Contractor Helps D.C. Building Safely Reopen with Ventilation Verification

In preparation for reopening its headquarters after the prolonged shutdown due to COVID-19, owners of the United Unions Building in Washington, D.C. — the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers; the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers — hired Fisher Balancing of Williamstown, New Jersey, to perform ventilation verification and inspection of the building’s HVAC systems.

Through a series of steps, Jennifer Lohr, journeyperson and Diane Vera, an apprentice, spent a week testing the efficiency of the entire building’s HVAC systems for proper ventilation, which is paramount to avoid widespread illness and keep carbon dioxide levels at a safe level as to not interfere with performance and productivity.

Ventilation verification was introduced in 2020 by a white paper created by the National Energy Management Institute, the emerging markets, fire life safety and indoor air quality arm of SMART and the University of California, Davis’ Western Cooling Efficiency Center. The paper, based on a study by the university and the Indoor Environment Group of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reported over half of new HVAC systems in schools had significant problems within three years of installation and failed to meet minimum ventilation rates. Also, 20% of classrooms had average daily maximum carbon dioxide levels above 2,000 parts per million, where an adequately ventilated classroom should not exceed a concentration of 1,100 ppm.

Although the white paper focused on schools, the same problems occurred in commercial buildings, and NEMI encouraged contractors to provide the same ventilation verification services to commercial building owners and operators.

During the pandemic, Lohr and her colleagues at Fisher Balancing have steadily worked — first to convert hospital rooms to negative pressure COVID suites, and more recently to perform ventilation verification and system inspections for customers. The United Unions Building was not without its challenges as, with many old buildings in the nation’s capital, a system’s age can hinder its efficiency, said Lohr, a certified technician under the International Certification Board/Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau.

“The United Unions Building has an old workhorse of a system that posed some unique challenges,” she added. “The age of the system and some of the intricacies of working on an older unit can make it tricky.”

With the United Unions Building’s pneumatic hot deck/cold deck system, which allows occupants’ individual temperature control, Lohr and Vera needed to test each space of the nine-story building, adjusting the airflow and balancing the system for the optimum comfort and safety for occupants.

“Luckily, the design of the older system allows for each unit to bring in large quantities of outside air to dilute air circulating in the space, which is what you want for proper ventilation,” Lohr said.

Although the United Unions Building owners were under no obligation to have the system inspected, with tenants like SMART, which specializes in HVAC, the importance of safe indoor air quality was clear.

“Over the last year we have learned so much about COVID and how to help mitigate the spread through proper air handling systems,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers. “It is very important to our building that we lead by example in our mobilization as we return to the office by hiring a trained, qualified, certified contractor to perform the work. Fisher Balancing has been on the frontlines since the pandemic began, and their staff has the expertise and is among the best in the field.”

The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers have all recommended that in order to protect against the spread of COVID-19 when reopening commercial, office or other buildings where members of the public work or congregate, the HVAC systems should be verified to provide sufficient outside air ventilation and filtration.

Lohr, who is a member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 in Philadelphia, said she was honored to perform the work at SMART’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“General President Sellers was the business manager of my local when I was an apprentice,” Lohr said. “I am proud of the work I do, and I thought it was great to be able to showcase it for my union.”


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