HPAC Magazine

Growing Your Business: Particulate Profiling

The merits of offering IAQ assessments and particulate counts to commercial and residential customers.

November 1, 2012   By Colin Plastow

You have probably heard mould referred to as the “new asbestos” within the HVAC/R industry. Concern about mould and its health effects is driving consumers to have their indoor air quality (IAQ) situation assessed and, if necessary, repaired. If you are the contractor they call, keep in mind that mould is not the only issue to consider when assessing the IAQ of a commercial building or residence. Many different kinds of particulates in a work or living environment can cause sick building syndrome and aggravate allergy and respiratory conditions.

IAQ has generated so much awareness that you may want to consider offering IAQ assessments and particulate counts to all of your customers as an extra service – similar to a mechanic charging for a diagnostic check. If you can present a convincing case, many facilities managers and homeowners will agree that measuring particulate pollutants, such as plant pollen, animal dander, fiberglass, combustion particles or airborne bacteria, is important.

With a particulate counter, you will also be able to present real data in support of any repair or purchasing recommendations you make. Taking before and after particulate readings can be an especially powerful way to win customers and build word of mouth about your service.

The first step is to understand how indoor air quality relates to HVAC systems. The second step is deciding what tools you need. Once you have the tools, start measuring and learn how to interpret the data. Soon, you will be ready to offer a complete IAQ assessment, including particulate profiling.

Step 1: How IAQ analysis and particulate profiling fits into HVAC systems

Consider something as simple as a 10 per cent leak rate in the return duct system (not uncommon in residential construction) in an attic crawl space. Now, consider the dust and other particulate levels in that crawl space. And, finally, imagine the amount of particulates being distributed throughout the ducts in the home.

It is not just door openings, or air seeping in around windows and other small openings that affect IAQ. Dust and other contaminants can be constantly introduced into the living space due to leaks and other HVAC system malfunctions and it is not just return ducts. Duct systems within the conditioned envelope are just as susceptible to IAQ issues.

IAQ inspections are built on exactly that kind of HVAC knowledge. Using your knowledge of how HVAC systems are designed and how the design can be compromised on installation, as well as where those systems can break, will help you track down where air quality pollutants may be coming from. On the flip side, air quality data provides the means to track whether the HVAC system is working the way it should.

Step 2: What tools do you need?

To conduct a complete IAQ investigation, you need to measure temperature, humidity and particulates at a minimum. That is because temperature and humidity can take a regular particle count and magnify it times ten, by giving certain contaminants like mould a welcoming environment. That makes the handheld multi-channel particle counters a practical tool for the job.

A particle counter senses, sizes, and counts the particles passing through it. Multi-channel refers to how many different sizes of particles the tool can measure. Knowing the breakdown of particle sizes is essential to diagnose what is polluting customers’ air (mould particles are different sizes than dust, for example), to trace particles to their source, or to verify that a fix has really lessened the count of particles.

Handheld is also an important distinction, since some higher-end models are meant to be installed for long-term monitoring.

Step 3: Making the measurements

To conduct an IAQ inspection, get a map of the HVAC system, as installed and use that to create an inspection route. Plan to take temperature, humidity and particle samples in every zone of the building, especially in any areas where there have been complaints, as well as outside the building, as a baseline. Within each zone, take a measurement in the middle of the space as well as near the air intakes, outlets, and any other HVAC system elements. Make particular note to measure both upstream and downstream at any HEPA filters.

Also use your own senses. Look for signs of moisture leaks, smell the air for mould and ask the people who frequent each area if they have experienced anything different, such as smells, headaches, or eye irritation.

Do not be intimidated by particulate counters – newer models designed specifically for HVAC technicians are easy to use. As you take your samples, use the labelling feature on the particle counter to identify samples taken from different rooms, the particle counting mode, air sampling volume and time.

Once you have collected data, compare the counts in each area against the baseline and between each other. You should see patterns develop. When you detect a high-volume area, see if it is just one particle size or several, and think about what kinds of contaminants could be involved. Then, compare the particle counts to air flow balancing in the building. Always remember to take readings of the outside air in order to make meaningful comparisons with the particle levels indoors.

If you think the system itself is transporting contaminants, consider whether to propose re-balancing the existing system or adding a mechanical solution, such as dehumidifiers or a better filter. Sometimes the solution can even be as simple as blocking off a room or identifying problematic behaviour.

Step 4: Offering IAQ services

The easiest way to integrate indoor air quality and particulate testing into your business is to start with customers who are already sensitive to air quality. The first time you describe IAQ to a customer, come prepared to describe how poor air quality could affect that customer’s facility, from employee health issues and product contamination to the maintenance costs and energy expenditure related to inefficient HVAC and aging filters.

Customers with HEPA filters installed will especially appreciate your knowledge of ASHRAE 52.2. That standard spells out the testing requirements that manufacturers follow to verify filter performance before sale. As an HVAC technician with a particle counter, you can use the standard as a guideline for testing installed filters, so that customers know how efficiently their filters are removing particles and whether they are due for replacement. Particulate profiling is now recommended in the latest NADCA ACR 2005 standard.

It is one thing to mention the importance of ASHRAE guidelines to a customer when selling a necessary duct renovation or other repairs, but it is another thing altogether to back that explanation up with particulate measurements and an air quality evaluation.

Next, start offering IAQ inspections and particle counts as part of a standard “seasonal start-up” maintenance check. Charge for a building or home evaluation in which a particle counter is used.

Make sure customers understand that IAQ analysis and particulate profiling is an above-average service that requires specialized training and tools. Just by offering the service, you take your organization to a higher level of professionalism and customer service. Your recommendations now come with supporting data, assuring the customer that you are making the right suggestions on equipment selection, installation, and repair. <>

Colin Plastow is industrial product manager with Fluke Electronics Canada, where he brings his expertise in electronic test and measurement to customers in high-tech and industrial markets. He may be contacted at colin.plastow@fluke.com.

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