Ventilation is the unseen hero of keeping attendees healthy at conferences and trade shows. What advances have been made at convention centers during the pandemic to improve ventilation?
It’s called hygiene theater — safety procedures that entail cleaning surfaces that look good to attendees but don’t do much to reduce the risk of catching Covid or other airborne viruses. What’s the harm? The cleaner a facility, the better, right?
That’s not the case, according to experts. Instead, these activities often take attention and resources away from protocols that help stop the spread of airborne viruses — things like wearing masks, proper distancing, and, most importantly, proper ventilation.
“Deep cleaning is not the answer. Ventilation and filtration are needed,” said Linsey C. Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Marr studies infectious diseases and how airborne diseases spread within facilities.
Meeting designer and author Adrian Segar also feels there is a lack of attention paid to venue ventilation. In an article posted on his website, he wrote, “It’s important to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle viruses.”
Studies show that air stagnation can concentrate airborne viruses, and keeping indoor air as refreshed as possible is essential. In addition, increased ventilation helps improve air quality.
Jessica Cooper, the chief commercial officer of the International WELL Building Institute, advises planners to ask the facilities where they host events how adequate ventilation will be provided. She also stresses the importance of proper air filtration and ensuring documentation of the installed filters’ maintenance protocol.
When choosing a venue for your gathering, ask if it is registered as a Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR facility. This designation helps facilities vet cleaning, disinfection, and infection prevention offerings for scientific validity, safety, usability, practicality, and efficacy.
To ensure the safety of attendees, here is some basic information about the systems that facilities offer to provide healthy ventilation.
HVAC and HEPA Filters
What is an HVAC system? HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) is the system that regulates and move air throughout a facility. Convention centers need specialized HVAC and ventilation systems to keep guests safe and comfortable. Convention centers also have make-up air units, which introduce fresh replacement air into a space to “make-up” for the air that is exhausted.
What is a HEPA filter? HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) is a type of air filter that removes dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns.
The effectiveness of both HVAC systems and HEPA filters is greatly enhanced when combined with UV disinfection systems. According to Dan Diehl, CEO, and president of Aircuity, a company that specializes in creating healthy indoor environments, ultraviolet light will kill microorganisms on the HVAC coil and on the HEPA filter keeping both systems clean and more efficient. “Viruses can be spread in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, so it is a priority to limit these as much as possible,” Diehl said.
The CDC also has guidelines for ventilation in buildings that meeting and event planners can use when talking to facility management about establishing protocols for an event. Some of these guidelines include:
- Increase outdoor air by opening windows and doors when the weather allows, and open air dampers beyond minimum settings to reduce or eliminate HVAC air recirculation.
- Use fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows. Window fans placed safely and securely in a window will exhaust room air to the outdoors. For larger venues, ask about gable fans or roof ventilators.
- Improve central air filtration by ensuring air filters are appropriately sized and within the recommended service life.
- Consider HEPA filters and portable HEPA air cleaners. Also, ask if the venue has invested in HEPA fan/filtration systems to enhance air cleaning.
- Consider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after the building is occupied in non-residential settings.