On the facility managers fighting COVID-19 behind the scenes

Bryon Price, chair of the Facility Management Association of Australia and group strategic development director of building services company A.G. Coombs.

News from the front desk Issue 477: Just a few months ago, the notion that large swathes of Australia’s building stock would be empty and in “hibernation” was unimaginable. As was the idea that COVID-19 might be enough to keep some people away from crowded buildings indefinitely.

But this is the new reality we are all quickly coming to grips with. Advice from the Indoor Air Quality Association Australia to its members is changing on a daily basis as more research becomes available (check out the draft guidelines currently out for consultation).

  • Related: Why poor indoor air quality is one of our biggest health threats

The Association’s president, Claire Bird, a building fitness scientist and founder of Litmas Pty Ltd, joined us for our first TFE Live webinar on Wednesday (which went off without a hitch, by the way).

Accompanied by Bryon Price, chair of the Facility Management Association of Australia and group strategic development director of building services company A.G. Coombs, we couldn’t have been in better hands to start our new series of probing chats with experts at lunchtime on Wednesdays.

The pair did their best to navigate the tricky terrain that is best practice management of buildings during these fast-evolving pandemic conditions. What quickly became clear was that the people who are keeping our essential buildings – hospitals, data centres, apartments – in working order are playing a key role behind the scenes in this crisis.

Bird and Price walked us through the various scenarios facing facility managers, starting with what to do with empty buildings. Some might be surprised to learn that you can’t just hit the pause button on modern, complex buildings and expect them to whir back into life six or 12 months later. Price said most are designed for a four-day hiatus over Easter “and that’s it”.

“These systems are designed to be continually operated,” he said.

There are a number of dangerous side effects of leaving a building idle for a protracted period, including the risk of mould forming on surfaces or papers and books because of stagnant air and humidity.

“We saw this in Queensland a lot after Cyclone Debbie, where a lot of the apartments and holiday homes were shut up for long periods of time, and we’d go in there and they were heavily mould-contaminated,” Bird explained.

Indoor Air Quality Association Australia president Claire Bird, a building fitness scientist and founder of Litmas Pty Ltd.

Legionnaires’ disease is another problem lurking below the surface. The danger is that there will be more “dead leg” sections of water system piping, which experience low or no water flow when no one is running the taps, providing ideal stagnant water conditions for Legionella bacteria to form. Stagnant water in building systems can also corrode pipes.

Bird also said there’s a chance unused plumbing systems might be able to spread COVID-19. Research on the SARS virus shows it can spread through plumbing systems when drains become dry when buildings are not operational. The harmful pathogens were shown to make their way through multi-storey plumbing systems and into the air in bathrooms through dry drains.

Price also made the important point that in buildings sitting partially or completely empty, there’s no need to keep everything operating at 100 per cent. This is where the term “building hibernation” has skyrocketed into common usage around the world (in the facility management profession, at least): HVAC, ventilation systems and cooling towers can all be “turned down rather than turned off” when there are fewer people in the building.

Turning building systems down means less energy is used and power bills fall but Price said it’s important to balance the prospect of saving money in this financially-constrained period and inadvertently causing problems down the track by turning entire systems down or off.

How can we be sure it’s safe to return?

Certain steps need to be taken when there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a building (not a falsified one like that made by a bank employee, who has reportedly now been fired).

Step one is running a fine-tooth comb over the movements of the infected employee to discover where they might have been in the building.

There are still a lot of unknowns but at research so far supports a “two-metre rule”.

“So that means anywhere around that person in two metres is potentially contaminated,” Bird said.

It is less clear whether the virus is transmitted via the air. One bit of research that’s done the rounds is a bit misleading, claiming the virus can survive in the air for up to three hours.

“That was under very ideal conditions in a laboratory set-up. We don’t really know how it survives in the air and how long,” she said.

It’s considered pretty unlikely the virus can travel through a typical HVAC system (see this story about HVAC and COVID-19 for more detail) but Price and Bird agreed it’s not impossible.

“We need to think about the potential transport through airconditioning systems until we know it’s not an issue,” Bird said.

Price pointed out that can be difficult to safely and effectively clean modern airconditioning systems – many of which weren’t designed to be accessed for this type of clean.

While not conclusive, Bird said MERS and SARS research has shown that these viruses can be “resuspended” from surfaces. “If someone coughs, and it falls on the surface and then dries off, it can become airborne.”

Provided COVID-19 behaves in this way, the humble vacuum cleaner might be about to come under closer scrutiny.

“We know from research that about 90 per cent of airborne microorganisms in a building come from resuspension from things like carpets.”

A post-COVID-19 clean might require more than just vacuuming, perhaps a steam clean at the very least. Ventilation will also be key.

How do you prevent spread in occupied buildings?

We still have plenty of occupied buildings. In the commercial sector, many buildings are at 50 per cent capacity or, at the very least, occupied by a few people.

The most interesting research is around humidity, though again, it’s still uncertain terrain.

Research on MERS found that high humidity is quite successful at destroying that virus and mitigating its spread. But Bird said that we don’t know enough about the relationship between humidity and COVID-19 to put strategies in place that might accidentally “make things worse”.

Although it’s understood that a temperature of 38 degrees, and typically high humidity, can reduce the spread of the virus, the likely temperature and humidity needed to take effect on COVID-19 is too high to reasonably implement (unless you want hot and sweaty occupants).

These are just some of the highlights of  Wednesday’s event – we packed in much more. If you want the full rundown, you’ll soon be able to access the recorded webinar for a modest fee or free if you are a member or a Greenlister.

Notice about our next TFE Live event will be with you soon. There are some changes from our advertised program.

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