By Jesse Sycuro, P.E., CCP
BCxA International Board of Directors

The following article about performing Ongoing Commissioning (OCx) in the “new normal” is based on recent studies conducted by scientists, engineers and researchers. Many of these studies contain limitations, and research is continuing to better understand the transmission risks of COVID-19. For any facility, you must consider your specific systems, the latest research available, health and safety regulations applicable to your site, and how the research on COVID-19 should be applied for your location.

Working in the commissioning field, by nature we face hazards on a regular basis – working at heights, being in the vicinity of energized gear, testing pressurized systems, and a myriad of other construction-related risks. We plan for, train on, and mitigate these risks as much as we can to ensure that we (and those we work with) return home each day in the same condition as when we arrived at work. As the coronavirus now presents a new hazard for our ability to work in buildings and for the occupants of those buildings, so too we should turn to our safety methods to mitigate our risks.

Addressing COVID-19 risks in our commissioning approach will help to ensure that building systems continue to support owners and current facility requirements. To monitor and sustain changes in building systems, Ongoing Commissioning (OCx) provides us with the methods and approach to help reduce these risks. OCx strategies are generalized here as a recommended approach for you to consider as you look to resume building operations:

Commissioning from Afar

In a short period of time we have been introduced to Zoom calls, Teams meetings, and any number of other online platforms for meetings. Our shift to the virtual world has been sudden and, for many of us, highly effective. Where we can leverage remote connectivity to systems, we can also look at how we do functional performance testing, point to point verification, and validate system operations by remote engagement. Nothing will ever fully replace the ability to see and hear system operations in person, just like you can never fully replace a face-to-face meeting. However, in a time of increased risks in being on site, we can look at new ways to validate performance while reducing the number of staff in the field when the testing safely allows.

Shutting Down for Vacancy

As our facilities were quickly vacated and shut down, did the last person remember to turn out the lights? OCx strategies that monitor and watch over our facilities continue to provide us valuable information to be used in this time of shutdown. The fault detection and monitoring based strategies deployed should be reviewed and setpoints tightened to give us the confidence that our building systems are in the shutdown state we expect for reduced energy consumption.

Where your buildings are unoccupied, your building operation may mimic a holiday shutdown – monitoring for this condition will help ensure systems are de-energized and operating to reduced energy targets. Monitoring your interval energy usage will similarly tell you where you have systems operating when you may not need them – with no one there to hear them or to benefit from their operation.

Returning to a New Normal

The new normal – a term that you may be getting tired of hearing…nonetheless, as we return to occupancy many questions will be asked regarding the safety of buildings and the HVAC methods being used to reduce our infection risks. Below you will see several references that provide a good initial review of key HVAC strategies for reducing these risks. We are learning more about how to apply strategies to further reduce coronavirus risks every day. As we understand the virus better, these strategies should be part of your operating methods with OCx providing a significant benefit for validating the building system’s ability to meet new operating demands:

  • Outside Air Flow: with initial indications of the benefits of outside air flushing, OCx should be set to monitor systems to validate outside air flow is maximized to your system’s capabilities and to ensure building flushes are completed regularly.
  • Relative Humidity: where you have humidification controls, monitoring of relative humidity levels will provide assurance that conditions are maintained to recommended levels of 40-60% relative humidity to reduce virus viability.
  • Filter Performance: as we look to increase our filter MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) ratings, while also seeing the impacts of Spring pollens and plant debris, monitoring strategies can be key in identifying reduced airflows due to clogged filters. System airflows, filter differential pressure, and other monitoring strategies are critical to ensuring ongoing operating performance.
  • General System Performance: there is a heightened awareness of HVAC system performance and how we are maintaining our built environments. Leveraging OCx strategies to verify continuous system operation and identify issues for early intervention is a key approach to supporting a healthy building environment while providing greater confidence in building performance.

An increasing number of publications and resources are available for us to leverage to guide us in our building operation response to COVID-19. The following are just a few that were considered in the above recommendations. The scientific community is working tirelessly to better understand how we can reduce our infection risks and research is being publicly released for easy access. As you look to the needs of your facility – leverage the latest research and consider OCx as a strategy for helping to improve the safety of your building occupants, your teams, and for yourself. Be safe.

Further reading:

  1. 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic: Built Environment Considerations to Reduce Transmission;
  2. Low ambient humidity impairs barrier function and innate resistance against influenza infection;
  3. Coronavirus COVID-19 and HVAC Systems;
  4. COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Preparedness Resource;