Why HVAC systems pose a risk after lockdown
More businesses including pubs and restaurants are now able to fully reopen, serving customers indoors for the first time since January.
Museums, cinemas and other indoor attractions can also reopen and hotels and B&Bs can welcome guests again.
Next month, things may move further, when millions more people will be returning to offices across the country if the government lifts its order for people to work from home where possible on 17th June.
Clearly, this is great news for businesses and for the economy, but reopening after so many months also creates a real danger – and it’s nothing to do with Covid.
Another airborne hazard after lockdown
Over the last year, we’ve become all too familiar with the risk posed by a deadly airborne virus, but, as we move out of lockdown, there is another airborne hazard we urgently need to fight: Mould.
Air conditioning and ventilation systems are designed to be used regularly, if not constantly, but, over the last year, many systems will have been inactive for months on end.
While the government has shared guidance about the use of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in combating the spread of Covid-19, there have been no warnings over the risk posed by reactivating systems when businesses reopen.
The risk is something which has always been known and understood within our industry: As systems convey air and/or cool it, systems build up moisture and so, if they aren’t regularly serviced or if they are inactive for long periods of time, these humid, enclosed and moist environments become a breeding ground for bacteria, mould and fungus.
Mould or mildew can grow in air ducts, filters or vents as well as in drip pans and coils. It spreads through the production of microscopic spores which float through the air and deposit on surfaces. In the right environments, these spores can form mould colonies, where they can then produce more spores which can be spread further. Worse, these spores can survive and linger in an atmosphere for long periods, and some moulds can be deadly.
More than just a bad smell
Now imagine that a contaminated HVAC system, which has been inactive for weeks, months or even a whole year, is switched back on: Immediately, a current of air carries the spores through the ducting before projecting them out across every inhabited space, ready for workers, shoppers or visitors who are venturing out after lockdown to touch, inhale, eat or drink.
As well as smelling musty and unpleasant, exposure to mould can cause cold or allergy-like symptoms such as a stuffy nose, cough or sore throat as well as headaches, nausea, skin and respiratory diseases. It can also be particularly dangerous to people who are immunocompromised or who have conditions such as asthma.
It sounds disgusting, but the risk is very much real. Unfortunately, there has been very little advice or guidance from the UK government to make property managers or users aware of this issue and so many will have neglected to protect themselves and their workers or visitors.
Service your HVAC system before reopening
While larger companies with dedicated property managers and close connections with professionals such as us will be more likely to have mitigated these risks, there are countless other organisations which will not: particularly small offices, hotels, restaurants, pubs, holiday cottages and shops which may have had systems go unchecked for years.
While there may not be specific guidance in relation to the risk of mould in HVAC systems after lockdown, there are still laws in place which oblige property owners or managers to take action. These include the Health & Safety at Work Act, The Workplace Health, Safety & Welfare Regulations, Occupiers Liability Act, and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations. As a result, employers or property managers may be liable for illness or harm which may occur from the use of contaminated systems.
Fortunately, HVAC systems can be disinfected and cleaned to make them safe again, but with so little awareness, many system owners will not be taking these steps.
If you have an HVAC system and you’re reopening or considering reopening after lockdown, I would urge you to urgently have your system checked, serviced, cleaned and disinfected before it’s too late.
After everything businesses have been through over the last year, I’m sure that another major health hazard is the last thing you need!