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More HVAC, More Problems: HVAC Efficiency in the Time of Telecommuting

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly changed businesses around the world. With many people working from home, large office buildings are now at reduced capacity. So what happens when a building’s occupancy severely decreases and alters the demand of the HVAC system? Businesses are now discovering how to recalibrate their HVAC for efficiency, in order to accommodate a less-populated office space.

The efficiency and efficacy of HVAC systems can be scaled up or down depending on the needs of a building. Offices, schools, and warehouses rely on HVAC systems to provide occupants not only with comfortable air temperatures, but to maintain humidity and other aspects of air quality. These systems work best to serve buildings that have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people working inside. They’re specifically built to anticipate the needs of a large amount of people. These HVAC systems react to the changes in air quality that those people bring to the space with body heat and the heat given off from things like computers, copiers, and other often-used office machinery. 


Pandemic Precautions

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic began an international emptying of corporate spaces. Many companies sent their employees home to maintain operations during lockdowns as well as protect their employees’ health. Some offices have since allowed employees and occupants to return, but at reduced capacities. Shared spaces like meeting rooms are currently not in use, as are amenities like cafeterias and employee-access gyms. 


HVAC Performance

Issues with HVAC system efficiency arise when a building manager might look to adjust the output of the system. These HVAC systems do not offer variations of their typical operations. Many of these are “fixed speed units,” HVAC systems that rely on rooftop systems or boilers and chillers. John Sheff, from says, “These constant volume systems are designed to heat and cool during the hottest and coldest days of the year, which occur roughly 2% of the time. The other 98% of the time, the system is oversized. Bringing more outside air into the building, which then needs to be heated or cooled, drives up system usage and utility bills.” When a building is not at full capacity, an HVAC system that still runs as usual will be wasting energy.

A new emphasis on ventilation is also changing how HVAC systems need to perform. Properly ventilated spaces are a key factor in maintaining air health. In addition, social distancing and keeping employees separated helps stop the spread of airborne diseases. Large buildings can add air-health enhancers like UV air purifiers, and additional physical filters into already existing duct systems. This will help reduce the chances of viral materials remaining in the air. However, the main issue remains because the HVAC system switches on and off, halting the ventilation process. No matter how high tech an air purifier is, it can only work when air is being actively moved through it.

SEE ALSO: The Forgotten V in HVAC: Ventilation


Variable Speeds Bring Ventilation Success

There is one possible solution: variable speed HVAC systems. A variable speed operates as its name describes, being able to function at different levels of effort that can be adjusted based on the needs of a building. A typical HVAC system operates at either 0% or 100% as it can only switch between on or off. However, a variable speed can offer performance at  23%, 78%, or whatever is required to keep a building comfortable. Another benefit of a variable speed HVAC system is that it can run constantly.

John Sheff states, “Many HVAC systems, particularly hydronic ones involving water, require regular usage to avoid corrosion. Variable speed systems can be run continuously at lowered speeds to match low demand and maintain system usage.” Although that may seem like it would be more expensive energy-wise, these systems are more efficient because they do not have to run full blast. The constant operation also provides round-the-clock airflow. This aids with ventilation and can help to constantly improve the air quality of a building.


Office Spaces Evolving 

Working in an office space is no longer the certainty it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses came to the realization that their workforce was just as, if not more, productive when working from home. They are now reconsidering how their office space should function and how they might adjust spaces to ensure their workers’ health and productivity. In terms of altering existing office buildings, the installation or adaptation to variable speed HVAC systems can provide a flexible way to manage air comfort. By maintaining airflow with constant operation that can be increased or decreased to match the needs of the building, variable speed HVAC systems offer efficiency to many buildings that will see a reduced workforce returning.

Building managers can schedule consultation with their local, licensed HVAC service provider to make plans to improve an office’s air comfort and quality. This way, they’ll be ready for whatever the future may hold.

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