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Don't Believe Everything You Read (or Hear)

July 13, 2020
CLARK'S REMARKS: Steady as she goes. Our man in Florida offers some professional advice for navigating the multimedia madness of this unsettling summer.

Nearly all of the news these days is eclipsed by stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, in too many cases, that is precisely what they are… just stories!

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of story is “a fictional narrative shorter than a novel.” Another is even more blunt: "a lie or falsehood." And it is not just the popular press that misleads or misinforms us, although I am not sure how daily newspapers suddenly transformed themselves into engineering and medical journals (quoting so-called experts with questionable credentials).

Unfortunately, contradictions in policies and guidelines from widely recognized experts (WHO, CDC, Coronavirus Task Force, etc.) have also been a source of confusion since the beginning of the pandemic: "Don’t wear masks, they will do more harm than good... Wear masks when you’re within six feet of someone for any length of time... Wear masks when you’re within six feet of someone for less than 15 minutes... Wear masks when you’re inside... Wear masks when you’re working out at the gym... Wear masks when you’re on the beach!"

It goes on and on, and depending on where you are – often it comes down to so-called red states or blue states – the rules can be significantly different.

For example, the mayor of a large county in South Florida recently issued an order requiring masks to be worn in gyms at all times, even during vigorous physical activity. He said that the policy was approved by his expert medical advisors. Then a physician for whom I have a high regard told me that if they adhere to that policy, there would be a lot of folks passing out or worse! According to the CDC, coughing, sneezing, and talking all spread the virus, so no doubt spitting is even more dangerous. So, should we be wearing masks when we brush our teeth? Personally, I do not recommend that, but there are equally crazy ideas being floated in the news and on social media.

That said, it is even becoming more difficult to believe the numbers of new cases being published and reported every day in some places. Imagine the surprise last month in Florida when a mother and daughter, who had registered for COVID-19 testing and waited in line for several hours – before giving up and going home without being tested – several days later reportedly received notification that they had tested positive for the virus! Those two “new cases” were no doubt reported in that day’s official totals.

Of course, our industry is not immune from the staggering amount of misinformation being promulgated, either.

A couple of weeks ago, the governor of a large state decreed that malls in his state could not re-open until the AC systems were retrofitted with HEPA filters. Fortunately, ASHRAE stepped in and explained delta-P and MERV to the governor’s staff before any actual damage was done.

ASHRAE, of course, has also had its problems (full disclosure: I have been a member of ASHRAE for many years). A leading publication recently referred to them as a “trade association” (according to ASHRAE, it is “a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment”). Until recently, "Engineers" was part of its name, clearly identifying it as a professional organization; perhaps it should not have changed its name.

Four months ago, Europe's equivalent to ASHRAE – REHVA (the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning associations) – published its first COVID-19 guidance document on March 17. Two weeks later, ASHRAE announced the creation of its own Epidemic Task Force, chaired by fellow HPAC Editorial Advisory Board member Bill Bahnfleth. More recently, ASHRAE and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) were able to agree fairly quickly on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that defines how the two organizations will develop and provide safe building occupancy guidelines following the spread of COVID-19.

But admittedly, ASHRAE is large and not very agile, so it cannot respond to emergencies as quickly as perhaps many would like. And that delay in comprehensive guidance has contributed to a bit of a free-for-all in both public and professional debate about solutions.

In a phone conversation that I was not part of, but the content of which was shared with me by one of the participants, the question was raised about whether the recent emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability in the built environment has inadvertently resulted in buildings being less flexible in their operations at the expense of the health and safety of occupants.

An engineer on the call cited the example of university labs having the option to switch to 100% outside air in an emergency, and opined that it was unfortunate that most other buildings did not have that capability. Our firm has completed projects in several labs, including laboratory ventilation studies. I am of the opinion that it’s not fair to compare labs to other buildings, since different types of labs have very different requirements. For example, one cannot compare the ventilation requirements for a BSL-4 vivarium with those of a dry chemistry lab.

Personally, I do not believe that energy and sustainability gains require compromising the health and safety of building occupants and visitors. Both LEED and Green Globes, for example, address indoor environmental quality as a major consideration in achieving their building certifications. Fortunately, most MEP engineers recognize the individual HVAC requirements for different types of buildings.

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A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. Contact him at [email protected]