Building owners throughout the Twin Cities are deploying cleaning robots, chemicals and UV light as they perform a long list of safety chores ahead of the anticipated arrival of throngs of office workers and students returning to structures idled for months because of COVID-19.
With more businesses reopening under newly relaxed state orders, Minnesota office towers, office parks and schools are scrambling to awaken sleeping giants and upgrade equipment to thwart the deadly virus and kill mold, legionella bacteria and other health risks possibly festering in dormant workplaces.
“We went from winter to summer mode in the middle of a pandemic. … Now I am knee-deep in assessing 18 buildings [that want to reopen safely],” said Tim Kittila, facility assessment manager for Kraus-Anderson, which owns and leases 1 million square feet of commercial real estate across Minnesota. “COVID-19 is a constant reminder as to why facilities need to be improved and worked on.”
Armed with new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, commercial building owners are racing to improve indoor air circulation, remove stagnant water from pipes and sterilize everything from ductwork, desks and doorknobs to the office coffee pot.
Right now, office buildings in downtown Minneapolis are only about 10% occupied as most tenants operate their businesses remotely. That will rise as building owners and their tenants get comfortable with the state letting more nonessential businesses reopen, said Kevin Lewis, executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).
“In the meantime, everyone is being very thoughtful and gradual about the whole re-entry and coming back issue,” Lewis said. “That allows property owners and management teams to put in as many protocols as possible before large scale re-entry takes place.”
Downtown Minneapolis lobbies and skyways have installed social distance markers and one-directional walking paths. Last week, at BOMA’s office building at 50 S. 6th St. a large crew of masked maintenance workers disinfected elevators, handrails and hallways though hardly anyone was in the building, Lewis said.
In St. Paul, Heide Kempf-Schwarze, BOMA member and Unilev senior property manager, bought 30 $50 packages of antimicrobial elevator-button covers to shield workers from the virus when they return to the 37-story Wells Fargo Place.
The building filters its air three times before it ever reaches a cubicle. It also newly restricts elevator access to two people per ride, and shut a public entrance making it just for tenants.
Since the virus struck, just 150 or so of the building’s 1,500 workers show up daily. No matter. “Whenever they are ready to return, we will be ready,” said Kempf-Schwarze.
Last week Kraus-Anderson workers installed touchless faucets, toilets and towel dispensers at the Prairie Lakes Corporate Center it owns in Eden Prairie, the Westwood Community Church in Excelsior and other offices to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Kraus-Anderson is also consulting dozens of construction clients and flushing its own building water chillers and plumbing to prevent the kind of water stagnation beloved by legionella and other troublesome bacteria. It’s instructing tenants that want to reopen soon to sniff their building for mustiness, open fresh air dampers on air conditioners and blast the cold air for 72 hours to kill any mold — before letting workers and customers return. And it’s headed into grade schools and office complexes to inspect each building’s readiness.
“Use your nose. The smell test goes a long way” Kittila advises clients. “If you detect some murky musty smell or it’s like walking into a boys locker room” action is needed for safety.
Some companies are turning to higher technology to prevent mold and virus woes.
Honeywell last week launched an automated trolley robot that disinfects an airplane cabin in 10 minutes using ultraviolet “C” light. Tested in several Honeywell aircrafts, the new “UV air cabin surface cleaner” will soon be installed in offices that want heightened hygienic conditions, said Vimal Kapur, president and CEO of Honeywell Building Technologies.
“We are talking to our existing customers, and we will be upgrading their systems with these [mobile UV units],” Kapur said. “We do expect to get a lot of business over the next few months.”
Separately, other firms are turning to electrostatic sprayers to disinfect desks, cubicles and phones against the coronavirus. The sprayers electrically charge aerosolized chemicals so it’s fast, “efficient, and gives good coverage. It really helps control the spread of infection,” said Ray Petrisek, HP Environmental’s senior microbiologist, during BOMAs “Preparing for Re-occupancy” webinar a few weeks ago.
Chris Morgan, vice president and general manager at Ecolab’s Nalco Water business, is not surprised building owners are gunning to create safer environments. Maintenance crews want to prevent any spread of the highly contagious coronavirus but also worry about the mold or legionnaire’s disease that can lurk in unused chambers.
“We’ve never had this widespread number of buildings with low or no occupancy out there,” Morgan said. “There is a big risk. … If the building owners are not taking the proper precautions, conditions are more prime for [bacterial] growth than if those buildings were occupied. ... We find legionella [bacteria] quite often.”
It’s why Ecolab service personnel are aiding hotels, restaurants, offices and casinos restart dormant dishwashers, check boilers and test and treat stagnant water pipes for harmful legionella and other microbes normally controlled just by the constant use of sinks, fountains and showers. An average-size building that tests positive for legionnaire’s can pay $5,000 to $10,000 to “hyper-chlorinate” the whole water system.
Most class A building owners know the risks of letting workers into a stale building not prepped for occupancy. It’s the less-experienced commercial property owners and operators that often need more education, Morgan said.
To reduce anxiety about returning to work, returning staffers can quickly check air quality, humidity and particulate counts using newly installed automated “dashboards” in Honeywell’s offices in Atlanta, New Jersey, and Phoenix. “What this covid virus event has done,” Kapur said, “is brought the issue of air quality up front.”