Dan Kosalski, controls manager at W.H. Demmons, installs an ionization unit into an existing air handling system in an office building. The unit can filter out odors and some bacteria and viruses. Credit: Courtesy of W.H. Demmons

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With health officials telling businesses to circulate as much clean, outside air as possible inside buildings as employees and customers return, the head of Trademark Federal Credit Union realized the large windows in the new South Portland location presented a problem.

“We’ve got wonderful, big windows, but they don’t open,” said Joann Bisson, president and CEO of the credit union, which also has offices in Scarborough and Augusta. “I was thinking, OK, how do we make sure we have good airflow?”

It’s a question on the minds of managers at offices, gyms, tattoo shops and restaurants alike throughout the state. Many employees hesitate to return to work in the age of the coronavirus. Customers wonder if it will be safe to sit inside a restaurant rather than on the patio, even with physical distancing and face covering mandates in place.

Air quality has been part of the consideration by Gov. Janet Mills and health officials as the state is reopening, since outdoor transmission of the virus has been found to be relatively rare. Restaurants were first allowed only to have takeout, then outdoor dining and finally to resume indoor dining recently.

While it’s unclear how varying degrees of air quality upgrades affect transmission of the virus, one answer to assuring people, experts say, is to provide assurances that the business has done everything it could to make for a safe environment.

Tim Soley, president of East Brown Cow Management, which owns 18 retail, residential and parking properties mostly in the Portland area, said on a recent real estate group webinar that he is upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems in his buildings to hospital-grade MERV 13 filters.

“There is no published data to tell us that the higher quality filter will actually work to reduce the virus spread, but we’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We’re proactively reaching out and describing to our tenants what we are doing.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidance for offices on its website. It says properly used air purifiers could reduce airborne contaminants, including viruses. The Maine CDC recommends that guidance as well, said spokesperson Robert Long. Parts of the guidance are also included in specific business checklists on the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website.

Options for businesses include adding portable high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filtration systems, using more efficient filters or upgrading existing HVAC systems. Filters need to be changed regularly, said industry experts, and many systems have a light that indicates when that is. Restaurants, which have more particles in the air than typical offices, may need to change filters more often.

For Bisson of Trademark Federal Credit Union, the decision on how to introduce fresh air inside was easy. The company that had installed the HVAC system in the new building recommended adding a filtration system using ionization technology. It purifies the air by electrically charging molecules to remove odors, viruses and other particles.

The majority of the credit union’s 25 employees have worked from home since March, but some continued coming into the office and have been meeting customers by appointment. More employees are coming back gradually, Bisson said. Financial institutions were deemed essential businesses by the governor, though many of them closed their lobbies.

Doug Martin, president of W.H. Demmons, a Portland-based engineering and energy services company that sold the credit union the HVAC and ionization systems, said the ion systems, which are the size of a coffee cup and cost $400 to $1,000 installed, are a relatively new product for the company.

It has installed 50 of them around the state, including in the office of a larger insurance company, a laboratory and various dentists and doctors offices. Some locations require multiple units. Bisson paid $4,000 for the credit union’s system, she said.

Ionization systems used to have a bad reputation, Martin said. While older systems cleaned the air, they also emitted destructive ozone pollution that can cause health problems, including exacerbating asthma. The new systems do not give off ozone, he said.

Martin has installed the system in his own office building, he said.

“No one is wearing a mask here right now, but we do social distance,” Martin said.

The ionization filtration and proper air distribution can create an indoor environment that is probably as healthy as being outside, he said. The more obvious changes to the physical environment of the credit union will take some getting used to by customers and employees, Bisson said.

“Probably the biggest change is just having somebody walk into the lobby with a mask on. It’s kind of unsettling for people,” she said. “We’re going to try to make things as normal as possible.”