As students return to classrooms and employees return to their offices, it’s vital that communities make sure their HVAC systems are operating efficiently and effectively. Doing so will reduce the risk of equipment failure and provide a safer, healthier environment.

Maintaining indoor environmental conditions — particularly controlling relative humidity — is of primary importance, according to the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

This summer has brought many weather variables, from heat and humidity in June to a wet and cool July. The common denominator has been dampness. An effective heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system should keep humidity levels in check.

HVAC systems are designed to operate under a heat load produced by people, computers, lights and other activities, according to the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Altered occupancy patterns, such as school being out for the summer and people working from home, reduces a building’s heat load, which can affect an HVAC system’s ability to control relative humidity levels, creating conditions for possible mold and moisture damage to occur.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, experts were working hard to understand the effects of poor indoor air quality and educate the public about those risks and costs, according to a June 26 article in Air Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration News. But since we’ve learned that COVID is transmitted through the air, an even greater importance has been placed on air systems in buildings, because people’s health is at stake. A poorly maintained HVAC system, in and of itself, can be a source of indoor pollutants, the article notes. Filters, air ducts, cooling coils and drain pans are all examples of points where a lack of attention can result in unwanted contaminants.

Each year, MIIA sees significant property losses arising from unit ventilators. This is both a frequency and severity issue, which has become a high priority for MIIA Risk Management.

EFI Global, on behalf of MIIA and its members, advised on the care and maintenance of unit ventilators. Univents are common in municipal buildings due to their ability to balance temperatures in multiple spaces. When designed, installed and maintained properly, they are effective and reliable. As building heating and cooling systems are inspected and maintained, it is imperative that all univents are included in the scope of work. Problems with univents freezing, seizing and failing can often be identified before a failure occurs.

EFI Global also recommends a simple, prudent and proactive step in identifying potential issues: communicate with the regular occupants of work spaces (e.g., teachers, office staff, librarians, etc.) to ask the following:
• How is the heating/cooling system working for you?
• Do you hear or smell anything abnormal with the system?
• Does the system seem to take an abnormally long time to reach the desired temperature?

Technology can also help to identify problems with HVAC systems. For example, EFI Global suggests the use of infrared cameras (thermography) as an easy and efficient way to determine when HVAC and plumbing systems are not functioning properly, when hot or cold air or water is not being delivered as intended, or when cold air is being pulled into a building. These tools can be a major asset in understanding HVAC and plumbing systems and preventing premature failures.

Best practices checklist
MIIA offers the following best practices checklist to maintain univents:
• Listen for noise coming from the unit, which could be an indication of a bearing problem
• Check filters
• Inspect intake box for debris
• Ask the regular occupants of rooms with unit ventilators if the heating/cooling units work for them, if they hear or smell anything unusual, and if the system takes a long time to reach its intended temperature
• In winter months, inspect units with a thermography camera for cold air intrusion (See MIIA Grants for thermography camera grant)

Semi-Annually (pre-winter and pre-summer)
• Inspect interior for debris and clean as necessary
• Check damper linkages to ensure proper alignment
• Check to see if outside dampers close and seal properly
• Inspect belts for cracks or fraying
• Lubricate motors and fan shafts per manufacturer’s specifications
• Inspect traps and control components

Properly maintaining — and, when necessary, upgrading HVAC systems — should be part of regular maintenance and capital budgets and protocols. Doing so will save money in potential downtime and loss related to improper care. It will also guard against increased insurance costs due to claims and, most importantly, provide safe and healthy spaces for students and staff.

Written by Stephen Batchelder, MIIA’s Vice President of Claims Operations and Risk Management