Timberline Blog

How an Effective HVAC System Reduces the Risk of Sick Building Syndrome

October 30, 2023 by Timberline

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes sick building syndrome (also called tight building syndrome) this way: “The term sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health- or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building. No specific illness or cause can be identified. The complainants may be localized in a particular room or zone or may be widespread throughout the building.”

If the consequences of this condition were limited to comfort-related concerns and less tangible, it would still be vital to address them. However, sick building syndrome’s acute health effects can take a significant toll on employees and the companies that employ them.

The documented consequences of failing to address sick building syndrome include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity
  • Reputational damage
  • Hiring and retention difficulties

workers reviewing hvac system and blueprints

Sick Building Syndrome Symptoms

The first challenge in addressing sick building syndrome is identifying it since the symptoms may be subtle initially. They may often mimic those of colds and allergies, which makes it more difficult to determine the cause.

However, the symptoms tend to intensify and become more widespread over time and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can include:

  • Nose, throat and eye irritation
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Dry cough
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Sensitivity to odors
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Irritability

When these symptoms are present, have no apparent cause, and typically resolve after people leave the facility, they are likely due to sick building syndrome. Another indicator is that the symptoms return or worsen following a weekend away, which is why the condition is sometimes called Monday fever.

What Causes Sick Building Syndrome?

Many people in the U.S. spend around 90% of their working hours inside a building. Consequently, it is not surprising that the conditions in those environments can significantly affect health and wellness.

Experts and researchers believe that sick building syndrome is caused by poor indoor air quality (IAQ). In particular, the rates at which materials release contaminants and the HVAC system assists in their removal are critical.

Because these contaminants typically cannot be seen, smelled, or otherwise detected by workers, sick building syndrome may persist until physical illnesses and operational challenges (like absenteeism) reach a critical point.

What specific substances contribute to sick building syndrome? There are many, but some of the most common include:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Ozone from devices like printers
  • Pesticides
  • Asbestos
  • Chemicals in pressed wood and other manufactured products
  • Airborne dust and other particulate matter

It is virtually impossible to prevent exposure to all of the above substances and others that can cause or aggravate sick building syndrome symptoms. However, a well-designed and well-maintained HVAC system can make a significant difference.

How HVAC Systems Improve Indoor Air Quality

The role of HVAC systems in heating and cooling indoor environments is widely known. What many people don’t realize is that these systems are also essential in maintaining good indoor air quality.

They serve that role in multiple ways, including:

  • Circulating air within a building. Contaminants are most dangerous when they are allowed to concentrate and remain in an area where people are working. HVAC systems support the regular movement and circulation of air throughout a building. This action, combined with the inflow of outdoor air through doors, windows and other openings in a building’s “envelope,” helps ensure people are exposed to fewer particles and airborne chemicals.
  • Filtering indoor air. In heating and cooling air, HVAC systems move it through filters that can remove airborne particles. The amount of material extracted depends on the types of filters used. But the air is always cleaner when it leaves the HVAC system than when entering it.
  • Humidifying the environment. HVAC systems can assist with achieving and maintaining appropriate indoor air humidity levels. While you do not want your building interior to feel humid or “muggy,” ensuring there is a certain amount of moisture in the air is crucial. Proper humidity can reduce nose and throat irritation, minimize the incidence of uncomfortably dry skin, etc.

In short, when an HVAC system is functioning correctly, it can greatly improve indoor air quality.

A Customized HVAC System Is Essential

Just having an HVAC system (as virtually every commercial and industrial space does) improves indoor air quality. However, a system can deliver the most improvement in IAQ when it is tailored to the facility.

Every building has a unique combination of physical layout, ductwork and other infrastructure, business uses, and staff deployment. Consequently, there is no single HVAC system design that meets all requirements.

To maximize the benefits to your employees, business partners and customers or clients that visit your building, you need a customized solution. Ideally, that solution is implemented when the structure is built. But you can also make improvements when updating your HVAC system.

Ongoing HVAC System Maintenance Is Vital to Indoor Air Quality

Implementing an effective commercial or industrial HVAC system is not a one-and-done proposition. It is the start of an ongoing commitment to good indoor air quality. To meet that commitment, you have to keep your system operating effectively.

Arranging for regular service and preventative maintenance is essential. So is promptly addressing any issues that you or your technician discover. This approach reduces the risk of sick building syndrome and provides additional benefits.

Specifically, ensuring that your HVAC system is cared for properly leads to fewer breakdowns, lower repair expenses when issues arise and extended life for system components. It all adds up to a lower total cost of ownership on your HVAC system and more money dropping to your bottom line.

Suspect You May Be Experiencing Sick Building Syndrome? Timberline Mechanical Can Help.

If the people who work in your building are reporting symptoms consistent with sick building syndrome, there are many steps you should take. One is having your HVAC system inspected, serviced and repaired if needed. From there, regular preventative maintenance is also recommended.

Many issues can factor into sick building syndrome, so it is important to identify them all. However, ensuring your commercial or industrial HVAC system is functioning properly to help you manage indoor air quality is essential.

Contact Timberline Mechanical at your convenience to learn more about our commercial and industrial HVAC services.

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