Indoor air quality draws new attention as employees return to San Francisco North Bay workplaces

Wildfires and COVID — both of which can threaten the quality of indoor office building air – are triggering demand for better ways to filter out contaminants such as smoke which according to the Centers for Disease Control can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

“Our company has seen 35% growth in demand for air quality solutions, evidenced by increasing sales of air scrubbers, HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters and MERV 13-plus filtration products, ultraviolet light systems and related solutions for businesses, residences, schools and hospitals,” said Nick Hartman, HVAC division manager for Ongaro & Sons in Santa Rosa.

The heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems contractor serving Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties installed updated devices in its 7,500-square-foot main location at 2995 Dutton Ave. in Santa Rosa.

“We believe this decision convinced most of our people to come back to the workplace after the lockdown,” Hartman said. “We continue to install a range of healthy air options in several Sonoma and Marin County schools, private homes and for large commercial customers.”

High-tech solutions

There are small business or home electrostatic air filtration systems that contains several multifold, 5-inch-wide air filters on racks, They can capture particles as small as 0.1 micron in size (700 times narrower than a human hair).

Hartman said this system is up to 100 times more effective than the standard 1-inch filter and captures up to 99.98% of allergens from filtered air. That performance level has been independently verified by experts at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Also available are ozone-free air scrubbers that incorporate high-intensity UV-C light and produce negatively charged ions that inactivate airborne contaminants.

“This innovation can be installed in existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system ductwork to eliminate up to 99.96% of common flu and DNA or RNA viruses, mold and bacteria while also lowering indoor air quality index (AQI) values to maintain green levels of less than 50, where pollutants cause little or no risk,” Hartman added.

The AQI index runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution. A good AQI level is between 0 and 50. Levels during the North Bay wildfires shot up above 300 — the hazardous level — in some areas.

Mark Hagarty, with Simpson Sheet Metal Inc. in Santa Rosa, said his firm has also seen a rise in residential customer demand for HVAC air-quality improvements and has several new installation projects underway.

“Bringing fresh outside air indoors is important. This has become a high priority for a variety of health reasons, but more can be done to enhance air quality by upgrading or replacing existing systems,” Hagarty said.

He said California’s Building Standards Code Title 24 contain “robust” regulations that contribute to achieving the state’s climate and air quality goals. In addition, The California Green Building Standard promotes healthful indoor and outdoor air quality by addressing issues of adequate ventilation, air exchange and indoor air pollution.

School air quality grants

California Air Resources Board Supervisor Pat Wong said building code revisions in 2020 addressed air-quality standards for new buildings, the construction of multifamily housing and for major upgrades to existing structures.

That year a research study at the University of California Davis and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that only 15% of public-school classrooms studied met the state’s ventilation standard. That means 85% of schools were likely “woefully under-ventilated.” The study arrived at the time the COVID-19 respiratory coronavirus was being spread by close human interaction.

As a prelude to reopening schools after mandatory COVID closures, the California Legislature passed AB 841 (The California Schools Healthy Air, Plumbing and Energy (CalSHAPE) Ventilation Program). It provides up to $600 million through two grant programs for energy upgrades and to test, adjust and repair HVAC systems in schools.

Governor Newsom signed this bill into law Oct. 1, 2020. The round 2 application deadline for both ventilation and plumbing program funds is May 31.

Demand for increasing system MERV ratings

Zach Brandner, vice president for construction with Peterson Mechanical Inc. in Sonoma, said a trend toward widespread adoption of air quality improvements during the pandemic “began slowly and did not take hold as fast as I thought it would among all sectors of the economy due to cost and maintenance issues.”

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