Opportunity Is In The Air

Assuring clean air in buildings is becoming an essential service, and members can easily gain the tools to perform in-demand ventilation verification work. 

Jennifer Lohr worked 24-hour shifts to convert about 250 hospital rooms into negative airflow isolation spaces in Philadelphia hospitals during the onset of the pandemic. Almost overnight, the conversation about indoor air quality shifted into the mainstream. 

Now as vice president of Fisher Balancing Co. in Williamstown, New Jersey, ventilation is always her focus. Lohr’s work as a TABB- and NEBB-certified technician and project manager is centered on testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) systems — measuring and adjusting air and water flows to meet design requirements. 

As an air expert, she was an “essential worker,” as the Wall Street Journal highlighted when they shared her story. And across the board now there’s more of a spotlight on the fact that ventilation is, in fact, essential.

“Before, you would go into a building and you knew it had HVAC working because it was cool or warm,” Lohr relates. “You didn’t think about how the air was keeping you safe and whether it was properly filtered.” 

Today the world is remarkably different, and SMACNA is encouraging member contractors to do more than have an indoor air quality (IAQ) discussion with clients. Taking the minor step of adding ventilation verification awareness and certification to their service capabilities, contractors can tap into an opportunity market that’s well-funded and relatively easy to win new customers. Ventilation verification services also establish a direct connection between the building owner and contractor, deepening relationships with clients, and establishing long-term relationships that consistently generate revenue by providing services, enhancements and HVAC system replacements. 

“At baseline, we are what we breathe,” says Aaron Hilger, SMACNA CEO. “We learned from COVID that indoor air quality is important, especially over a sustained period of time, and there are steps building owners can take related to ventilation and CO2 levels to help people in their buildings be more productive and create better learning environments. COVID forced us to look at this as an industry and ask, ‘How can we do better for people who live, breathe and work in buildings all day?’”

The public might call this clean air. The industry now refers to it as improved ventilation. 

“It’s verification that an HVAC system is doing what it was designed to do,” says Tony Kocurek, president of Energy Balance & Integration and SMACNA. “Do outside air dampers open and close on command? Do economizer dampers open and close? Are fans performing as they were intended and designed? If they are belt-driven, are the belts tight enough to provide the drive to make fans work correctly?”

SMACNA contractors are already performing 90 percent of this physical assessment of systems, Kocurek says. “To help improve indoor air quality, our members should be comfortable having conversations about the broader aspects of indoor air quality directly with building owners,” he says.

This is why SMACNA, the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) and iTi created an IAQ-Ventilation Verification certification training so journeypersons and technicians can develop a foundational understanding of IAQ system mechanics. 

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” says Chris Ruch, director of education for the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI). “What this does for SMACNA contractors is offer ‘design to demo.’ Not only do contractors build the system, when they do a ventilation verification assessment, contractors build relationships with the building engineer, and they are in the right spot to get maintenance contracts and become much more involved with building operations.” 

Attention on Indoor Air Quality 
Ventilation verification opens up a well-funded and promising market for SMACNA contractors. There is $885 billion in recent federal funding and tax credits available to improve indoor air quality in buildings. As more information about IAQ, workplace productivity and learning environments is dispersed, the demand for ventilation verification will continue to increase.

Yet the barrier to entry to get involved and offer this service remains so low, every contract can offer this service regardless of how many employees they have. Ventilation verification training is pretty straight forward and contractors only need to train a few people to do the work to start. 

Austin Clark, air balance superintendent with ACCO Engineered Systems in Pasadena, California, shared the photos in this story as ventilation verification work his company has done under the California CalSHAPE program.

Interest in IAQ isn’t new and contractors already have all the knowledge they need to hit the ground running. Kocurek dials back to the 1970s energy crunch with a push toward improving system efficiency. “All of a sudden, building owners and schools and all kinds of institutions started looking at energy cost and how to reel it in,” he says. “Engineers started looking at designing systems with much closer tolerances, and that started the testing and balancing field.”

The shift was mostly cost-driven. 

Then with the waves of forest fires throughout California and the West, people became more aware of the harmful smoke and the need for cleaner air in buildings. “So that started another aspect of ventilation verification to go in and look at systems and make sure they are operating properly to filter out smoke and contaminants,” Kocurek relates. [See "Between the Lava and the Rain" on page 4 for related content.]

By doing this, contractors recognized that turning “off” the smoke-filled outside air does not benefit places like some hospital spaces that need positive pressure. “So, engineers started to design emergency-type systems to pull air from different areas and make pressurization work while keeping a good, clean environment,” he continues. 

Then COVID hit. “That opened up everyone’s eyes to the fact that indoor air quality is highly dependent on the mechanical systems that are supplying it,” Kocurek says. “That is the ventilation verification we are talking about today.”

Prior to the pandemic, SMACNA and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) were already looking at ways to forward the issue, Ruch says. NEMI collaborated with the University of California-Davis to write a white paper, "Proposed Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification Program," targeted toward schools. An updated version, which will include buildings, will be released May 1. 

“There is a key misconception among customers that if they purchase an efficient unit, it will work correctly,” Ruch says. “But the report’s outcomes show that within three years of units being installed in classrooms, only 15 percent were meeting minimum requirements for outside air.” 

Ruch adds, “For kids, if you have adequate ventilation rates, you can see up to a 15-percent increase in productivity and test scores. For adults, you get a lower amount because kids breathe in more air and weigh less, but adults at work  see a 4- to 7-percent increase.” 

So, there’s a marked economic impact when air quality meets or exceeds standards. 
Ventilation verification is a necessity because mechanical components in an HVAC system naturally wear down over time, and building use changes and maintenance can get put on the back burner. “We would find offices in a building where a storage room is now a workspace, and the airflow was not meant for that, or a classroom designed for 25 students now has 30,” Ruch explains. “It doesn’t mean you need to replace the unit; you just have to adjust it.” 

The Tools — Awareness & Certification 
Determining how the unit is currently operating and which adjustments are necessary is part of a ventilation verification assessment. SMACNA contractors can participate in a 45-minute online course called Ventilation Verification Awareness Training to get a general understanding of what it includes and associated resources. After completing the course, contractors can list their companies on SMACNA’s site, which is launching in April — www.wearewhatwebreathe.com — and NEMI’s site, www.betterairinbuildings.org. Both groups are raising awareness in the market for ventilation verification services, so it makes sense to list your company and your trained people on both sites. To add this service to SMACNA’s website, you just have to update your company profile and the profiles of the people who receive ventilation verification awareness training. “That way, customers can find you for work you already do,” Ruch says.

The awareness course is a primer for how to educate customers about indoor air quality and their HVAC systems and what resources are available to provide an extra level of service. 

Lohr compares this knowledge overview to buying a car at a dealership. “The salesman has never owned the car, but he’s taken it for a drive once or twice and can give you a basic understanding of what he knows about it,” she relates. “He didn’t build the car, but he can guide you in the right direction. So with that Ventilation Verification Awareness Training, the contractor can help the client understand our work better, and at least they know how to guide the next steps.” 

The California Schools Healthy Air, Plumbing and Efficiency Program (CalSHAPE) will provide funding to upgrade heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems in public schools.

Beyond that, SMACNA contractors can pursue IAQ-Ventilation Verification Certification at a technician or supervisor level. Essentially, the curriculum is based on the experience TAB contractors receive to test, adjust and balance systems, but it’s not nearly as detailed, Kocurek says. The program addresses the air quality aspects of TAB. It includes concepts such as filtration, ventilation rates, system components, air distribution and internal building pressure. 

“SMACNA contractors are involved in the design of the system, the construction and installation, but typically that is where a lot of them stop,” he says. “So, there is a market we have been neglecting with clients, and that is ensuring that the system you did install stays in proper operating condition.” 

A step up from the awareness training, IAQ-Ventilation Verification Certification involves about 24 hours of online training for technicians. The supervisor course is more business-focused, Ruch says. 

“On the technician side, certification is a stepping stone to get into more advanced service and control work,” Ruch says, noting that this knowledge is a foundation for TAB work. 

For supervisors, “It shows customers that ventilation verification is an integral part of the company and not dependent on a single, qualified technician,” he says. 

Design to Demo 
Do you have to be certified to perform ventilation verification work? Not in most places. 

“You only need to be certified if it’s required,” Ruch says. 

That said, states like California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have adopted various regulations related to how often systems are checked (every five years) and requiring certification to work on grant-related projects. 

Matt Sano, president, Fisher Balancing Co., explains that in his state of New Jersey, assistance dollars for air quality improvements in buildings are provided only when a certified contractor reviews the system, so there is a strong market driver in place. 

“We are going in, taking a series of readings to establish what they have presently, then they decide whether they need to implement changes,” he says. “Once changes are made and approved, they need readings from the final results. They do not get the grant money unless there is a document that proves proper ventilation. They want someone with a certification to take the readings, so they know there is third-party guidance.”

Meanwhile, Local 19 in New Jersey is pushing a House bill that will require annual ventilation verification, Sano says. In New Mexico, where Kocurek operates, House Bill 30, known as the Public School Ventilation Improvement Act, would require schools to get ventilation verification every five years. This is already in place in Connecticut.  

There federal dollars, legislation and demand for ventilation verification, and there’s no sign of the movement slowing down. 

“If you ask a building owner or a school, ‘Do you take care of the ventilation system?’ they will all tell you, ‘Absolutely!’” Ruch relates. “But like taking your car in for a 25-point inspection, you find out there are things wrong you didn’t know about.”

Those potential adjustments, repairs or replacements are real business opportunities for SMACNA contractors. As Sano says: “For those who get certification, it expands their business models and gives them opportunities to say, ‘We are qualified, and we can perform that,’”