In yet another blow to urban living, stay-at-home orders might hurt more than help urbanites in their plight to avoid getting sick. The reason: Old buildings tend to have poor ventilation, meaning they act like a petri dish of bad air. If one resident gets, say COVID-19, neighboring units are likely to be contaminated with the virus, too.
If you live, own, or invest in an old building, you should probably assume the ventilation is not up to par, and you might want to check into this. One hint: If you or your tenants, while inside, can smell the neighbor's cooking aromas, both units are likely recirculating shared air. So if the neighbors get sick, odds are, you or your tenants will too -- and vice versa.
Wired reports that the pandemic virus transmits most easily indoors, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.
This knowledge should make people wonder why officials in big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were ordering people during COVID-19 to stay at home without mentioning potential risks to folks in older buildings. There's no visiting a hair salon or dining inside a restaurant during the pandemic in some places, but sharing infected space at home? No problem.
Some solutions and considerations
Old buildings, particularly where small apartments share a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, can be problematic. The goal is to get air that's potentially carrying infectious viral particles out and clean air in. This is measured by a metric called the "air exchange rate," which measures how often new air replaces old air. Cleaning air that's already inside also helps.
Here are some improvements that can be made:
- Retrofit (install new technology in an old system) an HVAC system. This remedy is the best for old buildings with older HVAC systems, but it's also the most costly, which is the reason many owners of multifamily buildings aren't doing it.
- Use ultraviolet light technology, which can kill viruses. This is placed inside light fixtures or inside HVAC systems.
- Run a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration system. This helps clean the air and is especially useful in common areas.
- Encourage tenants to open windows and position a fan either in or near a window.
The Millionacres bottom line
If you live or invest in an old building, expect that the ventilation might be poor.
Landlords: Don't be like city and state officials who hide potential danger. Instead, let your tenants know of the possibility of virus transmission between units and let them make the decision on whether to stay. If they do stay, you might want to suggest that your tenants use an air purifier and regularly open windows to air out the place.
Newer buildings tend to have good ventilation. And that's probably where building design is headed -- with an eye on good ventilation systems in place.