The COVID-19 pandemic, particularly its early days, will likely be a lifelong memory for most of us. It was a fearful time when researchers were racing to understand a new virus while trying to minimize the devastating effect it was already having on the world. As the scientific community learned more about the virus, its ever-evolving recommendations to the public created confusion and changes that are still affecting us today.

While that topic could fill volumes, let’s talk specifically about how it affected commercial HVAC systems and the facilities management industry…and why it’s time for a shift.

How COVID-19 Affected Commercial HVAC Systems

The panic in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt by nearly everyone, including businesses. Companies were looking for every way possible to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among their employees and keep their staff and families healthy with as little financial impact as possible. One way this took shape was for tenants in commercial facilities to encourage their facility managers to take recommended precautions for their HVAC systems.

Those recommendations varied at different points in the pandemic. Most notably, though, respected agencies like the CDC, EPA, and ASHRAE urged several precautions for HVAC systems:

  • Using the highest-grade filter that is compatible with your HVAC system, including a filter with a MERV-13 or higher rating or even a HEPA filter
  • Ensuring filters are properly fitted and placed so air doesn’t bypass the filter
  • Changing filters frequently, even as often as every month

Wanting to keep their tenants happy and help their tenants stay financially healthy by keeping as much of their workforce active as possible, many facility managers implemented these recommendations during the pandemic.

Today’s Problems with COVID-Era HVAC Practices

The HVAC filter recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic were well-intentioned, but there are several problems that are important to recognize.

First, the government agencies were providing the best guidance available at the time, however we do not know all the data that was used to provide the recommendations. They were given as a hopeful way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. At the time, COVID-19 was such a public health threat that the consequences of spending more on HVAC filters were minimal, so agencies issued this widely general recommendation.

Second, while upgrading air filtration may have helped with COVID-19 control during the height of the pandemic, we aren’t at the height of the pandemic anymore. The virus may always exist but it isn’t the serious threat it was in 2020 and 2021 for several reasons:

  1. The virus is no longer spreading at pandemic levels.
  2. COVID-19 was deemed to no longer be a public health emergency in May 2023. In fact, the CDC has modified its COVID data tracker to track long-term data rather than tracking community transmission rates and other emergency data.
  3. Now that the medical community has had a few years to study and understand the virus, we have more medical treatments available so COVID-19 is more treatable.
  4. Unlike in 2020 and 2021, the healthcare system is no longer overwhelmed by the number of people with severe COVID-19, so there isn’t such a severe shortage that people with COVID-19 won’t be able to get the care they need.

Third, the HVAC filter recommendations from the COVID-19 pandemic are expensive to implement, especially in large commercial buildings. HEPA filters and high-MERV-rating filters are costly. When you’re using these expensive filters, spanning across the entire HVAC system for a commercial building, and changing them every month, the cost adds up quickly.

How to Balance HVAC Operating Costs with Occupant Health

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer at its peak, the cost of the pandemic-era HVAC filter recommendations may outweigh the benefits for most facilities. There are, however, ways to balance your facility cost with your occupants’ health that are more appropriate for today.

Use an HVAC Monitoring System

Changing your HVAC filters too often will raise your maintenance costs because you aren’t getting as much value as you could from each filter. Changing them too rarely, though, will raise your operational costs because the blocked filter will lower your HVAC’s airflow. The only reliable way to strike the perfect balance is with a monitoring system.

Talos uses a small but powerful tool to monitor your HVAC filters and alert you when it’s time to change them, not based on estimates but based on how many particles they have actually accumulated. This allows you to optimize both your filter costs and your operational costs.

Allow for Optional Individual Air Filters

While HEPA filters and air purifiers aren’t necessary for most people, there are some cases when they might be preferred. That includes occupants who may have allergies or other health conditions that make them vulnerable to air pollutants, or occupants who are high-risk for complications from COVID-19 or other contagions.Instead of using air purifiers and HEPA filters throughout your commercial facility, consider offering them only as requested in suites or offices where occupants need them. This gives all occupants the safety they need without raising your costs unnecessarily.

Encourage Other Contagion-Safe Practices

The EPA acknowledges that, at most, air filtration should be a part of the plan for contagion control – it doesn’t have enough of an impact to protect people from COVID-19 on its own. Instead, encourage your tenants and occupants to follow other, more effective contagion-safe practices, such as:

  • Encouraging employees to stay home when they’re sick
  • Reducing the number of people in the building at one time by allowing an alternating work-from-home schedule
  • Requiring employees to wear a mask if they must come to work while sick or after exposure to COVID-19
  • Encouraging employees to be diligent about washing their hands thoroughly multiple times each day

Using these practices either during flu season or year-round will give your occupants a better chance to keep their employees healthy.

Getting Started with Talos for a Better Cost-Benefit Balance

Interested in learning more about how to optimize your HVAC costs in this post-pandemic era? We’re here to help. Contact Talos to learn about our HVAC monitor and how it can help you maintain your HVAC system with real-time data and alerts.