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IAQ key to safe office reopening

As offices across the UK open for business, it’s clear that air quality in buildings is of critical importance to people’s well-being and peace of mind. Here, Jerry Hall, air conditioning manager at Wolseley Climate, takes a closer look at the issues and at ways employers can help protect their people

Slowly but surely the world is returning to work. Offices that have been dormant are waking up and people are dusting down their desks. But there remains a high degree of caution. After all, many non-office venues remain closed because of the potential risk of close contact and infection from airborne pathogens. Why are offices so different? Building owners and office managers, mindful of these doubts and the wellbeing of occupants, have introduced measures to ensure their safety including social distancing and the provision of hand sanitisers. All of these are important, but there’s another one that’s even more so – and that’s effective ventilation.

It’s long been known that air quality in offices has an important role to play in improving wellbeing, and productivity. We also now know that COVID-19 is spread by small particles released in coughs, sneezes and conversation from an infected person. The heavier droplets fall around the person, hence the two-metre social distance. But the lighter droplets – aerosols - linger in the air and spread over wider areas. With research proving that the risk of infection increases in poorly ventilated rooms, the answer is either to reduce exposure or improve ventilation. Quite simply, effective ventilation moves out stale air and brings in fresh, improving air quality and reducing the risk of exposing occupants to airborne bacteria and viruses. 

Ventilation is covered in the Building Regulations – Part F – which states ‘there should be adequate and suitable ventilation provided for a property and the people within.’ 

The most basic form of ventilation is ‘natural’ – in other words, doors, windows and vents which allow air to flow into and out of buildings. It’s impossible to measure or control and introduces potential security risks, as well as opening offices to pollutants and noise. Besides, with winter fast approaching, most windows will be staying firmly shut. 

Most buildings therefore rely on one or more type of mechanical control. As offices reopen, these need to be thoroughly checked to make sure they’ve been correctly maintained, and then tested and adjusted where necessary. As a precautionary measure against COVID-19, CIBSE recommends setting air supply and exhaust ventilation to the maximum settings possible in order to remove airborne pathogens. Other advice includes limiting the amount of time people spend in areas without access to fresh outside air – such as storage rooms or basements.

Where it’s needed, or possible, it may be better to retrofit or upgrade the ventilation system. This needn’t involve major capital investment.

For example, heat recovery ventilation systems are available as self-contained and modular units which work independently from other services such as air conditioning. They can be fitted quickly around existing systems and controlled separately to efficiently supply and extract air. Supplied with filtration systems and controls, they offer a cost-effective and energy saving solution that also offers a degree of protection against airborne pathogens. 

For larger buildings which require high volumes of fresh air, the answer might lie in air handling units which are available in various sizes to meet most requirements.

Air Purifiers such as iWave offer another cost-effective and versatile solution. Easily fitted into the ductwork of existing systems, iWave uses ‘streamer’ technology to release ions which attach to airborne fungi and allergens. A process of oxidisation then decomposes proteins to leave indoor air clean and healthy. 

In each category, there are numerous products from a wide range of manufacturers and with so much at stake it’s important to make considered choices. This will depend on your existing system, your budget and urgency, as well as the level of air quality you want to achieve. The availability of support and spare parts are equally critical. With a wide range of ventilation solutions from leading manufacturers including Daikin, Fujitsu, and NuCalgon, Wolseley is able to provide both choice and an ongoing technical support service for engineers.

3 March 2021

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