Annual budgeting for 2021 is underway for food companies and an item that should be listed as a higher priority is HVAC systems.
According to leading health professionals and the World Health Organization (WHO), “The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” Talking and breathing can also release droplets and particles into the air. Particles (aerosols) behave more like a gas and can travel through the air for longer distances, where they can settle on surfaces or transmit directly to people.
Researchers are finding a link between the spread of COVID-19 and poor ventilation. “Ventilation is the key control point for an airborne virus,” says Dr. Julian W. Tang, one of the authors of the paper that led to this change, according to the WHO. “Based on multiple studies done by the authors, we believe that optimized ventilation is the way to move forward, removing the virus from the air before people inhale it. We think that’s one of the main ways it’s transmitted.” – USA Today
HVAC systems can facilitate the spread of a disease or minimize transmission. Hospitals put a high priority on HVAC systems compared to other types of buildings to minimize the spread of diseases. The HVAC system recommendations from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) include maintenance of HVAC systems, changes in operation, and improvements in filtration.
Investing in out of sight systems
Historically, HVAC systems are low priority for capital funding for most food companies. Finding HVAC equipment beyond the normal service life is not unusual in a food plant. Capital spending priority is typically placed on conversions or assets that directly make products.
These HVAC systems were never designed to operate at these newly-recommended higher filtration requirements, higher recommended air flows, or increased ventilation standards to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Food plants, in most cases, have not looked at technology like Bipolar Ionization, UV-C lights, or other HVAC technologies used in other industries to purify air to a higher level to deter spread of illness. In many cases, the older HVAC equipment that was grandfathered does not meet pre-pandemic requirements.
HVAC systems are out of sight and out of mind, and may have been neglected due to staffing and budget cuts over the years—until they fail. With all of this going on, and because being a high hygienic environment is mission critical for a food manufacturing plant, HVAC is an area that food companies should look at investing in at this time.
Continuity of supply is the bottom line in the Food Industry
You may believe that the world will go back to the way things were pre-pandemic, or you may think the world is forever changed. My point of view is that this feels a lot like 1990 when food safety issues hit the industry. If you worked in the industry during this time, you remember an increase in regulatory requirements, good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and investments to improve sanitary design across the industry. At the time, I remember some people saying it was too much. Over 25 years later, the sanitary design changes and improvements are foundational to the food industry. While not everything stuck, much more did than the skeptics believed would.
My advice to food processor leaders is to look at your plants, evaluate the critical out of sight infrastructure assets in your organization, and decide if you can continue to defer replacing aging infrastructure.