The COVID-19 pandemic has brought myriad changes to HVAC industry practices and procedures. Hopefully, some practices will remain in place for just a short time, while others will very likely become regular enhanced protocols for servicing and validating building ventilation efficiency and overall indoor air quality.
Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) has made a swift transition to online information sharing in these times, with a series of COVID-19 Contingency Plans webinar presentations to help mechanical HVAC contractors plan for the near and distant future of systems service and installation protocols.
“We all know the pandemic has created major changes within our industry, our businesses and how we interact with customers. How we quickly adopt and understand these changes, the greater is the likelihood for survival and success,” said discussion moderator, Mike Rosone, vice president of service sales for Arista Air Conditioning, Long Island City, NY.
Prior to the presentation on May 5, contractors responded to a pre-discussion survey and had good news to report, largely because HVAC has been deemed “essential” during the pandemic:
• 60 percent said more than half of their customers were open and allowing them access to their facility HVAC systems.
• 78 percent said more than half of their technicians were still on the job.
• 84 percent said they had sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for their teams.
• The return to work environment will be favorable, as 88 percent of respondents said they will lose between 10 to 25 percent of business following after businesses begin to reopen.
• 48 percent said they expect business to return to pre-COVID levels in six months or less.
Caution in NY Metro Region
A template of emotion and precaution overlays the quarantine picture in the New York metro area, said Mike Star, president of Lane Associates, Island Park, NY.
“There are positive and negative reactions by people and businesses. The magnitude of whole situation is extremely high. New York City is completely empty. It’s not often you can drive from one end of the city to the other without any traffic,” Star said. “From the health care perspective, people are taking shutdowns seriously, and are wearing masks and complying with guidelines. All the positive trends are heading in the right direction.”
Star said Lane Associates was operating safely at 40 percent of normal staffing.
Sections of New York state were to be reopened in four phases, with two weeks between each phase, beginning on May 15, and the company is planning for the reopening by speaking with clients about reopening strategies, and with internal teams.
“We’ve been having conversations with customers on reopening plans and how we can help them, including fogging disinfection and UV lights; how to help them comply with opening regs.
“Inside, we’re focusing on enhancing team knowledge and expertise through distance learning. Also working on improving workflows. Time is the hurdle when planning for improved workflows and we have that time. We’re trying to make the company smarter and stronger for when we emerge on the back end of this," Star said.
Remote Workers Getting in Done, Techs are Busy
EMCOR Mesa Energy Systems, Irvine, Calif., employs 900+ people, with offices throughout California, Arizona and Nevada.
“It’s a little bit odd right now. I looked up my office online and very few are there, because 90-95% of our office staff are tele-working,” said David Geith, vice president of service.
“And they’re doing a great job. They’re still efficient, work is continuing as we had hoped. The field has also been relatively busy, with both retrofit and service department together averaging about 38 productive hours per week,” Geith added.
Geith said Mesa Energy’s busies branches are its San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas locations. “There is so much more to Las Vegas than just the strip,” Geith said. “There are time shares at low occupancy, so they have us in replacing equipment.”
Northern California is the company’s slowest region.
Geith reported that about 20% of Mesa Energy Systems’ customers have held back on services, but that has not reduced its number of total productive hours.
“The teams are getting the work, which we are very thankful for,” Geith said.
We’ve known building owners and managers to be an inquisitive group, always in search of information about building efficiency. Now, Geith said Mesa’s customers are requesting reoccupation information.
“We are getting many requests from customers who want us to do webinars or ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, as far as re-occupancy plans at their buildings.”
Mesa Energy Systems teams are providing building re-occupancy information to any and all who request it.
Mesa Energy Systems teams are providing building re-occupancy information to any and all who request it.
“We at Mesa Energy Systems have also been working on our own return to work plan. Whatever the state may dictate in the coming weeks, we’re going to bend and curve with it. But we do have our return to work plan in place,” Geith shared.
Geith said more employees may be permitted to work from home once the pandemic has passed, if they can remain productive. Doing so provides a greater safety awareness to all roles from company greeter to technicians.
Among the ‘silver linings’ discovered during the lockdowns has been the generosity of people.
“We’ve had people walk into the office who work for us with a batch of gift cards for employees who might be struggling. Not just one, but a few people. We started a community chest that has taken off and blessed a lot of people here that were struggling, with family members who have lost their jobs. Others who heard about it said they wanted to know about it, and want to contribute.”
ASHRAE LINK TO COVID RESOURCES
Mesa Energy Systems’ remote employees have been reconnecting through Microsoft Teams, which has also become a learning tool.
“We created weekly broadcasts about the business,” Geith explained. “People can tune in to watch it live, and we archive it. There is a different topic each week. We started with the history of Mesa, and next was related to our COVID-19 response.” Additional broadcasts will include sales, dispatch, project management, leadership and other topics of interest.
Swift Shutdown in PA
In Pennsylvania, residential and non-residential construction projects were closed overnight, following an order by Governor Murphy’s order.
“That mothballed half of our company,” said Mike McHenry, vice president of service at Enginuity, Harrisburg, Pa. In early May, things had slowly started to reopen, good news for Enginuity’s 120 employees.
McHenry said the effects of the company’s service shutdown were felt a bit later .
“There was a week where our customers had not closed down yet, so there was a service backlog we were working through. Now, Governor Wolf has said we will do a ‘red, yellow, green light’ approach to reopening. We’re entering a yellow light phase, where construction is opening up, providing that we can show that we’re giving employees proper PPE.”
Many property managers are reaching out for guidance on how to manage employees returning to their buildings, because employees are also asking questions.
And again, as another blessing that HVAC was deemed “essential,” McHenry said Enginuity’s techs are averaging about 35 hours of work per week, at 70-80% capacity against this time last year.
As happened with Mesa Energy Systems, McHenry said many property managers are reaching out for guidance on how to manage employees returning to their buildings, because employees are also asking questions.
In response, Enginuity has prepared informational templates of policies and procedures to help them address those concerns.
Apart from the “when” of getting back to their offices and other buildings, McHenry said the most-often asked question is a big “will” as in, "Will work environments be safe?"
“Not only are companies asking landlords if it’s safe to return, but employees are asking their bosses. They want to feel good about coming back to work,” McHenry shared. In response, Enginuity has established a consortium of contractors, from electrical, mechanical and general contracting segments, to combine learnings into a holistic menu of things building owners can do to reassure their tenants that they have gone the extra mile to be safe. Some is based on product trials.
“We’ve installed systems in our office: a bipolar ionization system, that makes particles in the air attract each other and fall out. With that, there’s no need to worry about system capacity or hepa filtration,” he explained. “We’ve put up a landing page on the website, and compiling research to show that bipolar ionization (BPI) is one of leading ways to go about this.
As of early May, Enginuity had quoted about $500,000 of BPI projects. “We think [BPI installations] will be how we spend the first part of the summer,” McHenry said.
Phased Reopening in Washington State
Rich Happel and UMC Inc. in Mukileto, Washington are located in what Happel said is the “backyard of Boeing,” where the 777 aircraft is manufactured. Nearby Seattle was one of the first areas of the US to be labeled as a COVID-19 “hot zone.” At the end of April, the state was placed on a four-phase business reopening program, with three-weeks between phases. “It’s based on many criteria, including tracing and testing, and many other metrics regarding statistics of COVID and how we’re progressing. We’re optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction, and making some progress, albeit slower than any of us had hoped,” Happel shared.
Good news for UMC is they now have full staff are working, 80 percent doing so remotely.
“We’re not encouraging them to come back any time soon. We have not completed our office work plan but we’re working on it. The plan will lead to a gradual increase in on-site workers.
Ninety-five percent of UMC’s plumbing and service technicians were working 30 to 38-hour weeks as of May 5.
“That’s much better than our construction group, which was shut down overnight. Now we’re at 30 percent status in construction workers retuning. We expect over next two to three weeks to see 50 to 60 percent returning to jobsites that will have reopened. There will be many more restrictions and requirements in place that are required to meet the Phase 1 approach," Happel said. "About 15-20% of our customers have delayed services. It’s enough that you feel it, but not critical. We feel fortunate that we’re quite busy."
UMC's safety team had spent about six weeks developing a reentry safety plan, and then had to start over to meet the state's guidelines. "It’s a dynamic approach as we all know and all attendees know. You have to be very flexible during this time," Happel said.
And as the other panelists shared, Happel said UMC customers have asked the team to help them understand what they should be doing to safely reoccupy their buildings, restart their businesses and make employees feel comfortable returning.
Permanent Remote for Some
Happel said many UMC employees working from their homes will be given opportunities to continue to work remotely.
"Not all positions can do that, but many of them will be given that opportunity going forward. That should improve overall employee satisfaction and flexibility" from those employees who prefer working remotely. "One unique idea is, we have developed a UMC COVID-19 facility assessment program. It's a series of four checklists, using reference material from the CDC"
New Control Strategies
When asked to comment on what HVAC control strategies can be expected down the road, David Geith said building efficiency will be a major concern of every building owners and property manager.
"However, I think that in flu season customers would probably be wise to consider offering strategies for over-ventilation in their buildings during those times. It seems like a reasonable approach, as ASHRAE Standard 170 recommends over-ventilating.
"We could do this by raising outside air high limits, or possibly by increasing outside air values," Geith suggested. "Fortunately the weather at that time is cool, so it’s easier for a customer to accept.
"Another thought, similar to a morning warmup, possibly a couple hours before the building opens up, or directly after the building closes down: opening all the VAV boxes and outside air; do a building purge for a couple hours, especially during the flu season; might be a wise move, something to consider," Geith offered.