Why HVAC Winterization Is Important for Health and Safety
Neglecting to properly maintain your HVAC system during the winter months poses a number of health and safety risks.
Winterization is the process of preparing a building for the colder months of the year. It's a form of preventative maintenance to protect HVAC systems, the areas they function in, the assets around it, and most importantly the people who rely on it for a supply of clean air.
While this should be done routinely, many employers, owners, and facilities managers will postpone or neglect this maintenance procedure in order to save money. Doing so, however, is more likely to incur significant costs and cause a number of issues, such as:
- Wasted energy and high electric bills
- Freezing and leaking pipes
- Uncomfortable temperatures
- Dangerous working conditions
- Violating codes and standards
But let's take a step back first and look at how winterization can mitigate a number of health and safety risks.
Risks of Improperly Maintained HVAC Systems
Poor Air Quality
Poor indoor air quality is one of the first problems you will face from a neglected HVAC system. When air filters and ducts don't get cleaned, pollutants, dusts, and other contaminants will accumulate and circulate throughout the facility.
While this has adverse effects for everyone, it is especially harmful to those who suffer from allergies, asthma, or have an upper respiratory condition. Dirty ducts can also attract insects and rodents.
Poor air quality is an important consideration during the winter, since people spend more time indoors when it's cold.
(Learn more about Indoor Air Quality: The Invisible Hazard in Every Workplace)
Mold and Bacterial Growth
The unsanitary conditions that cause poor air quality also happen to create an environment that is very hospitable to mold and bacteria.
Spending time in a space where mold is present, even if it is hidden behind walls or in the back of cabinets, can cause adverse reactions. Exposure to air that contains mold spores can cause coughing, congestion, headaches, or difficulty breathing.
Although mold is a serious issue, there's an even greater risk. Poorly maintained HVAC systems can become a prime habitat for Legionella, a bacteria that grows in stagnant water and can make its home in air conditioning systems. Exposure to Legionella can result in an infection known as Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia characterized by coughing, shortness of breath, muscle pains, fever, and headaches. If it is severe enough, this infection can also be life threatening.
(Learn more in Legionella: The Killer in Your Tap)
HVAC maintenance improves the system's ability to maintain the right temperature. This can cause discomfort at any time of the year, but a faulty heating system during the winter can result in indoor temperatures so cold they can be harmful to the health of the building's occupants.
While most people are aware of the dangers of heat stress (the way the body reacts to excessively hot temperatures), fewer think about the risks associated with cold stress - especially if they work indoors. But with a poorly functioning HVAC system, everyone from office workers to factory hands can end up working in unreasonably cold temperatures.
Falls From Heights
HVAC systems are often located on the roof of a building, which means that there is an inherent risk to servicing or repairing them. Those risks are even higher in the winter, when snow and ice increase the likelihood of a worker falling.
That is one more reason to ensure HVAC systems are properly maintained. That way, all maintenance procedures can be completed before the first snow, meaning it can be done more safely. This also reduces the likelihood of needing to send a technician on the roof to repair the unit in the middle of winter.
Winterizing HVAC Systems to Reduce Risks
To avoid these unwanted and inconvenient events, hire a professional technician to winterize your HVAC systems or handle it in-house by following all the steps of an efficient and thorough maintenance procedure:
- Perform a complete checkup of the system: look for areas in need of cleaning, repairing, or replacing
- Test the controls: ensure that all controls are working efficiently so that no energy is wasted
- Insulate and heat trace pipes and sprinklers: this will prevent freezing, which in turn can prevent leaking and flooding
- Prepare cooling towers and mechanical rooms: the BP Group advises “Maintaining a 40 degree set on heat trace systems to prevent pipes from freezing and potentially faulting the HVAC system,” and mechanical rooms should remain heated
- Weather strip windows and doors: this improves temperature control by keeping the cold air outside and the warm air inside
- Program the thermostat: doing so will ensure that those living or working in the building are comfortable, as well as ensure that any room needing a specific setting will remain on that setting
The issues caused by a neglected HVAC system can be serious but are completely avoidable. Schedule a maintenance appointment before the season begins instead of stressing once an unexpected issue arises.
While this article focused on health and safety risks, another benefit to winterizing is improved longevity. HVAC systems are built to last 15 to 20 years, but neglect can drastically shorten that lifespan. Staying on top of maintenance tasks during every season will help your HVAC last as long as it's supposed to.
If you're even the slightest bit tempted to skip on HVAC maintenance in order to cut costs, here's an infographic on better, safer ways to save money during the winter. Take advantage of these ideas to save on your monthly heating expenses without causing any health and safety risks.