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Optimum IAQ: Imperative in the new normal?

As the recently published report by WHO suggests that short-range aerosol transmission of the novel coronavirus in indoor spaces cannot be ruled out, Express Food & Hospitality sought views from the industry to learn how ‘Covid-ready’ are we to thwart the spread of the contagion in our indoor spaces

Looking at the dramatic upsurge in the cases of the coronavirus patients globally, the ‘new socio-economic normal’ seemingly remains a far-cry, on the back of feeble governance and flawed traditional business practices. Trying to inch closer to quell the spread of the contagion, organisations within governments and outside it, are positively adopting the guidelines drawn by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As WHO on July 9 conveyed that the novel coronavirus can remain in the air in crowded indoor spaces, where “short-range aerosol transmission… cannot be ruled out”, businesses are increasingly becoming conscious about the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), which was, of any seldom interest earlier.

For an indoor setting like a hotel or a restaurant, the safety of the patron during these unprecedented times has been assured through manifold practices included thoroughly in their contactless dining and contactless stay experiences.

However, optimum IAQ, has now assumed paramount importance for hoteliers and restaurateurs, and this can be achieved by adhering to a systemic change in the dynamics of operations of the HVAC system.

Shashi Shekhar

Evolving studies have been debating that the transmission route of Covid-19 by air cannot be ruled out and many scientists are now working around this possible reality. Even otherwise, the major cause of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted through droplets – the small droplets or nuclei which can remain suspended in the air up to four hours in the absence of proper ventilation. These fine droplets/nuclei/aerosols can travel large distances – up to 10 meters and can infect any healthy individual, explains Shashi Shekhar, MD, Camfil Air Filtration India.

Shekhar feels, “It is important that the HVAC systems are upgraded and adapted to this new challenge. Existing air handling units that have been in use in the hospitality sector are usually capable of handling only coarse dust, which is a far cry from handling finer particles like PM2.5 and PM1 impacting human health, leave alone pathogens. With the current pandemic forcing people indoors, the average traveller or visitor to any hotel is unsure of their safety and protection against exposure to risks against Covid-19. Our main challenge, as filtration specialists, is to ensure that confidence is restored and people start to experience “safe normalcy”. Use of more filtered fresh air, minimum re-circulation and optimum filtration to mitigate the pathogens, as suggested by HVAC experts, needs to be incorporated.”

Pipes of air conditioning and ceiling electric system

Meeting the new standards

The Covid-19 crisis has certainly posed a challenge for the world and at the same time has presented an opportunity for companies to relook their design strategy. Simultaneously, it is also important to implement a robust set of practices to ensure that the hotels are energy efficient without compromising on customer experience.

As per the state’s guidelines issued on air conditioning practices for hotels, the basic requirement for operating cooling systems in the guest areas is to run air handling units and fan coil units by limiting the temperature between 25 degrees to 30 degrees C. This is to ensure that the humidity level is maintained between 40 to 70 Rh with maximum fresh air. Hotels are also instructed to keep the exhaust in restrooms/washrooms running 24×7. To ensure that there is no compromise in safe and healthy air exchange, the government has also advised avoiding usage of heat recovery wheels which are used to conserve energy (basically, heat transfer happening through exhaust system by using exhausted air temperature).

Adhering to these standards, various hotel groups have already begun taking stringent measures, of which several highlighted that to maintain clean indoor quality air in the hotels they are implementing the guidelines set by Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE) on preventing the transmission of novel coronavirus through central AC systems.

Rajneesh Malhotra

In line with this, Rajneesh Malhotra, VP- Operations and Asset Management, Chalet Hotels, said, “At Chalet Hotels, we had implemented several technological upgrades to our HVAC plant rooms, just before the Covid crisis struck. These include tools like high-efficiency chillers, Inline pumps, and low approach cooling towers with Variable Frequency Drives with plant room optimiser. Most of the technologies these days are designed to be cost-effective and sustainable. We have adopted globally accepted sanitisation methods and are in process of installing UVC (Ultraviolet C (UVC) is a type of ultraviolet energy in the 280 – 100 nanometer frequency) in the AHUs after the filter and before coils to keep coils continuously clean and disinfected. Additionally, we have also increased usage of exhaust fan ventilation system for air exchange majorly in guest /public as per ISHRAE (The Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) guidelines.”

Shiladitya Mukherjee

Implementing the guidelines set by ISHRAE on preventing the transmission of novel coronavirus through HVAC systems, the staff at Lords Hotels and Resorts is timely cleaning air filters and inspecting indoor unit coils. The temperature setting for the room is maintained between 24 degrees Celsius and 30 degrees Celsius and relative humidity between 40 to 70 per cent. Fans are frequently used to increase air movement. Exhaust fans in the kitchens and toilets are always switched on, notes Shiladitya Mukherjee, sr area GM – Gujarat, Lords Hotels & Resorts.

Attar Singh

Listing the practices followed at Roseate House New Delhi, Attar Singh, chief engineer at the hotel says, “All air conditioning ducts, grills and airflow channels are being inspected every day and ensured that they are free from any foreign particles e.g. dust, pigeon & rodent droppings. Automatic operating sanitisers are placed in air handling units. Installing MERV 13 filters in AHUs of restaurants and those filters are cleaned by compressed air not with the chemicals, hence saving our cost of chemicals. Our ventilation system is allowed to exhaust 70 to 80 per cent of fresh air quantity to maintain the positive pressure in the space. AHU coils cleaning are being carried out with a water soap solution so as to avoid the contagion. Chemical usage is avoided. Fresh and exhaust air grills disinfection is happening regularly.”

Changing the filter in air conditioning

Switching operational dynamics

This unprecedented time has changed the HVAC design in many ways. Now the designing of the HVAC System relies heavily on its functionality as the hotel occupancy level has heavily decreased. Thus, the right designing of HVAC might help in various ways to combat the situations, experts opine.

Atul Upadhyay

“A few of the recent changes in the HVAC system is the usage of the zoned system which allows for the creation of customised temperature zoned throughout the selected areas of the hotel for increased comfort and efficiency. Its usage also reduces the running cost of chiller plant and its associated equipment. To save cost and energy a Brushless DC (BLDC) motor is getting designed with FCU it helps in regulating energy consumption. Also, now water to water heat pumps are getting designed and installed at the various hotels. It functions for delivering chilled water & hot water both. Moreover, at the time of designing the system, dehumidifier & humidifier both getting designed in the HVAC system,” explains Atul Upadhyay, VP – Operations, Pride Hotels.

Kundan Attarde

At Meluha The Fern, the hotel’s chief engineer, Kundan Attarde, said that the engineering department is taking certain measures that include, “Frequency of filter cleaning and preventive maintenance of the HVAC area has been increased. Regular filters replaced with specialised filters/ HEPA filters. Controlling the temperature of the chiller to an adequate level to deliver chilled water temperature for individual area AHU and FCU. It helps in maintaining the energy demand and controls the cost indirectly. Introducing auto chemical dozing process for cooling towers to keep better efficiency of chillers which is directly proportional to energy cost. Introducing the IoT system for each and every freezers and HVAC system for controls, corrective measures on the pre-stage of lowering the efficiency of the unit. All facility services are kept in good condition by handling proper preventive maintenance by an experienced team, it prevents and controls the cost for failure. HVAC energy consumption is a major chunk of the utility cost. Controlling costs will be easier in properties by installing split ACs or VRV systems or VFD chillers. However, properties having central air conditioning would require major changes in piping and probably even in chiller configuration to optimise the cost.”

Rahul Bhalla

Helping the engineering department of hotels to mitigate the hassle of manual handling of HVAC systems, ‘ZenShield’ by Zenatix combats spread of contagion by automating the implementation of ISHRAE’s guidelines for HVAC control, such as maintaining the temperature between 24°C and 30°C, relative humidity within 40 -70 per cent and constant supply of fresh air in a fully automated way keeping a tab on compliance. “ZenShield helps to provide a safe environment by automating HVAC operations and allowing building managers to centrally monitor and control their HVAC equipment. It alerts concerned individuals if any anomaly is detected in the system. It also allows building managers to remotely configure the systems across all of their buildings as and when required e.g in case of moving between the settings range mentioned in the ISHRAE guidelines,” notes Rahul Bhalla, founder & CEO, Zenatix.

Anuraga Chandra

The biggest challenge for hotels is to reduce the people to people contact while also enhancing customer experience. In addition to this maintaining high indoor air quality is of utmost importance. Anuraga Chandra, Head – Cooling Sales, Danfoss India, suggests that IOT based products that can improve the quality of air inside while also enable hotels to operate and maintain equipment with minimal staff is important. Danfoss products such as VFDs, Turbocor compressors are already equipped with these capabilities. In addition to this, we have seen many hotels and other manufacturers looking at adding filters into the system.

“We continue to look at understanding the requirements of this sector to implement easy operation and safety for customers. We look to make the necessary innovations within our existing product offerings or with new solutions. Every crisis brings with it an opportunity and we believe that hotels are also aligning themselves to this fact and making many requisite changes to improve the health and lifestyle of customers,” adds Chandra.

Himanshu Agarwal

Seeing a sharp rise in demand for efficient commercial air purification systems as corporations, hotels, malls etc. want cleaner and healthier air circulation on their premises, to guarantee a safe environment to their visitors amid the outbreak of the pandemic, Himanshu Agarwal, founder & CEO, Magneto CleanTech, says filter-based systems are now giving way to filter-less magnetic air purification systems as they can be customised to client requirements at lower costs, easier to maintain while being far more efficient at killing viruses, infectious germs and all kinds of microbes.

Giving details about the new product line Agarwal highlights that the existing air conditioning technology is inefficient in purifying the air or killing microorganisms which are recirculated indoors, notwithstanding the high-level maintenance of AHU filters. “It can not only accentuate the possibility of viral transmission but also increase sanitisation costs for hotels to follow basic requirements. Magneto’s patented filter-less magnetic air purification (FMAP) system, Magneto Central Air Cleaner (MCAC) has over 90 per cent efficiency of killing SARS- CoV-2 type of viruses (where coronavirus belongs) and we are working with many hospitality players across India helping them reopen facilities safely. Our air sanitisation system is powered by the revolutionary ‘Trap & Kill’ technology, which not just actively absorbs all viruses and microbes from the indoor air, but also kills them ensuring no further proliferation and infecting building occupants. We have recently launched an enhanced model of MCAC infused with Ultra-Violet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) technology, in line with ASHRAE and EUROVENT guidelines and recommendations, as an additional measure for complete protection against Covid-19,” mentions Agarwal.

Indoor air quality check

Optimum IAQ as a USP

Amid these challenging times, though being adversely impacted with occupancies dipping to an all-time low and facing alarming cash flow crunch, the hospitality industry claims to have been one of the first industries to press through the ‘adapt and overcome’ button when it comes to overcoming any unforeseen socio-economic, natural, etc, mishap. Likewise, as the situation demands, duly updating the establishments with novel innovations and modernised overhauls, evidently the hospitality industry has only raised the bar when it comes to seamless customer experience.

As the world battles the pandemic and its quicksilver spreading properties through various mediums, optimum IAQ – which has always been crucial for the hospitality sector, in the prevailing circumstances, has acquired a critical role.

Experts opine that in the new normal safe, clean and fresh air is going to be one of the USPs. Agreeing with the point, Malhotra elucidates, “With the rise in guests opting for clean and health-conscious travel experience, it has become important for hotels to implement air-quality monitors across their properties as a practice to instill trust and confidence amongst their guests. With constant technological developments on this front, we are evaluating technologies that will help improve indoor air quality that will best secure and enhance travel experience for our guests.”

On similar lines, Shekhar also says that people will look forward to an assurance that their favourite restaurant or hotel is safe to visit again. This will be possible only if the industry upgrades their ventilation and filtration systems as per requirements and recommendations. Further, communicating and demonstrating this upgrade and safety compliance would be a key to get people back to hotels and restaurants and other public buildings. People feel safe and assured when they get to see on a display, that the indoor air quality of their current premises is safe to breathe. “Entities who take these steps would definitely have an advantage over others who would like to wait and watch. Camfil on its part has products and solutions ready to mitigate the current situation,” he adds.

“The engineering department has to ascertain that the indoor places have fresh air all the time. Pure air feel is the new norm as far as indoors of the hotels are concerned,” notes Attarde.

Bhalla also manifests the fact that as and when hotels and dine-in restaurants open up, customers would scout for the measures being undertaken by each of them and would prefer a place that maintains hygienic standards and optimum air quality and hence maintaining optimum air quality (e.g. the quantity of fresh air intake) would be imperative and would also act as a unique selling point for hoteliers/ restaurateurs.

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