3 Tips for Managing an Empty Building During COVID-19
April 6, 2020

As the COVID-19 outbreak intensifies in the U.S., the pandemic has drastically altered the use of the built environment. Many non-essential office workers have been sent home to work remotely, while schools and some hotels have shuttered completely.

What does this mean for your building? It could mean tenant occupancy is nearly non-existent or fluctuating often. During this time, it’s important to maintain emergency systems and monitor your operating systems to ensure you’re not wasting energy in empty areas and, as a result, inflating your utility bills. It can also be hard to keep up with your building management system if you’ve also been sent home to work remotely.

Inside an empty office building

“It’s easy for us to say, ‘Shut down your equipment—no one is there,’” says Matt Ganser, executive vice president of engineering and technology for Carbon Lighthouse, an energy-savings-as-a-service company. “But some buildings still don’t know how occupied their spaces are. Risks include not meeting code or having tenants not get their fresh air or expected comfort set points.”

[Related: Buildings Community Coming Together—COVID-19]

Here are three things you can do to ensure your building is running smoothly while adapting to little or no occupancy.

1. Change set points or operating procedures to be more reflective of a low period.

It’s likely your building is empty or nearly empty. Make sure set points in your building—whether for HVAC controls, lighting controls or hot water – are adjusted to reflect a low period or low load. “You can also start to reverse engineer your building a bit,” Ganser says, “and take a look what some of your set points are doing right now. If they’re constantly at a low load condition, that’s probably a sign that set points need to be lowered even further.”

Make sure your controls and control sequences match any altered operating hours caused by COVID-19 safety measures and that they’re adaptive to fluctuations in load conditions.

2. Make sure emergency systems are up to date.

During this time, you might not have as much access to your building as you would normally. That’s why it’s more important than ever to make sure your building isn’t left in a vulnerable position. Make sure that all emergency systems are up to date.

“It is really important to make sure the fire suppression/detection systems are up to date with the inspection, testing and maintenance requirements for that system,” says Valerie Ziavras, fire protection engineer for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The NFPA urges that any personnel or vendors who service those systems be deemed essential. If they’re still unable to access the building, contact your local authority that has jurisdiction. More tips for maintaining emergency systems, regardless of occupancy status, can be found on this NFPA fact sheet.

The NFPA is also adding other online resources to help FMs and other building professionals navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Find all resources here.

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3. Take this time to see where your current technology or operations are falling short.

If you and your team are still able to access your building safely and lawfully, this pause in occupancy can be a great time to complete tasks that are difficult to do with a full occupancy load, from deep cleanings to deferred maintenance.

“You can tear some walls apart, and no one’s going to wonder why there’s dust in their coffee machine,” Ganser explains.

Your actions can even go beyond standard deferred maintenance projects. Now might be an ideal time to experiment with new, more efficient technology. “Building managers can lean into this situation,” Ganser says. “It’s a time where you can add points to a building management system, upgrade it and start to experiment with more adaptive sequences.”

As a result, you could discover areas for large financial savings. “Some of this is in the realm of tinkering, and this is the time to do that stuff,” Ganser adds. “That can be a silver lining in this situation.”

To see all COVID-19 Coverage: Complete List of COVID-19 Coverage

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About the author
Sarah Kloepple | Associate Editor

Sarah joined the BUILDINGS team as an associate editor in August 2018. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, where her focus was magazine writing. She's written and edited for numerous publications in her hometown of St. Louis.