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Reduce the Spread of COVID-19 with Better Indoor Ventilation

Reduce the Spread of COVID-19 with Better Indoor Ventilation

It's no secret that poorly ventilated spaces are often unhealthy, but medical researchers have found that indoor air can hold onto higher concentrations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for a lot longer than outdoor air. There's a saying that "the secret to pollution is dilution," and the same holds true for COVID-19. Better indoor ventilation is one of the simplest, most effective ways to reduce the spread, but how can facility managers balance the need for more fresh air and cold winter temperatures?

1. Prepare to accept some higher energy bills.

Unfortunately, the social distancing strategies that work outside don't work indoors. When a space is poorly ventilated, the virus can freely mix and disperse throughout the room and people are no safer at 100 feet apart than they are at one. There's really only one way to dilute indoor air, and that's by opening the windows and letting the outdoors in. After years of working to make buildings as energy-efficient as possible, it's probably really disheartening to hear that the nice, heavily insulated, well-sealed windows that keep energy bills low are pretty much the enemy when it comes to mitigating the risk of COVID-19. It's true, though -- with better ventilation comes higher energy bills. Winter air is cold, and inviting it in means expending more energy to keep it heated and comfortable.

2. Increase humidity.

Temperature and dilution are only part of the whole ventilation picture when it comes to keeping indoor air quality safe, but they're often what gets the most attention. Winter air is dry, heat dries it out even more, and dry air means drier respiratory tracts that increase the risk of catching the novel coronavirus. Adjusting HVAC systems or using supplemental humidifiers to keep the air between 40-60% humidity can help limit the risk.

3. Limit the number of people indoors.

While having everyone stay six feet away from each other won't help, you can increase the effective ventilation per occupant by reducing a facility's number of occupants. More people means a greater need for more ventilation. Limiting the number of people decreases that need. Encourage remote working whenever possible, and limit building and room occupancy. If it's an option, have occupants use rooms with higher ceilings. The added air space means there's a little more clean air to dilute any that's potentially infected.

4. Skip the tents.

Many restaurants, bars, and other hangouts are turning to enclosed tents as the temperatures start to drop. The idea is that these can help guests stay more comfortable, while still being safer than eating indoors. There's only one problem: It's not true. Enclosed tents still don't offer enough ventilation, especially when compared to sitting outdoors. If tents are a necessity, keep two opposite flaps open to allow for a cross breeze. This still isn't the same as having no tent at all, but is safer than a fully enclosed space.

5. Increase air filtration.

HVAC units have to compromise between the energy needed to heat and cool air, and the energy needed to pull it through a fine, efficient filter. The better a filter is at filtering, the harder the unit needs to work. As a result, most places don't use the most efficient filters they can. Swapping old filters for new, higher efficiency ones can help keep the virus from circulating via air ducts. It's also a good idea to invest in some air purifiers with HEPA filters. HEPA filters are very efficient, to the point that few HVAC systems are even equipped to use them. A separate air purifier allows a building to benefit from good air filtration without overtaxing the HVAC system.

6. Adjust fans to pull up, rather than blow down.

Ceiling fans typically have two settings: up and down. One is intended to blow air down to keep occupants cool, the other is intended to pull cold air up and drive lighter, warmer air toward the floor. Adjusting fans to pull air up toward the ceiling in winter serves two purposes. First, it can help heating systems work better by moving warm air to where people actually are, instead of allowing it to rise and stay near the ceiling. Second, it can draw potentially-infected air up and away from where occupants are more likely to breathe it in. Winter means a higher risk of illness in general, whether it's from colds, influenza, or the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Diluting indoor air using good ventilation is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 indoors, but winter's chill can make that challenging. With these tips, facility managers can keep their employees and guests comfortable, while also reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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