Embracing ‘Green’ HVAC Systems

 OP RESIDENTIALBy Tony Saporito

What do we talk about when we talk about sustainability? For the New York City union mechanical contracting community, the companies that design, install and service the heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems (HVAC) in buildings, sustainability means embracing new technology that reduces energy consumption while providing optimal indoor air quality for buildings and their occupants.

As the world becomes more cognizant of environmental issues and our carbon footprint, researchers are also finding that the cognitive health of building occupants is an important piece of the puzzle, particularly when it comes to installing and properly maintaining energy-efficient HVAC systems.

Staying Healthy

When not properly sized for a building, air conditioning and heating systems will fail to maintain temperatures correctly and consistently. The systems end up working harder by continuously turning on and off, resulting in wasted electricity and unnecessary wear and tear. This can, in turn, drastically increase the opportunity for these systems to malfunction and ultimately shorten their lifespan. Inconsistent or inefficient temperatures can be an uncomfortable nuisance for building occupants, but more importantly, well-functioning systems keep building occupants healthy and productive.

According to Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, policy makers, business leaders and activists collaborating to assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions, adopting automated rather than manual building management systems can reduce energy consumption by 10 to 20 percent.  In addition, Project Drawdown states, “Beyond energy savings and reduced operations and maintenance costs, building automation systems benefit the well-being and productivity of people inside the building. Improved thermal and lighting comfort and indoor air quality directly impact occupant satisfaction.” 

A recent joint study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University backs this up.  Researchers found a strong relationship between green office building design and the efficiency and wellbeing of workers, who spend on average about 90,000 hours, or more than 10 years of their lives, at the office.   According to the Harvard study, office workers in green buildings scored 61 percent higher on cognitive tests than workers in conventional buildings, and that number jumps to 101 percent for workers in green buildings with additional ventilation enhancements. As is standard in double blind scientific studies, neither the workers nor test administrators knew how their air quality conditions were set that day when the experiment was conducted.

Clearing the Air

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks air quality as a top five environmental risk to public health, and it remains an issue today in many of our country’s aging office buildings. The agency’s studies of human exposure to air pollutants reveals that indoor pollutants can often be two to five times higher than outdoor levels; and, in some cases, more than 100 times.

The financial and operational consequences of poor indoor air quality can be very costly for employers. Poor ventilation within buildings can cause a buildup of airborne pollutants believed to cause various illnesses, including headaches, coughing, fatigue and nausea, which can lead to decreased worker productivity and higher employee absenteeism.  

In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that lower productivity and increases in sick leave due to poor indoor air quality costs U.S. employers a staggering $15 billion annually, a tremendous concern for companies both large and small.

Depending on the building, a properly sized energy efficient HVAC system can also shrink a company’s energy consumption and boost its sustainability rating while lowering utility costs by thousands of dollars each year. In 2012 alone, the cost savings for businesses, organizations and consumers across the country using Energy Star certified products was $24 billion!

The U.S. Department of Energy and EPA introduced the voluntary labeling program Energy Star in 1992, in order to identify and encourage the use of energy efficient products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, $362 billion has been saved in utility bills and 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions have been prevented from polluting the environment. An appropriately sized HVAC system that has been expertly installed is a great start for every building owner, but even the perfect system can become inefficient if not continually and consistently serviced by skilled professionals.

Qualified union mechanical contractors have the kind of experience and level of technical expertise that can be critical to the proper installation and maintenance of these complex green systems. By adopting informed operating practices, including regular proactive system checks, companies can help create a desirable work environment and ensure maximum health benefits for employees while minimizing energy consumption.

In our carbon-conscious and sustainability-minded world, fresh indoor air and comfortable temperatures can make a big difference in boosting a business and property owner’s bottom line while creating a healthier, happier and more productive workplace. Now, that is a breath of fresh air.

Tony Saporito is executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York, Inc., where he is responsible for all affairs of the association, including labor relations and service as a trustee on the industry pension, welfare and training funds. 

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