It's a strange new world for the hospitality industry.
Where once a hotel or restaurant was measured on its ability to deliver a high-quality experience, now the customer’s No. 1 priority is that the establishment does everything possible to keep them out of harm’s way.
So, forget securing a ranking for providing an exquisite dining experience in the Michelin Guide. The days of vying to deliver the best food and service in town have diminished for now. What customers really want to know is – “Will you keep me safe?”
It’s not that businesses aren’t trying. They have been carefully following their local and national public health guidelines, investing in personal protective equipment for staff, installing plexiglass at the points of customer contact, and disinfecting surfaces whenever they can.
Curbing Airborne Transmission
While social distancing, masks and disinfectants can reduce the transmission of COVID-19, they unfortunately cannot stop “airborne” transmission of the virus. This refers to tiny respiratory droplets of COVID-19 that can remain suspended in the air rather than fall to the ground as larger droplets do. These “droplet nuclei” can remain in a room with stagnant air for hours or be spread throughout a sealed building with an HVAC system that only recirculates that same stale air.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently revised its guidance on COVID-19 infections stating that airborne transmission of the virus is a risk, especially in indoor, crowded and unventilated spaces. WHO was responding to a letter signed by 239 medical and indoor air quality experts who believe that the virus can be transmitted simply from people breathing and talking inside buildings.
With all this changing advice from public health agencies, what’s a restaurant or hotel operator to do?
Prioritize your goals first. Customer reassurance is key to any successful reopening. This means reducing risk wherever you can. This should include improving indoor air quality.
Optimize Air Quality
For optimum air quality, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends 17 cubic feet per minute (CFM) outside air per person.
This means that, with respect to the number of times the air enters and exits the room in an hour, ASHRAE’s guidelines are:
- Restaurant dining rooms: 8 – 10 per hour
- Food staging areas: 10 – 12 per hour
- Kitchens: 14 – 18 per hour
- Bars: 15 – 20 per hour
Indoor relative humidity is critical as well. Relative humidity is defined as “the ratio of the amount of water vapor actually present in the air to the greatest amount possible at the same temperature.” Maintaining humidity levels either too low or too high can have detrimental effects on indoor air quality.
According to ASHRAE, indoor relative humidity levels should be maintained between 40% and 60%. This is the optimal zone for both human comfort and indoor air quality, as various bacteria and viruses can thrive both above and below that zone.
The use of filters can also contribute greatly to improving overall indoor air quality and should be part of a mitigation strategy to reduce the risk of airborne particles such as COVID-19, although it must be combined with other ventilation measures to offer the most benefit.
ASHRAE recommends using filters rated MERV-13 at a minimum, or the highest rating compatible with the ventilation system’s filter rack. Under the current conditions with COVID-19, filters should be changed more frequently than standard maintenance routines recommend as well for maximum effectiveness.
It’s a good idea to make sure the filtration technology you choose has been approved to enhance air quality in settings where people work, such as hospitals. Some technologies, such as UV light or ionization technology, have not been approved by the EPA for use where people congregate.
Your HVAC unit is a critical infrastructure component for maintaining comfort as well as indoor air quality for your customers and staff. To avoid unexpected outages and repair bills, maintenance on your HVAC unit should be done according to manufacturer recommended standards and not according to as-needed breakdown requirements.
It sounds like a lot of time and effort to implement these measures. However, with new cloud-based technologies, these measures can be done with little if any interaction with HVAC systems by management or staff.
Cloud-based energy management solutions already in use by major restaurant chains and other businesses are being applied to continuously measure, monitor and control HVAC systems to ensure indoor air quality.
These solutions use data from onsite humidity and air quality sensors to remotely optimize ventilation and building airflow in real time via smart thermostats. This managed airflow can also be used to drive airborne contaminants to hospital-grade air filtration systems that kill dangerous pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease.
As people prepare to return to the “new normal,” they will be looking for clear evidence that the restaurants and hotels they are visiting are safe to enjoy themselves in, and that all recent health guidelines are being followed.
That’s why you should consider featuring signage that’s visible from both outside and inside your establishment as well as on your website to reassure customers that you are adhering to the most recent indoor air quality guidance, possibly even displaying real-time indoor air quality data.
It should be noted that ventilation and filtration are not magic wands – all the other recommended risk mitigation strategies such as wearing masks and physical distancing are important as well. The best risk reduction is to combine them with cleaner indoor air.
In this new era, businesses that understand how to keep customers safe -- and effectively communicate their efforts -- will be the ones who win.
About the Author
A veteran of both startups and enterprise business, Barry Po, Ph.D., has led global product teams operating in over 80 countries and has held leadership roles at some of the world’s most valuable brands. As President, Connected Solutions and Chief Marketing Officer at mCloud Technologies, he helps firms leverage AI, IoT and the cloud to solve their most challenging energy problems and become digitally resilient.