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The Role of Your Health Club’s HVAC System in COVID-19 Safety

Your health club's HVAC system is an essential element to your COVID-19 safety strategy. We talked to experts about measures clubs can take to improve air quality and help prevent the virus from spreading.

As time goes on, new information is being uncovered about COVID-19 and its behaviors. And, for every bit of new information, even more questions are being asked. Basic facts—such as the way the virus is transmitted—are evolving and being challenged daily. It’s been known that, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus is spread "through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks," and “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).”

While this is true, experts have recently discovered what they refer to as “emerging evidence” that COVID-19 can be spread through airborne transmission—when even smaller droplets linger in the air for longer periods of time and travel further distances. Though more research needs to be done, infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, with the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program, says many of these experts are engineers, "which adds to growing knowledge about the importance of ventilation, which we feel is very important."

Now is the time to look into your club's HVAC system to stay ahead of any potential risks. The thought of this may seem daunting—especially for those that do not have much expertise in this area. But equipped with some basic knowledge, and with careful planning, you can help mitigate the spread of viruses through the air in your club.

Start with a focus on three categories:

  1. ventilation,
  2. filtration, and
  3. purification.

We’ll review how to identify areas of concern, and ways to communicate all updates, improvements, and safety measures with your staff and membership.

HVAC Definitions

Here are a few basic terms that will help you navigate the complex world of HVAC systems.

HVAC: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) is the technology of indoor environmental comfort. Its goal is to provide thermal comfort and acceptable indoor air quality.

MERV: Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value rating. MERV ratings tell us how efficient an air filter is. The higher the number the better the filter. According to Grainger: “An air filter’s minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating measures how effectively the filter stops dust and other contaminants from passing through the filter and into the airstream. Filters with higher MERV ratings trap small particles more effectively than filters with lower MERV ratings.”

HEPA: High-efficiency particulate air filters are installed in HVAC systems to remove the maximum amount of contaminants from the airstream for applications that require very clean air, says Grainger.com. This maximizes indoor air quality and keeps the contaminants from building up in the equipment and damaging it. HEPA filters provide more effective filtration and are commonly used in areas that require very high levels of contamination control.

UV-C: Ultraviolet C light sources apply targeted light that kills microorganisms to decontaminate rooms and equipment. According to Grainger.com, the number of lights needed to decontaminate an area depends on the "dose" of light. Determining the dose depends on the size of the space, the proximity of the lights to the object being disinfected, and the duration of exposure to the lights. Important: UV-C light can damage skin and eyes, so no one should be nearby when they're turned on.

Ventilation

Ohlson Lavoie Corporation (OLC), an international architecture firm with a large athletic and fitness club portfolio, advises health club operators to review and adjust their HVAC systems to maximize the amount of outside air (OA) within the facility. The higher the percentage of OA the better, as this means less air from inside the building is being recirculated back into other areas of the facility.

A few easy and cost-effective steps clubs can take to increase OA are to open windows (depending on the climate your club is in) and reverse your ceiling fans. This will bring the air up and help to dilute it. If your space and climate allow, holding classes outside is a great option.

At Cincinnati Sports Club (CSC), Operations Manager Marco Fiorini has to account for a high outside humidity level during the summer in Ohio.

“You want as much fresh air as your HVAC can condition,” he says. “In our indoor pools we run 50% (normally 40%) fresh air on the dampers. Our indoor pool humidity has increased 5-7% but we are still at 60% humidity. We cannot let our humidity get any higher. Our non-pool units are at 60% fresh air and we do not have any setbacks at night to continue the fresh air movement. In addition to this, our higher intensity areas (group fitness, fitness floor) our HVAC systems turn air every five minutes.”

Facilities AC outdoors Unsplash stock column

Filtration

Typically, commercial HVAC equipment is designed for up to MERV 8 filters. Upgrading equipment so it can accommodate MERV 13 or HEPA filters are recommended if high filtration rates are required/desired. MERV 13 or HEPA filters can be costly and will likely require frequent changing, says OLC. Additionally, if your club is considering a system upgrade, you’ll need to verify if the existing fan systems can accommodate the additional pressure.

If HEPA filters are not an option in your HVAC system, OLC recommends increasing OA as much as possible given the existing equipment capacities. This will lower the amount of return air that is recirculated in the building, though it may increase building energy usage significantly, they say.

The Adirondack Club in Franklin, MA, addressed this issue in a newsletter to members.

“We will be upgrading all filter media in our HVAC systems from MERV 7 to MERV 11 which provides a filter density capable of trapping the virus and filtering it from the air. These will be installed just before we reopen in all 15 units which supply the entire building,” wrote Robert Hinrichs, owner and general manager.

Purification

Some options for clubs to consider for increased air purification include UV-C lighting or reverse ionization air purification systems. The Adirondack Club has taken this step.

“We have invested in four I-Wave ionization and air purification systems proven to kill the coronavirus,” Hinrich said. “These systems continuously purify the air 24/7 as it circulates through the ductwork throughout these spaces. The first phase of these will be installed in the two units that serve the upstairs fitness center, another in Studio 1 and a fourth in Studio 2.”

Rudy Fabiano, AIA, design principal and founder of Fabiano Designs, says the best way to use UV-C is integrated with a mechanical system that is bringing air directly to the UV-C, avoiding dangerous human contact. New UV products are being developed using different spectrums of UV lighting that will have a lower risk to humans, though may take longer to be effective.

“Do the simple steps to increase fresh air, increase air flow, improve filtration, and practice guidelines,” he says. “Take a few simple steps now and build on it. We want to become the places [where] people feel safe.”

Communication

As with all COVID-19-related changes, keeping your members informed of what is going on is key. At CSC, Fiorini updates members of all HVAC changes through a weekly email and a message board at the club.

“We like them to know we're thinking of things they are not thinking of to be safe,” he says. “We would recommend letting members know as they will have concerns about air quality in indoor areas.”

In a member communication, CSC said, in part, “In March of 2020 the Club expanded the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) dampers to increase fresh air flow through the Club. The system has been on a continuous run and does a full air exchange every 5 to 7 minutes (up to 12 air exchanges per hour).

“The Club has both interior and exterior HVAC air filters. The Club has a best practice of replacing the exterior air filters every 2 months (6 times a year). This exceeds the recommended quarterly replacement. The interior air filters are replaced monthly.

“The dual wire/mesh filters used at the Club have a Merv 10 rating providing resistance to: auto emissions, lung damaging dust, insecticide dusts, smog, bacteria, legionella, & welding fumes. This grade of filters are typically utilized in peak demand residential zones, higher demand commercial facilities & hospitals.”

Fabiano also emphasized how important it is to tell your members about all of the measures you are taking.

“Nothing you do should be quiet,” he says. “Find a creative, fun way to let people know you are taking all recommended precautions to make this space a safe place to go.”

Experts at OLC agree.

“Clear communication of steps taken to protect the member can only enhance the credibility of the operation. Awareness of issues surrounding air quality and the club’s operational response will help members understand why things are not the way they used to be. These issues may include a hotter/colder air temperature in the room, increased discomfort from higher velocity of air, or the limitations on use of specific rooms. Knowing that the health club’s operator is addressing air quality concerns scientifically and methodically, will make it more likely that a member will feel more assured about coming to the facility and continuing their relationship with the club.”

Whatever your capabilities may be to improve your club’s HVAC system, it’s important to remember that there are small, cost-effective options to take now, while you decide what upgrades may be possible. The Adirondack Club says: “In addition to these important upgrades, we continue to evaluate additional technologies and protocols in order to keep our members and staff safe. [The above] measures were taken to support our commitment to the health and safety of our members and staff.”

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Author avatar

Carolynn Jordan

Carolynn Jordan is the Member Communication Specialist for IHRSA. She develops outreach that helps IHRSA members best use their benefits and stay engaged in the IHRSA community. When she isn’t working, Carolynn is likely researching what city she’ll run her 10th marathon in.