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Maintenance matters when it comes to IAQ

September 19, 2010
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In the February issue of CM/Cleaning & Maintenance Management® magazine, the Facility Focus article “Your IAQ’s worst enemy could be your cleaning staff” discussed 10 common cleaning practices that can be adjusted to promote clean indoor air.

In the second of this two-part series on indoor air quality, we will turn our attention to 10 common maintenance practices that can be adjusted to maintain or improve the quality of the air occupants breathe in the facilities your maintenance staff services.

Healthy approach
Even in the best-run schools, universities, hospitals, or for that matter, any facility, indoor air quality (IAQ) problems can occur.

Regular cleaning and maintenance practices can reduce or eliminate the risk of common IAQ problems ever occurring.

Maintenance staff trained in IAQ practices can provide a safer and healthier work environment for all occupants.

This often results in lower absenteeism, a reduction of aggravated allergy and asthma symptoms, and an environment more conducive for work.

From a maintenance point of view, practices that lead to IAQ problems can occur due to oversight, failure to perform preventive maintenance, neglect, budget constraints, and lack of IAQ information/training.

So, as a building service contractor (BSC) or in-house facility director, simply ask yourself this question: Are you and your maintenance team up to the IAQ challenge?

Here are 10 common maintenance practices that can be adjusted to promote good IAQ:

Practice #1:
Responding to water damage or intrusion
How quickly do you respond to water damage?
  • First, repairing leaks or halting the intrusion of water is a must to prevent further damage. The longer water is allowed to drip, flow or flood from a fixture or leaky roof, the bigger the problem you have now and in the future. Water damage should be addressed within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth which will eventually impact air quality.
  • Dry out or remove porous materials that have been damaged by water. Porous materials (carpets, upholstered furniture, dry wall, ceiling tile, paper products and fabrics) that cannot be completely dried out within 48 hours should be permanently removed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an excellent drying guide for materials at:

Practice #2:
HVAC filter replacements
Come on, admit it. How often does your staff change filters on your HVAC units? You know you should on a regular basis, but it often doesn’t get done.
  • Filters should be changed according to manufacturer’s specification, generally every two to three marchs. More frequent changes may be required due to seasonal variations or climate conditions in certain areas of the country.
  • Clogged filters reduce energy efficiency, promote poor air circulation and can become a breeding ground for mold. Consider high efficiency filters for areas that generate a lot of dust or particles.
  • Change filters only when rooms are unoccupied. Individuals with asthma or dust allergies will thank you.

Practice # 3:
HVAC service, repairs
Are you proactive in preventing breakdowns in one of your facility’s most important components?
  • Regularly inspect and replace worn belts and cracked or broken parts.
  • Schedule lubrication or spraying of products into or around the HVAC during unoccupied periods. This will reduce the possibility of the product entering the air supply when the building is occupied.
  • Visually inspect drains pans and other accessible parts of the HVAC system for standing water, slime, dust, and dirt buildup marchly.

Practice #4:
Sources of contamination
Do delivery vehicles, school buses or other vehicles sit with their engines running near your air intakes?
  • If air intakes are located at the ground level, do not allow vehicles to idle within 30 feet of the intake. You may even want to consider suggesting to the powers-that- be that they impose a no-idling policy. This will help reduce the chances of vehicle exhaust and particulate matter entering through doors or air intakes at ground level.
  • Do not store chemicals or cleaning products near your HVAC units or other air returns and vents.
  • Educate your staff and building occupants about placing chemicals, trash cans, or animal cages near air returns.

Practice #5:
Air intakes, returns
When was the last time your maintenance staff checked on the status of your facility’s air intakes to see if they are blocked or in need of cleaning?
  • Verify air delivery by holding a piece of tissue or string at supply vents.
  • Have your staff locate all the air intakes in the buildings they service. They may be surprised to find one or two they didn’t know existed. Check to see if the have been painted over or blocked off.

Practice #6:
Visual inspections
How often do you conduct a visual inspection of the HVAC air intakes?
  • Now that you have found all your air intakes, make sure to conduct a visual inspection on a marchly basis of your outside air intakes and sewer vents. They should be free of debris, bird nests, and vegetation. Birds may not appreciate it, but the occupants will.

Practice #7:
Exhaust vents
Do odors travel from one room to another and then seem to linger forever?
  • First, check your exhaust vents to ensure they are working properly.
  • Next, on a regular basis, verify with a tissue, string, or smoke test that air is being drawn into exhaust vents in rooms serviced by an exhaust fan.

Practice #8:
Drain traps

What is that stinky smell?
  • Run or pour water down seldom-used drains on a weekly basis.
  • Consider using non-evaporative and biodegradable solutions especially designed for restroom traps and floor drains that keep traps full and block odors from returning.
  • Check condensation drains for HVAC units during the heating season to prevent sewer gas from backing up.

Practice #9:

When should painting be done?
  • Schedule painting activities on weekends, holidays, or after hours whenever possible and tell building occupants before you begin such a project.
  • Select low volatile organic compound (VOC) or no-VOC paints.
  • Follow manufacturer’s recommendations for ventilation when using paint or finish products.
  • Keep the HVAC system running to help prevent a buildup of odors overnight and weekends.

Practice #10:
Exterior maintenance

What’s going on outside may be just as important as what is happening inside your facilities when it comes to promoting good IAQ.
  • Slope landscape material away from the building to allow proper water drainage.
  • Monthly, check downspouts for leaks, proper connection, and direction away from the building. In the winter or during heavy periods of rain, check for blockages and other related problems before they go from small to big.
  • Eliminate spraying pesticides or using fertilizers near air intakes.
  • Mow around air intakes when the building isn’t occupied.
  • Remove mulch, which can harbor mold and bacteria, from around air intake areas.
  • Place dumpsters at least 30 feet away from air intakes.

Phyllis Filoso is a veteran earth science teacher who developed chemical sensitivities as a result of renovations and mold
in a school environment. She has since received IAQ certification from the International Indoor Air Quality Commission (IIAQC). Filoso is the founder of VP School Solutions, a company dedicated to providing information on best practices necessary to promote good IAQ, particularly in schools. She can be reached at

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