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07.06.2005, 19:17

Breath of fresh air

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Kelvin Bruce, managing director of EPSCO, highlights the vital link between cleanliness of air conditioning systems and indoor air quality.

Good indoor air quality is largely dependent on the design and cleanliness of air conditioning systems. Kelvin Bruce, managing director of EPSCO, highlights some of the issues to consider in the Gulf climate.

HVAC duct cleaning
IMPERATIVE: HVAC cleaning reduces the number of sick days taken by staff members

Over the past few years, we have seen massive developments in the GCC construction industry, prompting many prospective buyers to ask questions. These questions will differ depending on whether it is a family buying a house or apartment or a businessman setting up a new facility. Let us look at the way we live and where we choose to live.

We spend over 90 per cent of our time indoors being kept comfortable by air conditioning systems. These systems are the lungs of the building to provide us cool, clean, fresh air for our comfort and health. We assume that the air coming out of the vents is clean though, in fact, the systems, new or old, are rarely if ever cleaned.

New buildings are often constructed during the summer time when temperatures and humidity are unbearable. During the construction phase, the air conditioning system is often running while final works are being done. These include the painting of walls and ceilings where filler is put into cracks and levelling is done to remedy defects; extensive sandpapering is done to give a smooth finish for painting; marble floors are often polished; and grouting is applied between ceramic tiles.

As a result, during cleaning a lot of the dust from these jobs finds its way into the AC system. This dust settles on the bottom of the ducting and is often a millimetre in depth. Over a short period of use by the occupier, this dust layer becomes solidified into a honeycomb structure that is a perfect home for mould and bacteria. This has a detrimental effect on the health of the building’s occupants and inevitably leads to a greater number of sick days taken by staff members.

GCC buildings are being built higher and higher, while many are being built on or near a waterfront or around man-made lakes and ponds. High-rise buildings, unlike individual houses, are designed to be slightly pressurised to keep out the hot humid air when doors are opened to enter the building – revolving doors help keep in the pressure. However, nature, as always, has its way and the laws of physics dictate that hot goes to cold and wet goes to dry. This can easily be demonstrated when you take a shower: the moisture will condense on the mirror or any cold surface as well as migrate to the adjoining room that is cooler and drier, we normally minimise this by using an extractor fan in the bathroom.

Kelvin Bruce
Kelvin Bruce

It is imperative that the air conditioning system is designed correctly and cleaned and maintained properly.

In short, the hot humid air of the Gulf wants to come into the buildings. It is imperative that the air conditioning system is designed correctly and cleaned and maintained properly. When selecting a property near or even over the water, the problem of moisture becomes even more critical and it is very likely that many properties will face condensation and mould problems. When balcony doors or windows are left open, the hot humid air enters and will condense on cool surfaces to provide the appropriate level of moisture for mould growth.

Mould spores are everywhere and cannot be eradicated. Mould grows usually in temperatures ranging from five to 38 degrees Celsius and requires more than 60 per cent relative humidity. The key to mould growth is moisture, without which mould will not grow. It is a well documented fact that mould is a major contributing cause of poor indoor air quality and many related illnesses including asthma and sick building syndrome. The AC system, especially the condenser coil, needs to be properly cleaned to prevent mould and bacteria forming a bio-film that grows within the coil and distributing mould and bacteria spores the whole time the AC system is running. Have you ever wondered why we get frequent coughs and colds in March and April ? Well this is what happens: during winter time we shut down or reduce the use of AC and existing mould can multiply at an alarming rate. As soon as we turn the system on in the spring, there are millions more spores that invade our bodies, which in turn makes us sick. This sickness is usually blamed on the change in weather and not on the real culprit, which is the AC system.

This can easily be solved by a professional cleaning of the coils. Enzyme-cleaning products are far more effective than acid or alkaline cleaners and do not damage the environment. It is also advisable to have the ducts periodically inspected by professionals using robotic cameras to see inside the ducts. This ensures there is no contamination that can cause health problems.

Asthma is a disease without a cure, and is one of the most rapidly growing illnesses in the world. We can, however, control the conditions that trigger attacks, and indoor environments account for about half of the triggers – many others are food-related. The most common 

problems in the indoor environment relate to dust mites in beds, pillows, upholstery and carpets. And air conditioning systems blowing mould spores or bacteria out of the vents.

I would ask you one question: would you consider never cleaning your carpets or rugs for years and years? Or never washing the clothes you wear or the sheets you sleep on? Of course the question is absurd but let me ask another question. Air ducts are out of sight and out of mind but have you ever looked inside your AC ducts or had your AC system and ducts inspected by a professional IAQ expert? I would expect the answer is no but its probably a good time to start, whether you are buying a new house or are moving into new office premises.

You have the right to breathe clean healthy air. It should be compulsory that all AC systems are cleaned from new and regularly cleaned to prevent the spread of allergens, mould and bacteria. You might want to ask your property developer or future landlord for a certificate of cleanliness or get a proper inspection done independently. After all is said and done, it is the air you breathe that can keep you and your business healthy, or make you and your staff sick.

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