Improving air quality was top of mind for hoteliers during the pandemic, with air-purification and air-filtration systems becoming must-have pieces of equipment. But the issue of air quality has been a long-standing one.
“COVID didn’t’ cause the poor air quality in buildings,” says Joel Primeau, mechanical engineer and ASHRAE instructor in Ottawa. “All of a sudden [operators] became aware of the relationship between airborne viruses and bacteria and the quality of HVAC. We’ve been trying to explain that to people for years.”
Hotels have specific problems that other residential and larger venues do not, says Gil Blutrich, founder and CEO of Clear Inc. in Toronto, an integrator of air and water firewall technologies. “Air quality is perhaps more important in hotels than in residential buildings because human traffic in a hotel environment is much higher and changing all the time. You need to use extra steps to promote public health.”
In 2021 Honeywell study Mitigating COVID-19 In Public Spaces indicates that the primary concern for guests was not in the rooms. “It was more in all the places where people congregated such as lobbies, breakfast areas, boardrooms, gyms, and pools,” explains Bhavesh Gupta, director of engineering, Honeywell Building Technologies in Atlanta, Ga., who co-authored the report.
The fundamental answer to improving air quality is a simple one in principle, says Primeau. “The best solution for air quality always is to bring in more outside air. Everything else is a compromise.”
The Honeywell report supports this, noting that provisions for bringing in outside air was a better solution for air circulation, confirms Gupta. “Air flow becomes very important with respect to COVID. Managing and controlling air flow through filtration and disinfection technology becomes very important in clearing the air before you inhale it.”
A gamut of options
The answers range from the simple to the complex, depending on the building design, existing infrastructure and systems, and layout. “Solutions can range from simple tweaks and settings adjustments to adding new or retrofit equipment to bring in more fresh outside air,” says Adam Gaitsch, associate director, sales, Carrier Corporation, Charlotte, N.C.
The costs of replacing or upgrading systems depends on a variety of unique site-specific, product-specific scenarios, he adds. “In general, older commercial HVAC systems can be significantly less efficient and more expensive to maintain compared to brand-new systems.
According to ASHRAE, commercial HVAC units have a lifespan of about 15 years depending on how well they’re maintained.”
The advent of COVID has spurred a surge in demand for purifiers. “They work well for very small areas so are fairly effective in guestrooms, assuming they work well, have good HEPA filters, and they are cleaned,” Primeau says. “Adding fans can improve the quality. But purifiers can’t be expected to do a big ballroom.”
One option often considered is high-efficiency heat-recovery systems, which are particularly effective in properties with heat-generating areas such as a pool, laundry facilities, and kitchens, says Primeau. “They provide all kinds of concentrated sources of heat to capture and pre-heat cold air coming in from outside. It can also reduce energy bills significantly and can be done as a retrofit to increase the quantity of outside air without increasing the capacity of the system or energy bills.”
However, their feasibility depends on the size of the hotel, scale of the project and the location of the rejected heat in relation to where the cold air enters, he cautions. “Costs go up quickly when you bump into physical limitations on site or obsolete systems you can’t retrofit. If the devices are far apart, ducting could prove impossible.”
Hotels can also consider increasing the capacity of HVAC systems and adding more filters. When looking for the next system, consider the efficiency levels of the units. “Less efficient units cost more to operate annually. Additionally, ensure the system you are purchasing can accommodate your current occupancy and traffic threshold, plus any planned growth in the future. Other factors to consider include noise levels, effective air movement within spaces, precise temperature control and flexibility.
An efficient and common way to improve HVAC filtration is through MERV-13 upgrades. ASHRAE recommends MERV 13 whenever possible.
“Increasing the filtration level of equipment, however, can significantly impact energy efficiency,” says Primeau.
Ultraviolet (UV) lamps can be used to sanitize the air in unoccupied guestrooms, he adds. “Returns can be limited. Some are looking at upper-air UV, placing it above eight feet to consistently cleanse and disinfect recirculating air in larger spaces.”
The selling points
Blutrich says that hotels have missed a huge opportunity. He points to the Cosmopolitan hotel in Toronto, built in 2005, as a hotel that is committed to elevated health, safety and well-being. Measures include removing all carpets, adding air purifiers to every room, and creating balconies for guests to enjoy fresh air. “Conde Nast named it one of the best new hotels in the world, not because the rooms were better or uniquely designed, but because of the health and well-being concept.”
More recently some properties are seeking the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI’s) certification, says Blutrich. “It is becoming the gold standard.”
An MIT Real Estate Academy study indicates that installing systems to elevate health and wellbeing can boost upline revenues, he adds. “Our own research shows that consumers are willing to pay up to $20 more per night to be in a healthier environment.”
The bottom line
“You have to keep practicality in mind when looking at the cost/benefits of each [solution],” says Gupta.
There is no single strategy for creating and sustaining healthier hotel environments, says Gaitsch. “Creating healthier indoor environments is an essential component of a layered strategy toward continuing to reopen the industry.”
For Blutrich, focusing on health and well-being should be a focus across the industry. “Clean air and water should not just a luxury that can only be found in five-star hotels.”
BY DENISE DEVEAU