Three years after the start of the pandemic the healthcare industry has seen unprecedented, and many unexpected, changes to its operations. We look at the ways the pandemic has altered HVAC/R operations throughout the industry.

As a result of their mission and 24/7 operations, health care facilities use an inordinate amount of refrigerated storage and air conditioning, which according to one study accounts for 4 percent of CO emissions globally. This near constant use places incredible strain on these systems and is only exacerbated by the aging state of so many care facilities and hospitals, many of which were poorly designed to begin with. 

The pandemic and ensuing overcrowding only placed even greater strain on the healthcare system, forcing many companies to reconsider how they are using these systems. Prior to the pandemic, HVAC/R systems had specific functions such as keeping areas dry or customers comfortable. However, three years on from the start of the pandemic, the healthcare industry has changed the way it thinks about HVAC/R and its role within the industry. These are seven ways that the pandemic has altered HVAC/R usage in the healthcare industry.

Greater focus on air quality

One of the most positive, and seemingly permanent, changes to the healthcare industry has resulted from the use of new technology to clean the air.

An emerging filtration technology uses positive and negative ions break the hydrogen bond that exists around a virus. Once that bond is broken, the virus is unprotected, which results in it dissolving and dissipating before it can spread. This type of filtration, such as O2 Prime by Siemens, is already being used in cruise ships and other highly dense areas. In a healthcare setting that could have potentially several viruses in the air, this type of technology could help to reduce more than just the spread of Covid.

A more familiar technology is the use of UV light to cleanse the air of virus particles. The start of the pandemic led to UV being used in new ways, such as installing a UV system inside an HVAC units. The UV light is implemented within a vent systems, so as the air comes in, the UV light renders any viruses within inert, before sweeping them into a filter, from which they can simply be removed. 

With a greater emphasis placed on air quality, these technologies are being embraced at all levels of healthcare facilities from urgent care facilities to walk-in clinics. The pandemic has put a greater emphasis not only on the comfort and utility provided by HVAC/R systems but also their ability to reduce transmission.

Increased interest in filtration

Air filters in HVAC/R systems serve multiple purposes: they keep particles from going downstream to protect equipment and facility components and they remove irritants from the air. However, in healthcare settings, they play a more important role: removing harmful substances from the air to protect patients and staff.

Two types of filters commonly used in healthcare settings: HEPA and MERV. Both work well at removing particles, but which filter to use depends on the situation. MERV filters come in different ratings to be used in different settings and stages of the HVAC system. For example, MERV 13 filters, which remove particles larger than 0.30 microns, are ideal laboratories and procedure rooms. HEPA filters remove particles smaller than this to filter out even more particulates from the air.

Not every facility or location needs the same type of filtration (waiting rooms and surgery rooms have different needs), but it's important to understand how and where these filters are being used within a system and how it impacts overall air quality.

More attention on HVAC/R asset condition and maintenance

The pandemic showed that healthcare facilities can easily be overwhelmed with great strain being placed at nearly every point from doctors, nurses, and staff to facilities and equipment. HVAC/R is no different. With a rapidly aging facility system, healthcare providers are now faced with the need to update, upgrade, and increasingly maintain facilities, including HVAC/R systems. This has led to a renewed focus on emergency repairs, preventative maintenance, and planned asset expenditures.

With maintenance now a priority for many building managers three years on from the pandemic, there are several tactics that are available to ensure equipment remains performing while allowing for the flexibility to budget for future upgrades.  

Plan to minimize downtime

Downtime is a major issue when it comes to maintaining air quality. As much as 82 percent of companies experience unexpected downtime as a result of their equipment malfunctioning or failing. Despite this, many businesses are running without any form of plan in place that ensures regular maintenance of equipment is complete to keep it working at peak efficiency.

The neglect of HVAC/R maintenance presents serious consequences and challenges for healthcare providers, particularly in light of the pandemic. A regular HVAC/R maintenance plan can reduce the risks of malfunctions and breakdowns by 95 percent

Prioritize regular maintenance

The key to minimizing HVAC/R downtime in healthcare facilities is to ensure those assets are regularly examined and maintained. Dirty components, clogged air filters, and leaky air ducts can start to prematurely age airflow systems by placing an increased burden on these systems to move air throughout a facility. Additionally, air that leaks throughout the system isn't filtered, which could lead to greater virus transmission.

A further side effect of poor maintenance is an increase in energy usage, as an inefficient system will not be able to effectively distribute conditioned air throughout the facility or requires more run time to achieve the same results. Using a series of comprehensive diagnostic checks is a highly effective way of monitoring the components of an HVAC system. Repairs can then be scheduled, minimizing interruptions as needed. 

Identify potential issues before they happen

Regularly servicing HVAC/R units helps to identify issues before they happen but also helps to take a planned approach to maintenance by replacing, repairing, and addressing issues before they become a more serious problem. Regular preventative maintenance increases the longevity of equipment, which remains in good repair and running considerably longer, reducing costs in the long run.

This sharply contrasts with the costs associated with reactive maintenance and other unplanned maintenance costs. Predicting and addressing issues rather than reacting to them saves money, improves efficiency, and reduces potential downtime, all of which are critically important for healthcare facilities to remain operational during times of strain.

For example, consider that energy expenditure, monitoring, and management accounts for as much as 30 to 40 percent of an entire facilities budget. The downstream consequences of simply applying bandage fixes to older assets across a portfolio rather than evaluating each asset on a case-by-case basis can easily double this energy expenditure.

By partnering with a facilities maintenance team, it’s possible to effectively streamline work orders while identifying qualified HVAC vendors, outlining and tracking maintenance needs, saving time and money, and avoiding that damaging downtime. Beyond that, it enables the creation of a proactive maintenance schedule that will further ensure efficiency.

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