Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

‘The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost’

Air filters have become big business in the age of COVID-19, for the HVAC companies that can get their hands on them.

As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems.

Air filters, it turns out, are made of similar materials used in face masks and other personal protective equipment, putting them in short supply, says Gregg Little, president of Springbank Mechanical Systems in southern Ontario.

“We work with dozens of different developers, and they are all looking at that,” Little says.

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering Ltd., says his HVAC company is jumping to buy inventory of high-grade filters to keep clients from facing four-to-six-week turnarounds.

“The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost,” says Mastronardi.

The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver dubbed “indoor air quality” as a top real estate trend to emerge from the pandemic, noting that the pandemic “created more demand for air purifiers, ranging from stand-alone models to sophisticated smart systems.” Portable air purifiers are also getting harder and harder to find, notes Jeffrey Siegel, a professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering who studies indoor air quality.

That doesn’t mean business has been easy for HVAC companies, notes Little, who says that many clients have slashed their maintenance budgets because they can’t afford to stay open. Demand has been on a roller-coaster, as some clients who initially upgraded to fancier filters couldn’t carry the cost, while purchases from dentists’ and doctors’ offices that “went crazy” buying air filters this spring and have since levelled off.

That said, HVAC operators have noticed a newfound recognition for their expertise in light of COVID-19, Little says, and engineers have their pick of clients who might previously may not have given much thought to the person turning on their heater, says Mastronardi.

Demand for HVAC companies has spiked as local jurisdictions push tenants to look at their buildings’ HVAC systems. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health on Nov. 14 told businesses to review their HVAC systems to make sure they work and that they have increased air-exchange settings, are using the highest efficiency filters and aren’t blocking air vents or putting furniture directly beneath them.

But the city’s public health officials also advise that “there is no evidence to show that air purifiers on their own are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” noting that they may be useful to “supplement to HVAC ventilation or if there is no outdoor air exchange.”

Little says he recommends steady HVAC maintenance plans, but has spent a good deal of time this year personally reviewing some of the newer air filtration products on the market. Little says he’s still skeptical of some of them, such as dry hydrogen peroxide.

Another technology that is taking off, bipolar ionization, doesn’t have much independent data to back it, Siegel says. The process has been around for decades but many of the studies around it are of “questionable independence,” says Siegel.

“I know they’re being promoted very heavily …. but the technology is an unproven technology, you want to be very, very careful if a manufacturer presents some reports and shows you that it works,” Siegel says. “It may have a role. It just hasn’t been demonstrated to be effective in this context.”

That has not stopped some landlords from betting on air purification.

Brookfield says it is piloting advanced air ventilation and filtration systems in its New York, Toronto and Calgary offices, with plans to expand the system to all its office properties. Brookfield’s system, which uses bipolar ionization, was under consideration before the pandemic as a way to reduce energy usage and emissions. But the company is now wagering that tenants will view buildings with older air systems as “obsolete,” said Brian Kingston, chief executive of Brookfield Property Partners, at an investor event this fall.

Air filters can be used to slow the spread of COVID-19, and it is very important for buildings to meet minimum ventilation standards assessed by professionals, but Siegel warns that adding better air filters is no silver bullet.

“If you have an infected person and an uninfected person close together, even if there’s a great filtering system somewhere else, it’s not going to capture the virus,” says Siegel.

“I consider it to be a secondary measure. The primary measures are wearing masks, people physically as far apart, hand-washing and surface cleaning … and making sure spaces are not poorly ventilated.”

A portable HEPA filter can work in almost any space, Siegel says, as long as it is the right size and not positioned to spew unfiltered air onto a person or high-touch surface. But upgrading the filters of a centralized system can be more cost-effective, Siegel says, if the system can handle it.

Siegel says proper installation is make-or-break, especially with thicker filters and more high-tech air cleaning technology like ultraviolet lamps. Little warns that building owners should look for HVAC companies that can give customer references in air filtration.

“There are a lot of people who take advantage of bad situations,” Little says.

Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Traffic impacts in the downtown Kitimat area are expected to be finished by 4:30 p.m. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Traffic impact in the downtown Kitimat area

The impacted intersections are Haisla/Lahakas intersection and Kuldo/Haisla intersection

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

Water will be turned off in Service Centre on May 5th, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (Black Press Media files)
Water in Service Centre will be turned off for system repairs

The water will be turned off on, May 5th from 9 p.m. until the following day at 5 a.m.

The Tamitik Status of Women Association has been receiving anti-racism funding since 2018 and has done a multitude of initiatives over the years. Unable to host in-person events, the TSWA plans to host virtual workshops for all who identify as a woman in Kitimat and Kitamaat Village. (Black Press file)
Tamitik Status of Women Association receive $7,500 in anti-racism funding

TSWA plans to hold women’s gathering events and engage with local government about diversity policies

A Rapid Word Collection workshop took place in 2020 where the Haisla community recorded thousands of words to help them reclaim their language. (Haisla Nation video screenshot)
Haisla reclaim their native language through word collection workshops

Over 10,000 words and 5,000 recordings are now available online

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Mary Kitagawa was born on Salt Spring Island and was seven years old when she was interned along with 22,000 B.C. residents in 1942. (B.C. government video)
B.C. funds health services for survivors of Japanese internment

Seniors describe legacy of World War II displacement

Meghan Gilley, a 35-year-old emergency room doctor and new mom was vaccinated from COVID-19 in January, while she was pregnant. She’s encouraging others to do the same. (Submitted)
‘The best decision’: B.C. mom encourages other pregnant women to get COVID-19 shot

Meghan Gilley, 35, delivered a healthy baby after being vaccinated against the virus while pregnant

Most Read