Fall Sicknesses and their Relationship to Heating and Cooling Systems

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A source of biological spores

Many people typically get ill during the Fall season.  Although there are many reasons one might get ill, a seldom thought of culprit may lie within a buildings heating and cooling system.

Out of Sight – Out of Mind

Owners seldom pay attention to the insides of their HVAC system.  If it works, then that is the end of any involvement with the system by owners or maintenance staff.

But HVAC systems get dirty.  Damp and dark interiors are perfect breeding grounds for mold and bacteria.  It is common for fungal and bacterial matter to build up within the HVAC system.  Growth and amplification of fungus and bacteria most often occurs during the summer operating months where humidity are high.   Growth can be so substantial that the condensate or water collection pan within the HVAC unit becomes a reservoir for dirt, and biological matter.  The result is what is sometimes called a “biological broth” comprising fungal (mold) growth and debris that passes around or through air conditioning filters.

Once you have had the occasion to see this unhealthy soup, you probably won’t want to see it again.

Operational Problems Caused by Microbes

This same collection of microbials often causes the drain to stop up in the HVAC unit, with the result of water overflowing onto carpet or sometimes into the floor below.  Either way, the result is a nasty situation.

Microbiological growth occurs in the  summer months where warm temperatures, nutrients and moisture abound.    But is in the  iFall they are particularly troublesome.

It is at this time of year that the cooling system is turned off, and the heating system starts up.  Fungus has already dried up within the water collection pan, coils, and interior surfaces.  When viewed, the water collection pan which a few months previous looked nasty, now looks just dirty with a small amount of debris left.

The average thought is: “Well, thank heavens!   That mess is gone and now I am free from it!”

Nothing could be further from the truth however.

Mold or fungus goes into a dry spore form when there are no nutrients or water to promote its growth.  Microbial spores are very small objects, and individually are below the limits of human visibility in most cases.  What one sees are millions and more spores grouped together.  Some estimates have put the numerical count in the trillions of spores depending upon the extent of the growth.

Spores are  light, and are easily disturbed.  When disturbed they get released into the air flow going to occupied areas.  Often just starting up an air handler or system is enough to shake loose several thousand or more spores.   SIzes of spores are such that they may easily become breathed into ones lungs as well as alight onto room surfaces.

Many of these spores are less than 5 microns (30 microns is the lower limit of human visibility).  Particles of this size easily penetrate into lungs.

Allergic illnesses can develop resulting in some of the following symptoms:  sneezing, fatigue, headaches, asthma and others. The phrase “Sick Building Syndrome” is associated with this type of contamination.

Is there a solution to this?

While there is no broad method of handling all contaminants, there are ways of addressing deposits within the HVAC system.

Essentials of Handling

These involve keeping the microbial contamination out of the condensate water collection pans in the HVAC system continually to avoid build-up in the first place.  Controlled Release Technologies developed the first timed-released solution to handle this problem without constant attention in 1986.  Since then, remarkable technological developments have been made.

You can read about how some of these solutions can help your air handlers  be kept clean without constant maintenance attention in one of our upcoming blogs.   We value your experiences with how dirty air handling units can affect occupant comfort.  Comments are always appreciated.

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