As America ventures into pandemic reopenings, something new is in the air along with the now classic hygiene talk about hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing. Anti-virus additions to air conditioning and heating systems are the next wave of the pandemic strategy as people gather inside buildings where virus particles may float around for extended periods.

From restaurants to art classrooms, MARTA offices to schools, building managers are looking at tactics that range from blowing in more fresh air to adding possibly virus-scrubbing filters or COVID-killing ultraviolet lights.

A REME HALO ionizing air purifier, like those St. Martin’s Episcopal School says it has installed, as seen on the website of manufacturer RGF Environmental Group.

Like many social aspects of the pandemic, the HVAC battlefront is a case of COVID-19 adding momentum to pre-existing shifts in the way life and business work. HVAC companies already saw a future focus in cleaning indoor air, says Chris Marek, CEO of the AIR Company of Georgia, a Buckhead-based heating, air conditioning and refrigeration contractor.

“I think that the industry trend is moving more towards proper indoor air quality and best practices,” said Marek, whose company has installed COVID-combatting additions to systems in a school and other facilities. “I think the broader conversation should be about improving the indoor air quality.”

CDC guidelines

Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have had HVAC guidelines related to COVID-19, which also refer to recommendations from ASHRAE, an international industry-standards group headquartered in Brookhaven.

Some of the recommendations are relatively simple ventilation improvements, like increasing the amount of outdoor air by opening windows or boosting the capacity of an air-conditioning system. Extending the hours of operation of the HVAC system so that air is more diluted when occupants arrive is another strategy.

In higher-risk areas, the CDC has recommendations that are more like systems used by hospitals. The CDC says portable HEPA filters that can filter out tiny particles could be useful. The CDC also suggests considering virus-killing ultraviolet lights for installation in the ceiling to treat upward-flowing air.

Another suggestion is internal airflow from “clean” to “less-clean” areas, meaning that occupied areas get fresh or filtered air, which is then directed to other parts of the building.

Marek said still other forms of technology are available, such as ionizers that electronically charge air molecules so that viruses or pollutants will be attracted to them and thus are filtered out.

In practice, the use of any or all of these techniques varies greatly by the type of building and HVAC system. Marek said there’s no “cookie-cutter” approach — and no simple price tag, either.

“You really have to take a bespoke approach to this,” Marek said. “You have to take a look at, what do they currently have, what’s the best practice around what they have, and meeting them where they are.”

The CDC and ASHRAE say that all hygiene precautions should be used together against COVID-19. Like any given strategy, HVAC changes can only reduce the risk of catching the disease, not eliminate it completely.

“…As a profession, we don’t guarantee or make any sort of overture that this is going to prevent anyone from getting sick. I think that’s really important that they understand that,” said Marek.

Tactics of local businesses, institutions

Several local businesses and institutions are already trying various HVAC tactics.

Dunwoody’s Spruill Center for the Arts announced Aug. 17 that it had installed a “medical-grade filtration system” to clean the air in its classrooms. The H13 filters “remove 99.9% of air particles,” the center said in a press release.

“We are committed to providing a safe space for our staff and students,” said Spruill CEO Alan Mothner in the release. “Implementing the air purification system is an added level of safety we felt was necessary.”

Ray’s on the River, a cornerstone of Sandy Springs’ restaurant scene, installed ultraviolet lights in its air conditioning system all the way back in March as the pandemic began, according to owner Ray Schoenbaum. He told the Reporter in July that the move was made largely to give customers a sense of security.

“That’s one of the things we did over and above that we didn’t have to do [under state safety rules]…,” said Schoenbaum. “We owe it to [customers] to do absolutely everything we can to make them feel comfortable.”

MARTA announced Aug. 13 that its Board of Directors approved an $850,000 project to add ionizers to air conditioning systems in various offices, including the transit agency’s Buckhead headquarters. The “NeedlePoint Bi-Polar Ionization” system is made by a North Carolina company called Global Plasma Solutions.

“These filters are one part of the safety protocol we’ve developed,” said MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker in a press release. “Those employees who are able to continue productively working from home are encouraged to do so, but we want to ensure that anyone who must work in or visit our facilities remains healthy.”

Air quality in schools has become a pressing issue as some have returned in-person — and some around metro Atlanta quickly saw COVID-19 outbreaks.

St. Martin’s Episcopal School, a private pre-K through 8th grade school in Brookhaven that has returned to in-person classes, installed ionization devices in its HVAC system, according to a pandemic preparation document on its website. The REME HALO product is made by a Florida company called RGF Environmental Group.

Local public school districts were in different stages of consideration as they all launched with virtual-only classes. The school systems in DeKalb and Fulton counties were starting with improved ventilation, while an Atlanta Public Schools spokesperson said, “We are reviewing all of our HVAC and ventilation options and protocols at this time.”

“The Dekalb County School District is following recommendations from the CDC and ASHRAE to introduce more fresh air into our HVAC systems for students returning to our schools,” said a district spokesperson. “We will also be increasing the frequency of filter changes, preventative maintenance and system cleaning.”

The Fulton County School System is also reviewing CDC and ASHRAE guidelines, according to spokesperson Shumuriel Ratliff.

“We have adjusted our HVAC systems to extend hours of operation to dilute possible contaminates,” said Ratliff. “We are moving towards higher efficacy air filtration on all our HVAC systems. Ultraviolet (UV) air disinfection devices are being evaluated for their cost and effectiveness.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.