As the severity of the coronavirus pandemic appears to wane from its peak and create opportunities for more Federal workers to return to traditional offices, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) inspector general reported on September 30 that the agency is having trouble meeting recommendations to improve air-handling systems to maximize their ability to capture airborne viruses.
The GSA Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit finds that GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) component “faces challenges” in meeting guidance released in 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat the spread of COVID-19 in GSA-controlled facilities.
The CDC recommendations include GSA-controlled facilities “improving central air filtration in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.”
“The CDC recommends increasing air filtration to the highest possible level without significantly reducing design airflow,” the OIG said. “It also advises employers to check air handling unit air filters to ensure they are within their service lives and are appropriately installed.”
The guidance also incorporates “American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers technical resources, which state that the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 or higher rated air filters are efficient at capturing airborne viruses,” the OIG said.
Part of the problem, the OIG explained, is that PBS “cannot install the recommended air filters in some GSA-owned facilities because the aging HVAC systems cannot handle MERV 13 air filters.”
The agency watchdog also found that PBS is “not consistently verifying that operations and maintenance contractors change air filters or meet preventive maintenance requirements for air handling units in GSA-owned facilities.”
“We also found that PBS is not consistently inspecting GSA-leased space to ensure that air filters meet lease requirements,” the OIG said. “In some cases, lessors used noncompliant air filters or did not change them regularly. As a result, PBS is using air filters in some GSA-controlled facilities that are less efficient at capturing airborne viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The audit includes a list of recommendations with which PBS expressed agreement or partial agreement. Those include, for GSA-owned facilities:
- Conduct an accurate and complete assessment of HVAC systems to identify deficiencies in air filtration. Based upon the assessment, PBS should maximize central air filtration in existing HVAC systems without significantly reducing design airflow;
- Review and update current and future operations and maintenance contracts to ensure that they clearly identify the required MERV air filters and preventive maintenance schedules;
- Establish controls to ensure that PBS obtains and maintains complete preventive maintenance records; and
- Ensure that contracting officer representatives conduct inspections of mechanical rooms and preventive maintenance records to ensure that air filters meet MERV requirements.
For GSA-leased facilities, the recommendations are:
- Review and update current and future lease agreements to ensure that they clearly identify the required MERV air filters and preventive maintenance schedules;
- Ensure that lessors maintain and provide required preventive maintenance records and provide timely access to mechanical rooms; and
- Ensure that PBS representatives inspect mechanical rooms and preventive maintenance records to ensure that air filters meet MERV requirements.