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

Darlene Bennett, right, speaking about her murdered husband Paul at a press conference in 2018. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Widow of Surrey murder victim seeking referendum vote on policing transition

Darlene Bennett files application with Elections BC seeking binding referendum vote

Canada’s Janet Leung steals second base during playoff action at the Softball Americas Olympic Qualifier tournament in South Surrey on August 31, 2019. Leung and her teammates have not been back to Softball City since, as the 2020 and now ‘21 Canada Cup tournaments have been cancelled. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck photo)
Canada Cup softball event cancelled for second straight year

Travel restrictions, health and safety concerns cited as reasons for cancellation

A Grade 8 student at L.A. Matheson Secondary. March 2021. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Teachers demand ‘urgent action’ as parts of Surrey see 20% positivity rate

26 schools in the hardest-hit region of the city had 105 exposure notices April 23-29

Children walk back to their classroom while wearing masks and physical distancing at St. Barnabas Catholic School in Scarborough, Ont., in October, 2020. A group of B.C. teachers has issued an open letter calling for the relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions for children in B.C. schools. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Group of B.C. teachers calls for easing of pandemic measures for students

Teacher group says ‘response to COVID is out of balance to the cost our youth are paying’

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains in the B.C. legislature, May 13, 2019. (Hansard TV)
VIDEO: B.C. to provide 3 days of sick pay for COVID-19 absences

Province will support employers on cost, labour minister says

RCMP. (Black Press File)
Major Crimes called in after two bodies discovered on remote road near Penticton

A manhunt involving a police helicopter took place on May 10

Boats in the Fraser River launched from Barrowtown and Ft. Langley on May 12 to search for the missing fisherman. (Steve Simpson)
Boats search the Fraser River for missing Abbotsford fisherman

Anyone with ‘a boat, time, or a drone’ to help bring Damian Dutrisac home was asked to help

Vancouver court on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Defence lawyers call foul as Crown counsel granted access to COVID-19 vaccines

Defence attorneys are pushing the province to extend inoculation access to workers in courtrooms across B.C.

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

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. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Fraser Health still unsure if 333 cases of COVID among students, teachers were acquired in school

88 cases of 267 cases the health authority considers to be school-acquired lead to spread outside of school

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. Indigenous leaders are calling for an investigation into the conduct of Mounties on Vancouver Island after two police shootings of members of a small First Nations community in three months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Indigenous leaders call for clarity, investigation into RCMP after B.C. shooting

The RCMP declined to comment on the requests by Indigenous leaders

Colleen Price, Vancouver Island University’s bachelor of science in nursing program chairperson, says she is impressed with how students have persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Next generation of B.C. nurses already showing resilience

University program head says learning had to be adjusted amidst pandemic

Most Read