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As business as usual resumes in the wake of COVID-19, energy conservation experts are urging commercial building owners to pair efficiency upgrades with healthy building projects. When done well, those improvements can reduce extra energy costs and in some cases even cancel them out.

COVID-19 is an airborne disease, and healthcare experts remain concerned about transmission. Ohio lifted mandatory mask requirements for most places on June 2. Yet only 45% in the state had started COVID-19 vaccinations as of May 31. That means risks for catching and spreading the virus continue, especially among unvaccinated people.

Enactment of Ohio House Bill 606 and some other states’ laws shield employers from liability for various claims relating to transmission of COVID-19. However, efforts to incorporate a shield provision into a federal relief bill failed last year

On June 10, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration updated its guidance for employers on reducing and preventing the spread of COVID-19 among at-risk persons and unvaccinated people. That guidance is separate from OSHA’s June 21 rule for healthcare workers

“The pandemic has raised questions about airborne pathogens” and other health concerns, said Cynthia Cicigoi, executive director at Cleveland 2030 District. “I think there will be a greater emphasis placed on health and safety in commercial spaces — and balancing that with energy efficiency.”

2030 Districts are a network of urban groups that help commercial building owners focus on energy efficiency, water use, transportation emissions and other aspects of sustainability. Building members report on energy use, water use and other criteria. 2030 districts also connect them with service company members, if desired.

Consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this spring, OSHA advises employers to use multiple protective measures, including maintaining or improving ventilation in buildings to increase the delivery of clean air. 

Both agencies refer to ventilation and filtration standards from ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Scientists also are calling for the development of enforceable international standards for building ventilation.

“Everyone is much more aware of the space around them,” said Cincinnati 2030 District Director Elizabeth Rojas. Even before the pandemic, her organization began work on healthy building issues. That new aspect of its programs debuts this summer, she said.

Guidance from OSHA and the CDC has been used in the past to set minimum standards for negligence cases, lawyers at Huntons Andrews Kurth wrote in the National Law Review this month. State shield laws might affect liability for COVID-19 cases. Yet updated versions of the recommendations may well set standards for reducing other airborne illnesses even after the pandemic, especially as scientists focus on future epidemics and pandemics

Sales pitches for work to improve air quality have become more common in the wake of COVID-19.

“A lot of our clients got approached by different vendors with new technologies,” said Peter Kleinhenz, an energy efficiency consultant with Go Sustainable Energy in Columbus. In some cases, the pandemic has been the first time many companies have thought about ventilation and filtration systems, he noted.

Striking a balance

Projects to increase ventilation or filtration often increase energy use. Bringing in more outside air typically requires heating or cooling systems to run more often. Similarly, increased filtration generally makes blowers work harder to push air through.

Yet attention to energy efficiency can offset some or even all of the extra energy costs. 

Rojas noted one building owner in her area who thought increased venting would increase total energy use and raise energy costs. In fact, usage “stayed the same, because they had optimized their system [for energy efficiency] at the same time,” she said.

“Any time a building is starting to consider capital improvements to their system, that opens the door for them to also look at how should they improve energy efficiency,” Kleinhenz said. Companies also can benefit by minimizing business interruptions.

“As you are getting crews in the building, are there other things you want to do to reduce energy costs and improve operations to increase comfort in the building?” said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “You should think about what are some of the other things that could be done at modest additional cost that could really help the building function better.”

Good ventilation “means having enough ventilation, but not too much,” Nadel said. “Too much ventilation doesn’t help at all in terms of getting buildings drafty.”

Redoing work to commission a building’s HVAC systems is one basic and relatively inexpensive step, Nadel and Kleinhenz said. Basically, engineers make sure all equipment is at the right settings, that controls work properly, and that other equipment functions as designed. Something as simple as stuck air intake or exhaust vents or dysfunctional dampers can cause both ventilation problems and energy waste. Getting everything back in shape improves air quality and comfort while saving money, they said.

Another step is to adjust energy and ventilation controls for different occupancy levels. Cicigoi saw wide variability during the pandemic, with some workplaces shutting down, others having all employees come in, and still others working on shifts or other hybrid schedules.

Starting this summer, more businesses’ occupancy levels will be closer to normal — or whatever new normal levels companies adopt after months of people working remotely. Even then, however, many buildings will have times with few or no workers there, especially at night.

Adjusting controls to reduce air exchanges or modify other settings at those times “can save a lot of energy, as long as they bring it back up when the building is occupied again,” Kleinhenz said. “Things like this can actually help save energy in the building, while still meeting the different code requirements for the building’s health purposes.”

“You need an expert to figure out what you can do reasonably,” Nadel said. Owners need to make sure that even minor steps will work properly with the rest of a building’s systems.

Nadel gave an example of one office building where better filters have improved air quality. But going to the next level of filters would require more powerful motors for the building’s blowers, and those aren’t due for replacement yet. Checking air circulation and filtration again is on the list for when that replacement happens in a few years.

Pairing energy efficiency with ventilation improvements becomes even more important for larger projects. In one study, Italian researchers calculated that combining an energy efficient heat exchanger and heat pump with increased school ventilation can offset extra energy consumption between 60% and 72%. The report was in Energy and Buildings on June 1.

A good investment

Creative tools like PACE financing and pass-through loans arranged through the Ohio Air Quality Development Agency can help companies come up with the upfront money needed for larger energy efficiency projects.

Payback periods vary. Building owners often recoup the costs for commissioning and other relatively inexpensive energy efficiency measures within a year or less, Kleinhenz said. More major work, such as replacing systems, can have payback periods of up to 10 years.

One major benefit of Ohio’s energy efficiency standard had been to shorten that payback time, thus encouraging investments. That standard was frozen from 2015 to 2016 and then gutted by House Bill 6.

Nonetheless, many energy efficiency investments still “will have a return on investment of 20% or better,” Nadel said. At that rate, companies earn back their investment in roughly five years. Even a return of 10% is as good as or better than the rate of return many businesses get in a year, he said.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.