh air to recirculate is part of the second solution. High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters play an important role in trapping harmful particles. HEPA captures 99% or more of viruses that are .3 microns or larger according to Qingyan Chen, professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

There is a growing body of evidence that COVID19 is spread by both large and small particles. The average size of a coronavirus particle is .3 microns. Breathing and talking generate particles around 1 micron in size. The smaller the particle, the further it is able to drift.

In many buildings, HVAC systems use lower-quality air filters, which might catch just 20% to 40% of viruses passing through, said Chen. In fighting COVID19, it’s especially important to install air filters with an improved Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) between 13 and 15. MERV ratings range from one to sixteen, with sixteen being the best.

Indoor humidity is an additional piece of the puzzle. Stephanie Taylor, infection control consultant at Harvard Medical School, is advancing regulatory standards for humidity levels in commercial buildings to improve indoor air quality. Current recommendations are between 40% and 60%.

“We understand that our customers are under enormous pressure to bring their employees back into a safe and efficient workplace,” said Oberman at Copiers Plus. “Facilities managers are making big—and often expensive—changes. As always, our goal is to provide targeted solutions for document management and managed print services. We strive to provide ongoing services and consultation–not just a one-time fix.”