FARGO – Poor air quality leads to poor health.

While this has always been the case, local businesses and commercial spaces are reassessing their heat, air ventilation and cooling systems due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fresh, clean air, it seems, has never been so important. It’s also top-of-mind for consumers who have been waiting to return to a sense of normalcy since March, but whom are now more cautious as to what viruses enclosed air might contain.

Bring on the fresh air and filters

Dave Obermiller, a mechanical engineer and owner of Mission Mechanical, 1816 4th Ave. N.W., West Fargo, has been touting the REME Halo air purification system, manufactured by RGF Environmental Group, Inc.

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The system has an ultraviolet light, important to kill what’s moving through the air stream, Obermiller said, and it also operates like a catalytic converter in a car.

Dave Obermiller of Mission Mechanical/Special to The Forum
Dave Obermiller of Mission Mechanical/Special to The Forum

“As air moves across this,” Obermiller said, “the light hits a metal with a special coating, and it turns into ionized hydro-peroxide.”

The changed water molecules in the air act as a powerful purification agent.

“This does something way different than just a filter does,” Obermiller said.

It wasn’t produced due to COVID-19, he said, and has been around for quite some time. While testing for the killing of the coronavirus hasn’t been done, one of the REME Halo’s uses pre-COVID was for allergy prevention in homes.

“This kills a lot of stuff,” Obermiller said.

There are many factors a business has to look at when it comes to reopening during the pandemic, Obermiller said, and just as many state, federal, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to adhere to.

Ventilation is definitely one of them.

“Ventilation systems are something that they are supposed to make sure are up and operational and bringing in as much outdoor air as possible for the equipment that’s existing.”

Labby’s Grill & Bar, 1100 19th Ave. N., went with REME Halo air purifiers for its two HVAC systems.

 A REME HALO air purification system has been installed at Labby's Grill & Bar in north Fargo.
David Samson / The Forum
A REME HALO air purification system has been installed at Labby's Grill & Bar in north Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Owner Dan Labernik said through a conversation with a friend, a lot of research, and a desire to make his customers’ experiences safer and better, especially due to the pandemic, he decided it would be best.

It changes the indoor air every five minutes and 45 seconds.

“For lack of a better term it’s a no-brainer,” Labernik said.

The system, he said, is legitimate and from a reputable manufacturer.

“They know what they’re doing,” he said. “This stuff has been installed in military bases. It’s what the military uses to make the purest, cleanest air. So, it must work.”

If it’s good enough for the military, he said, it’s more than ideal for his 5,000 square-foot bar and grill, which seats 287 at full capacity, but half of which have been removed since the pandemic hit.

The REME Halo is a small business and residential system, Obermiller said, and it’s also available, which isn’t always the case these days.

Back orders, it seems, are the new normal.

“If you want to get the commercial systems, it’s something like 90 days after you put in the order,” Obermiller said.

The installation of the REME Halo is only one of a number of safety measures Labernik has taken at Labby’s.

“Since the pandemic started we’ve been doing everything we possibly can,” Labernik said, “as far as using different sanitation products, everything that will clean and disinfect.”

It’s about more than COVID-19

RJ Energy Solutions, 1854 NDSU Research Circle N., aims to make their customers’ buildings healthier and more efficient, said President Russell Shell, and more and more businesses are seeking out services due to the pandemic.

Pretty much every HVAC system has what’s called an economizer, he said, which allows fresh outside air to come inside the building. At the same time, it exhausts the old air from inside.

“I’d say probably 60% of these systems are not set up correctly,” Shell said.

Many times, he said, the ventilation systems get overlooked, even though their function in heavily-congregated areas is critically important. When a lot of people come together, he said, carbon dioxide levels spike.

“That CO2 level is what holds onto the cold and flu viruses,” Shell said. “Of course, now we’ve got COVID.”

The less circulation a commercial space has, he said, makes the rate of catching a virus exponentially higher. That’s why a CO2 monitoring system is of the highest importance. Getting more fresh air when CO2 levels get higher is a key aim of ventilation systems.

“That’s how we keep that area a little bit more healthy for people,” he said.

RJ Energy Solutions has been monitoring the effects of CO2 levels in large spaces for two decades, and they’ve found air quality has a direct correlation to how alert, less sleepy, and healthy people are.

“Even if it wasn’t for COVID-19, we’d still want to try to continue to bring in fresh air,” Shell said.

Upgrades and replacements in ventilation can be a big investment, he said, but he urged folks to check their systems, especially their economizers, to make sure they’re working properly.

Fresh air is critical.

It can be especially inefficient in a raw, cold air climate like Fargo.

“But, if you do it correctly, you can just open those dampers, just a little bit, to get some fresh air coming in,” Shell said.

There are simple tips

KAI, a national design and build firm providing delivery-oriented building solutions, suggests some simple tips for businesses to address when it comes to air quality in commercial buildings:

  • Improve ventilation
  • Improve filtration
  • Improve air distribution patterns
  • Improve temperature and humidity
  • Utilize Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) Light or Bipolar Ionization (BPI)

KAI’s Enterprises Managing Partner Brad Simmons said well-designed buildings can lead to better health of a business and its employees.

Brad Simmons of KAI/Special to The Forum
Brad Simmons of KAI/Special to The Forum

“Well-designed buildings breeds a healthy business,” Simmons said. “Many companies, especially larger companies, really focus on looking at things like insurance costs, looking at how they can do things that moderate sickness to employees. It also increases productivity.”

That was true before the pandemic, he said, and it’s even more relevant now.

“I think that’s been a mindset change over the past few years,” he said. “Health and wellness of employees is number one.”

Simmons also cautioned that HVAC systems are only one piece of a larger set of design elements. It goes hand-in-hand with physical spacing of people, touchless technology in bathrooms and common areas, just to cite a few examples.

It will require a careful look at everything from architecture to local building codes, reminding him of the push in the early 1990s when the Americans with Disabilities Act was implemented.

“I think this is going to look similar, but it’s going to be about health versus accessibility,” Simmons said. “I think this could be the ADA of our generation.”