Maintain Your HVAC System to Head Off the High Cost of Poor IAQ

Summer is upon us, and that means it’s time to seal the building and crank up the air conditioner.

And that means it’s a good time to think about IAQ. Of course, any time is a good time for directing attention to this important subject, but it’s particularly pertinent during the onset of hot weather. And it’s particularly important for us here at Just Venting, since poor IAQ is so very frequently related to HVAC issues.


The first thing to fix firm in your mind is that indoor air pollution is a real problem, as explained in detail by Penn State researcher Melissa Beattie-Moss in a May 17 article for Central Pennsylvania’s Quoting research by William Bahnfleth, professor of architectural engineering and director of Penn State’s Indoor Environment Center, Beattie-Moss points out that while we have worked wonders as a nation in our efforts to clean up outdoor air thanks to the Clean Air Act, we have failed to put as much attention on the cleanliness of the air inside the buildings where we live and work, where federal clean air legislation doesn’t apply (even though things like ASHRAE regulations do).

“Americans,” Bahnfleth explains, “now spend on average 90 percent of their time indoors, being exposed to indoor air contaminants. The sheer exposure time amplifies the significance of any harmful substances in indoor air — but indoor concentrations of some contaminants may also be several times higher than outdoors.” These contaminents may include Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from building materials and furniture; carbon monoxide; radon; spores and mycotoxins from mold; pesticides; allergens from pets, insects, dust mites and other sources, and tobacco smoke.

He continues, “Visible or not, indoor air contaminants have a tremendous effect on health, productivity, and comfort. Numerous studies have documented that students learn better and workers are more productive in environments with good air quality.”

The effects of these problems on human well being and economic activity are pronounced, and the two play directly into each other. We’re all familiar with Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), “in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” What we may not be as familiar with is the steep economic cost associated with poor IAQ; one recent study of IAQ concluded that air quality-related financial losses due to sick leave, medical treatment, and lowered productivity may reach $48 billion annually in the U.S.

So, to sum up, it’s a live issue, and we all need to keep up to date about best practices for maintaining excellent IAQ in our buildings.


For a review of the basic facts about IAQ, you could do worse than to visit the EPA’s subsite about the subject. That’s where you can access the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM), released in 2002, which the EPA describes as “a guidance tool designed for use by building professionals and others interested in indoor air quality in commercial buildings.”

You can also read what the EPA has to say about Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). In addition to identifying the possible causes of SBS (inadequate ventilation, chemical contamination from indoor or outdoor sources, and biological contaminants), the EPA offers specific recommendations for conducting building investigation procedures and solving SBS problems.


On a more specific facility management-related note, we recommend that you read a recent post at the Facility Blog titled “Don’t Skimp on Air Filtration Even When Budgets Are Tight” (Today’s Facility Manager, June 1). In it, Gina Tsiropoulis, Market Manager for Kimberly-Clark Filtration, warns that although facility managers who are looking to reduce maintenance expenses during the present economic squeeze may consider cutting down on HVAC maintenance, and especially on filter maintenance (either by reducing the frequency of air filter change-outs or by downgrading to a lower-priced filter), this is actually very short-sighted, since

Smart fms should realize the small amount of money saved by reducing or eliminating air filter purchases or by purchasing lower priced (and lower efficiency) filters pales in comparison to the energy and operating costs that can be saved by maintaining a robust air filtration maintenance and upgrade program.

She goes on to discuss the role of air filtration in promoting and maintaining not only good IAQ but increased energy savings:

Skimping on air filtration during a tough economy has the potential to put facilities even deeper in financial trouble. It can negatively impact IAQ which can increase costs relating to worker health and productivity. It can also increase HVAC system operating and energy costs. While reducing the frequency of filter change-outs or downgrading to a lower-priced (and lower performance) filter may seem like good ways to reduce expenditures, they are not true cost-savings strategies.


So this is all just food for thought, and also impetus for action. The overarching point that you might want to take away from it is that not only proper filter maintenance but proper total maintenance of your HVAC system is necessary for the very reasons Tsiropoulis notes above. We trust you’ll pardon as we quote ourselves, from words at our own main site:

By now, most people have heard the terms “indoor air quality” and “sick building syndrome.” One of the biggest contributors to indoor air quality is the HVAC system installed in the building. The purpose of the HVAC system is to “condition” the air inside the building. Air that has been “conditioned” is clean and odor-free and is at a temperature and humidity that the majority of the building’s occupants find comfortable. . . . HVAC maintenance plays a significant role in keeping the HVAC system running at peak efficiency.

And we urge you to read the detailed article by Goodway’s Steve Spielmann about cleaning ducts and ventilation systems for purposes of heading of SBS and maintaining good IAQ.


  • This is one of the best summaries I’ve seen of IAQ today so I was convinced to sing up/ Will you ever do a post on comparing whole facility and/or whole home air cleaning systems?

    June 9, 2009
  • Very good paper about IAQ. I´m in Brasil and thanks for all this informations

    June 11, 2009
  • Nice article, very good summary. But don’t forget that current fresh air standards do not require that you treat the forced fresh air in a commercial building or residence. How much mold, bacteria and VOCs are being introduced into your environment untreated fresh air by current building code regulations?

    June 15, 2009

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