Wade Conlan, P.E., CxA, commissioning discipline manager, Hanson Professional Services Inc., recently met with Herb Woerpel, editor-in-chief of Engineered Systems, to discuss how commissioning can curb the COVID-19 pandemic, his role on ASHRAE’s Epidemic Task Force, the upcoming Associated Air Balance Council (AABC) Annual Meeting, and more. Here is a transcription of that interview.
Engineered Systems: Wade, thanks for your time today. Could you start out by introducing yourself to our audience?
Wade Conlan: Thanks for the invite. I graduated from Penn State in 1995 with an architectural engineering degree, so I've been at this for a little bit. My background is in design, and I’ve been doing commissioning for the last 10-15 years. I've been able to work on a lot of complex projects, like central energy plants, data centers, gaming facilities, health care, aviation, etc. I've led retro-commissioning projects on more than 60 million square feet of property worldwide. I'm heavily involved in ASHRAE and currently am a director at large for the board.
Engineered Systems: As you mentioned, you’ve been in the engineering industry for a long time, 25-plus years — even though you don’t look a day over 25. Looking back, can you recall the moment when you determined that engineering was the right career path for you?
Conlan: Yeah, I appreciate that. In high school, I did some drafting and kind of felt like, at that time, I would end up in the building industry. At Penn State, there were some early classes that just really hooked you, you know. One of the first things I noticed, and I'm not a structural engineer, but it was one of those things where you took a sheet of eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch piece of paper and you had to make it into a column that was 4 inches tall. And then we put bricks on it. And mine did okay; it did all right. I'm not saying I would have made a phenomenal structural engineer, but one guy had good 30-35 bricks on a four-inch piece of paper.
And, so it was one of those things where I continued to wonder how does that really work, and that piqued my interest on the energy and HVAC side of things. But, once I got into the industry, I found value in helping clients. I thought about, how do I really feel about what I do? I think about how my team has been able to help clients reduce their utility bills by more than over $1 million annually. And I think about how we’re helping to reduce the impact on our planet.
It was also really cool was the people working at each facility worked really well as a together. They got praise and recognition from their bosses and corporations. So, you know, every project takes a team to be successful. But, it’s been really cool to see everyone get recognized for their efforts, in addition to helping the planet.
Engineered Systems: You’ve been with Hanson Professional Services for four years. Tell us about the firm and your role there.
Conlan: Like I said, I've been doing commissioning for 10 plus years, and I knew some guys over at Hanson who were really good people, so I decided to make a switch and head over there. Currently, I’m the commissioning and energy discipline manager for them. And I’m really lucky to lead a great team of individuals. Jokingly, when I stepped into that role, one of the guys looked at me and said, “OK, just don't mess it up. We’ve got a good thing going.” Hanson is a 400-plus-person firm. We have 28 offices around the U.S. We are an ACG commissioning group company that’s also involved with the Energy Management Association. One of our guys, Bob Knoedler is actually the president EMA right now. But, they really support us, and we have multiple CxAs and EMPs as part of on the staff, and, and we’ve been able to do some really cool projects.
Engineered Systems: You’re also a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Taskforce – perhaps the built environment’s leading authority on how to properly handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us about your current role and how you came to join that group.
Conlan: I was the chair of ASHRAE’s Environmental Health Committee. And, at the time, ASHRAE’s leadership sent emails to a couple of different committees asking what should ASHRAE actually be doing. Now, this was back in early March. As part of the Environmental Health Committee, a lot of different specialists asked those same questions to the team that ASHRAE had gathered and eventually they asked, “Can you guys form a task force?”
I'm really fortunate that ASHRAE presidential member Bill Bahnfleth agreed to chair the task force. He was my senior thesis advisor at Penn State, so it's been really cool to be able to work with him again on this project. I'm a voting member of the task force and lead the building readiness team. The building readiness team has produced a document that's aimed at giving the actual practical guidance on how to check your building’s HVAC systems and how to implement some of the mitigation strategies that are in the other building guides, such as increasing ventilation, increasing filtration, etc.
Engineered Systems: The CDC and WHO seem to be flip-flopping like a shored bluegill when it comes to if/how the COVID-19 virus is spread through the air and the distance the infection can travel. What’s ASHRAE’s take on this?
Conlan: That is a great way to describe what's been going on. I actually do talk about it in terms of the change in the story, if you will, and there's been a lot in the news recently about people knowing a position or not knowing a position and then changing that position. ASHRAE actually does have a position on this and it was announced early on, when the task force was created. We asked the question, “OK, is this airborne or not?” and the group felt, based on research conducted by different, specialists, was that transmission airborne transmission is sufficiently likely. And that means your HVAC system could mitigate the transmission. In early April, this came out as an official ASHRAE statement from then president, Darrell Boyce. I think, over time, it's proven that we were we were right back in April.
Engineered Systems: Anything else exciting happening with the Taskforce you’d like to share –is there any new guidance or considerations the group may be working on?
Conlan: Yeah, most recently, we're kind of looking through the guidance we have and making sure that all trues up. We're kind of creating a list of HVAC core recommendations to make sure schools and universities aren’t providing guidance that is completely opposite of what's in ASHRAE’s building readiness guidance. So, we're issuing through that, and we've done a good QC, and the teams are then going to have an update to their guidance. But, some of the things people may not be aware of is that we've got an industrial group, labs group, faith assemblies, restaurants, and their guidance will hopefully come out soon.
We've also formed a scientific applications and research group, which is trying to take some of this guidance and prove it scientifically – ensure there is truth behind these claims so that we can show that our assumptions are correct. The research group is looking at answering questions, such as, “Would this help mitigate the transmission of the virus?” Before, we don't see a whole lot of research being done on these topics, so we decided to create a research project that would identify those sort of things. And, so, while the task force itself dealt with the immediate concern, which was the COVID-19, and near-term concerns, such as that a second wave is coming, these groups are focusing more on the long-term concerns, which includes making sure the guidance and ASHRAE’s documentation incorporates the necessary changes to that our progress is not lost if and when the pandemic is over.
Engineered Systems: You’re heavily involved in the TAB and commissioning sector of the industry. Can you speak specifically to the role TAB and Cx plays in the reopening of corporate America?
Conlan: So I think commissioning plays a huge role. And, for the record, I understand TAB but I’m not certified to speak directly to that. I am able to discuss commissioning, so I'll talk about that. The commissioning provider, to me, is perfectly suited to help owners during their reopenings. And that's because, inherently, their job is to look at systems’ energy and comfort performance, see how they're operating, and see how they could be operating more efficiently and effectively. Also, when dealing with labs and health care, safety becomes a greater concern. So, it's a perfect marriage of trying to understand the systems and determining how you can modify them to add in mitigation strategies to increase ventilation, increase the effectiveness of certain filters, and implement cleaning technologies with a goal of creating a potentially safer space for occupants.
Engineered Systems: You're also a member of the Associated Air Balance Council, which will host its 2020 virtual conference through a series of virtual presentations in late October and early November. In fact, you’re involved in a presentation titled, “Field Analysis of HVAC Systems’ Ability to Mitigate COVID-19 Transmission.” This presentation is set to occur at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22. Can you give us a little bit more information on this presentation specifically?
Conlan: We're going to talk a little bit about the virus transmission, give a little update on the Epidemic Task Force, where it's at and what’s changed, and then we're going to dive into two of the leading mitigation strategies: ventilation and filtration. Justin Garner and Troy Byers will be leading those parts, thus we’ll be looking at this equipment from more of a testing and balancing perspective. That's different than a lot of the presentations that we've seen. The goal is to really try and leave a lot of time for Q&A so that we can address some of the audience’s concerns. Additionally Cx energy 2021 is coming up in April in Fort Worth, Texas. At this event, this same group will continue to talk about how you can design, operate, balance, and setup systems to be able to mitigate the virus.
Engineered Systems: Our audience is made up primarily of consulting and specifying engineers and facility managers, if you could leave them with one tip that could perhaps help them professionally. And personally, as we navigate our way through this pandemic, what would it be?
Conlan: One of the things I’m stressing to clients is that every HVAC system is unique and it needs to be evaluated individually as a system, right? Each air-handling unit – is it serving VAV boxes or is it a DOAS with a VRF? However that combination comes into play, they're all different, and each can utilize different strategies to help them. And, so your goal is to evaluate those and figure out how you can get a net effect to capture and deactivate the virus. Some of this equipment can't be combined, right? Or they counteract each other. So, if I add HEPA filters, which is not in the guidance, and then I add UVC at 99% single pass in activation, in essence I’ve installed two of the same thing, so I have an N+1 system, which may cost the client a lot of extra money. But, on a personal level, stay safe, wear a mask, be smart. COVID-19 is airborne – it’s pretty simple. Take care of yourself.
Engineered Systems: If anyone is interested in connecting with you, Hanson, the ACG, or the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force, where should they turn?
Conlan: Regarding Hanson’s, you can connect with me. WConlan@Hanson-inc.com. The ASHRAE epidemic Task Force has an email link. It's COVIDfirstname.lastname@example.org. We've answered more than 900 different questions. Answers are available at the ASHRAE website, www.ashrae.org. There's a lot of information on the COVID page. If you’ve got questions for ACG, get a hold of the ACG headquarters at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.