As employers work to make their businesses safe for employees to return to the office, the pandemic is challenging long-held beliefs that offices should be cool, dry, shaded from direct sunlight and mostly cut off from outside air.
Researchers say those conditions can help spread and sustain the virus, prompting manufacturers of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment to alter their products and strategies, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Understanding the potential risks of coronavirus particles circulating through office ventilation systems is critical toward restoring the trust of workers and the public confidence in returning to commercial buildings, facilities managers and building owners say.
“Building owners are starting to realize what it means to be prepared for the new normal,” says Howard Lu, director of business development for Ainsworth Inc., which manages heating and air-conditioning systems at more than 40 office buildings in Toronto and its suburbs.
Research released this spring by the Department of Homeland Security found that coronavirus particles decay faster at a room temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 50% than at lower temperatures and humidity. Add in a strong dose of ultraviolet light, and the virus decays by 90% in less than seven minutes.
While transmission of the virus is believed to occur mostly through droplets that people emit when they cough or talk, doctors and researchers are also investigating tiny virus particles that can travel longer distances through the air.
The pressure to upgrade climate systems comes as expenses are already rising from other safety measures, including more frequent cleaning of offices and lobbies and testing employees. Vacancy rates are also rising as companies allow some employees to continue working from home.
“They’re in a tough financial situation,” says Michael Zikoski, existing building services leader in New York for Trane. “They’re seeing reduced or no increase in revenue.”