Posted by SEEDS on Nov 09 , 2020 - 09:51 am
By Chris Cuevas and Sophia Usow
In early October, SEEDS’ Energy & Environment team had the pleasure of sitting down to discuss best practices for COVID-era facilities management with Grand Traverse County’s resident expert, Joe Berry. In the face of new safety concerns raised by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Berry has taken the bull by the horns, proactively protecting all who enter Grand Traverse municipal buildings through a suite of actions rooted in a calm, science-based approach.
This approach has four main objectives, listed here in order of importance: engineering things people don’t see, monitoring people, disinfecting surfaces, and implementing consistent policies.
As a facilities manager, many of Berry’s heaviest hitting contributions are behind the scenes. COVID-19 particles are 0.33 nanometers in diameter, invisible to the naked eye, and do not float freely through the air. Instead, they are transmitted through relatively large droplets: 20 to 2,000 micrometers in diameter, 1,000 times larger than the viral particles themselves. Since these particles are airborne, indoor air quality is of utmost importance for facilities’ risk management. Therefore, Berry and his team invested up front in preventative maintenance technology to help create an environment most conducive to human respiratory health.
One of these behind-the-scenes risk management practices is responsible air filtration maintenance. Berry promotes the use of MERV-13 air filters in facility HVAC systems. MERV-13 air filters have the highest draw power to filtration ratio short of upgrading an entire system. These filters are checked once a month and are replaced quarterly regardless of wear and tear. If additional air filtration is needed, Berry swears by low-cost portable filtration systems, especially those with built-in UV lights that disinfect air as it moves around the space.
Berry’s team also regularly checks HVAC systems for obstructions, part of a larger effort to promote sufficient airflow in indoor spaces. Fresh air is naturally irradiated, so allowing it to flow from the outdoors throughout a space is a fantastic way to protect humans from a virus. As the weather becomes colder, however, leaving windows open is a less viable option. Berry uses an anemometer, a handheld device to monitor airflow within a space, to check for proper air balancing. A low-tech way to replicate an anemometer is to track the movement of a thin piece of paper placed against a vent or return. No movement reflects limited airflow, while a lot of movement means the system is functioning well.
The final behind-the-scenes engineering tools in Grand Traverse County’s toolbox are UV ceiling fixtures. This equipment is in the process of being installed in high-impact areas, such as medical buildings or the law enforcement weight room. Berry’s preferred model includes a UV-C disinfecting light flanked by two energy efficient LED lights. Twice a day, timed when no one is inside the room, the UV light will run for twenty minutes, long enough to kill all harmful bacteria and viral matter in the space. A motion sensor will ensure that the system automatically shuts off if it detects movement, and there is an audible and visual alarm to alert people that the disinfection process is underway. Most of the day, though, these contraptions will appear to be inconspicuous ceiling lights.
Proper filtration, air flow, and disinfection have benefits outside a pandemic scenario. Not only do they promote respiratory health, reduce the risk of disease transmission, and provide safe spaces for individuals with preexisting conditions like asthma, they also reduce smell. This makes spaces more pleasant and conducive to work, learning, and play. When an individual walks into one of Berry’s buildings, they might not mentally register all of the thoughtful work put into its maintenance, but they will feel it.
Of course, any technology is only as good as its users. Thus, actions such as limiting building occupancy and screening people before they enter facilities are an important component of Grand Traverse County’s COVID-19 response strategy. Employees, contractors, and members of the general public must answer a series of screening questions about their current health status before entering any County building; these questions are based on the CDC’s facility COVID-19 screening questions. Other widely established policies include mandating the use of masks in most facilities, providing hand sanitizer stations at facility entrances, and maintaining social distancing where possible.
For Berry, an important part of managing the interaction between people and the built environment is ensuring that they make decisions based on knowledge rather than fear. Given how rapidly government policies and facility management practices have changed over the past few months, it is unsurprising there is a substantial gap in knowledge between those implementing changes (facility managers, scientists, public agencies, etc.) and those who are affected by those changes (i.e. the general public). When Berry responds to people who have questions about his facility management policies, he uses simple language and a calm tone in order to placate their concerns. He has also found that visual metaphors are often an effective communication tactic because of their ability to simplify complex ideas. For example, Berry sometimes refers to the County’s preventative maintenance system as a “mask” for their buildings.
Disinfection is the third major element of Grand Traverse County’s regime. Berry is proud of the speed and efficacy of his EMist EPIX360 cordless electrostatic disinfectant sprayer, a cleaning tool which he fills with EPA-standard Husky 891 disinfectant. This powerful instrument uniformly covers surfaces in seconds. Once sprayed, disinfectant must be afforded an appropriate dwell time, or contact time, to remain wet on a surface while it goes to work. Using the associated EPA-N listed dwell time for a given product is a best to ensure the disinfectant is effective. Once that period ends, the disinfectant can either be wiped off with a clean towel or left to air dry.
Although the EMist is an optimal choice for disinfection, a standard spray bottle can work as long as it is used correctly, creating an even layer on all surfaces. It is most important to target commonly used facets of a facility or vehicle fleet such as door handles, desk space, and seats. Additionally, having a regimented disinfection routine is key; the more often spaces are cleaned, the better. Berry notes that a space is considered clean up until a person enters. Regardless of whether or not that individual has COVID, they carry with them a unique suite of germs that spread to everything they touch.
Finally, Berry’s office has made it a priority to ensure that COVID-19 policies in county facilities are consistent where possible. The importance of a consistent policy is perhaps best illustrated by highlighting what an inconsistent one looks like. In the aftermath of a Michigan Supreme Court ruling on October 2, 2020, a series of COVID-19 executive orders implemented by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the previous 6 months were rendered unenforceable. Even after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced several public health orders on October 5th intended to replace the governor’s executive orders, local governments and the general public are still left confused about how the state will handle the threat posed by COVID-19 going forward.
Unlike many other parts of the state, Grand Traverse County’s facilities are unaffected by these changes because the County has a consistent policy that is more stringent than the state’s original requirements. Consistency also helps make the County’s COVID-19 policy easier to implement, enforce, and explain to the general public. Going above and beyond the state’s requirements may yield other benefits as well, such as improved employee productivity and a reduction in malodors (e.g. in gyms or locker rooms).
Overall, Berry’s framework provides a valuable example of how facilities managers can have a major impact on COVID-19. SEEDS is in a unique position to act on his advice by managing our own facilities using similar best practices, recommending those best practices to our community partners (particularly schools), and informing the general public.
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