New Prescription for Sick Building Syndrome (SBS): Use Copper in the HVAC System

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We’ve written twice in recent weeks about the issue of copper and its role in HVAC systems, so we figured hey, why not another one? We’re not really being flippant, though, because all indications are that copper is increasingly showing up as a major factor in the HVAC world with applications that may prove beneficial to everybody. Its possible uses for helping to prevent Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) are now coming to the fore, and this is entirely appropriate since copper’s natural antimicrobial properties make it the perfect metal for addressing one of the foundational causes of SBS.

COPPER AND THE HUMAN RACE

Our knowledge of these properties is nothing new. The European Copper Institute (ECI), in a brochure titled “Copper: essential for life” (pdf), recounts how copper’s antimicrobial properties “have been exploited by man for thousands of years. Well before micro-organisms were discovered, the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs used copper-based preparations to treat sore throats and skin rashes, as well as for day-to-day hygiene.” MetalBuilding.com points out (in an article titled “The Power of Copper“) that “the Phoenicians and Carthaginians may have experimented with copper sheathing on their wooded ships to inhibit biofouling, the growth of marine organisms on ship’s hulls,” and the British and American militaries both made use of copper sheaths for their warships in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

COPPER, HVAC, and SBS

The ECI explains how our use of copper ramped up rapidly during the era of the industrial revolution:

Then, in the 19th century, came the discovery of the cause-and-effect relationship between germs and the development of disease, allowing scientists to begin to understand the potential of copper’s antimicrobial properties. Today, copper is used in applications ranging from antiseptics and anti-fungal products, to medical devices and oral hygiene products by the pharmaceutical industry, as well as in other applications, such as water distribution, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

It then goes on to point out that the HVAC systems in modern buildings “are believed to be factors in over 60% of all so called ‘sick building situations'” since, as explained in more detail by MetalBuilding.com, these systems often present ideal conditions for the growth and distribution of harmful microorganisms.

“Using antimicrobial copper and copper alloys,” the brochure concludes,

instead of biologically inert materials in heat exchanger tube, fins, filters and condensate drain pans may contribute as a viable and cost-effective means to help control the growth of fungi and bacteria that can thrive in these dark and damp components of HVAC systems. The combination of copper’s superior resistance to mould growth and its thermal conductivity can also improve the energy efficiency of the systems in which it is installed.

MORE VOICES

We know we’re quoting heavily from a single source, so here are two others, just to prove that we aren’t relying solely on what the ECI has to say:

Based on currently available test results, a strong case can be made that the use of copper in HVAC systems could be hygienic, reduce the level of unwanted airborne biological pathogens and improve IAQ. Arguments can be made to provide antimicrobial copper filters in HVAC systems and use copper fin and tube heat exchangers. However, using copper for what often is the most visible part of an HVAC system-exposed ductwork-combines function with aesthetics.” – “The Power of Copper,” MetalBuildings.com

“Trends in energy efficiency have led to ‘tighter’ building designs, and microbial contamination has become a major source of indoor air quality problems, sometimes referred to as Sick Building Syndrome. According to the EPA, contaminated HVAC systems can become breeding grounds for biological contaminants — including bacteria, mold, mildew, fungi, viruses and microbial spores. Contaminants accumulate in air handlers, heat exchange coils and fins, condensate drain pans, air filters and air ducts.

The inherent antimicrobial properties of copper and copper alloys offer an alternative approach to mitigating pathogens and provide the potential for limiting the spread of infectious diseases and allergens through HVAC systems. Research has demonstrated that uncoated copper and copper alloys provide surfaces that have the capability to eliminate many microbial pathogens, viruses and fungi in very short periods of time.” – Copper Air Quality Program

If this doesn’t all make the point, then probably nothing will. We’ll be interested to see watch the trends and see if copper does make significant inroads into the HVAC world in the near future. Given the green building wave we’re all riding, it certainly wouldn’t surprise us.

Next Steps:

Matt Cardin, Goodway Blogging Team

The inherent antimicrobial properties of copper and copper alloys offer an alternative approach to mitigating pathogens and provide the potential for limiting the spread of infectious diseases and allergens through HVAC systems. Research has demonstrated that uncoated copper and copper alloys provide surfaces that have the capability to eliminate many microbial pathogens, viruses and fungi in very short periods of time.” – Copper Air Quality Program

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