Why HVAC Should Stay On During the Coronavirus Emergency

Topics: HVAC, indoor air quality, coronavirus, building management

Chelsey Bipat
Author : Chelsey Bipat on May 28, 2020

Many buildings have been empty for weeks due to the stay-at-home orders in response to COVID-19. However, switching off all building systems can be a terrible decision. Consider that human comfort is just one of many functions of HVAC systems. To protect your building and its equipment from damage, temperature and humidity should stay within a suitable range.

An empty building needs less heating and cooling than an occupied one, which means your HVAC systems will consume less energy. Uncontrolled humidity can end up being very expensive: a building that stays several months without controlling its indoor environment will need many repairs later. You will also have delays when you want to resume normal operation, after stay-at-home orders are retracted.


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ASHRAE has provided extensive guidance and how to manage your building during the COVID-19 outbreak, and how to reopen safely after the emergency. In general, they recommend keeping your HVAC system on, upgrading to at least MERV 13 air filters, and deploying UV disinfection lights to eliminate germs.

Your Data Center Needs Permanent Air Conditioning

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Companies need a data center to operate in the modern world, and many applications must run 24/7, especially if you have customers across many time zones. Also, collaborators who are working at home to prevent COVID-19 infection may need access to company files. The data center hosting this information must stay on, or otherwise work will be disrupted.

Since computer servers produce a lot of heat, they need permanent air conditioning, and leaving them on without cooling is a serious issue. In the best-case scenario, the servers will shut down automatically to prevent overheating. If they are running critical applications for your company, operations will be disrupted. In the worst-case scenario, expensive IT equipment may be damaged by heat, forcing you to purchase replacements.

Even if you use a virtual data center, your cloud service provider must keep the servers operational and with adequate HVAC. In this case the responsibility is transferred to someone else, but the same principle holds: HVAC systems must stay on to protect IT equipment.

Humid Buildings Have Fungi and Bacteria Issues

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A building with high humidity is an ideal breeding ground for two dangerous germs: mold and Legionella bacteria. As we discussed in a previous article, both organisms have negative effects on human health. Mold can cause respiratory irritation, allergic reactions, and even flare-ups in asthma patients. Legionella can cause a type of pneumonia with a 10% fatality rate, making it much more dangerous than the coronavirus pneumonia.

ASHRAE and the US Environmental Protection Agency agree on a relative humidity of 40% to 60% for building interiors. This humidity range minimizes the spread and reproduction of fungi, viruses and bacteria. An empty building tolerates lower and higher temperatures than an occupied one, but the humidity control requirements are the same.

Many HVAC Components Deteriorate Fast When Idle

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Keeping an HVAC system off is also detrimental for the service life of many components and equipment. For example, piping rusts faster with stagnant water, and motor equipment gets jammed if the bearings accumulate rust. Some maintenance issues are also detected more easily when equipment is running, since there are warning signs like unusual vibration and noise. On the other hand, when equipment has been idle for a long time, some components may fail without warning.

Consider that HVAC equipment is necessary for operation, and letting occupants in without HVAC is typically against the law. If your HVAC equipment is allowed to deteriorate during the stay-at-home orders, reopening will be delayed when these orders are retracted. Protecting your equipment during the pause is cheaper than dealing with unplanned repairs and delays later on.

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