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Ozone. Ultraviolet. Molecular reactions. Amid virus fears, HVAC goes high-tech

Ozone. Ultraviolet. Molecular reactions. Amid virus fears, HVAC goes high-tech

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CHESTERFIELD — Keeping a hot yoga studio running during a pandemic has been a stretch for Emily Montgomery, co-owner of Sumits Yoga in Chesterfield.

Mat rentals and towel service are out. Class sizes are down, and disinfecting is up. The biggest undertaking, though, was one with an invisible outcome: cleaning the air in a humidified room that tops 100 degrees.

“It’s a lot of detail that you never had to think about,” Montgomery said.

With airborne transmission identified as the main culprit in spreading the coronavirus, the owners of movie theaters, tattoo parlors and wedding venues have poured thousands of dollars into their ventilation systems. They hope customer peace of mind will improve along with air quality. Homeowners, too, have been replacing air conditioners and furnaces and buying more filtration units. HVAC companies are fielding questions about ultraviolet lights, ozone generation and molecular reactions — concepts that a year ago were rarely mentioned by nonprofessionals.

It’s not just air quality concerns that have fueled industry growth, which jumped 24% in June and has increased by smaller increments since. Residential customers who have converted seldom-used basements and upstairs nooks into ad hoc offices and classrooms have realized they needed an HVAC boost.

It seems everyone has a newfound appreciation for feeling comfortable at home, said Paul Heimann, vice president of Welsch Heating and Cooling, in Maryland Heights.

“People didn’t go on major vacations, they didn’t do their normal spending, and they decided this was the year to replace their air conditioner,” said Heimann.

Welsch isn’t cutting jobs. Since the pandemic started, the company has added a few to its payroll of 90.

Even the industrial and commercial HVAC guys — in a bit of a lull now — are pushing the benefits of a good system. “There are several new technologies being developed to assist in making buildings safer for virus spread,” said Paul Klaus, vice president of Lyon Sheet Metal in St. Louis’ Bevo Mill neighborhood. “But for now, a well-maintained HVAC system is the best tool we can use.”

Air cleaners are not a one-stop solution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But with masks, social distancing, hand-washing and surface disinfecting, “filtration can be part of a plan to reduce the potential for airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors,” the agency says.

Anton’s Air Conditioning and Heating, in Affton, had its biggest June and July in the 40 years it’s been open. In September, it became a dealer for an Israeli air-cleaning device. In October, Anton’s added four technicians — and is still recruiting. Business is up more than a third over last year.

Montgomery, the yoga studio owner, called Anton’s in early fall. A customer told her about the air-cleaning device, one of many on the market. The Sterionizer emits trillions of positive and negative ions that attach to and deactivate bacteria, viruses, spores and fungi.

Sumits Yoga spent about $1,400 on two portable units. The bipolar ionizers have eased worries for Montgomery, who has a respiratory history that puts her at high risk for COVID-19.

“Our community is incredible. Everyone is masked, but this has been that extra punch for us,” she said.

The studio’s Halloween email newsletter included an explanation of how the Sterionizer works. Montgomery hopes the additional safety measure encourages nervous students to return and attracts new ones.

Anton’s has been working all fall with schools, nursing facilities, funeral homes and homeowners interested in beefing up their air-filtration systems.

Jeanne Grigsby, who works at Washington University, has been careful about social distancing and wearing a mask. But three months ago, she had a Sterionizer put into the ductwork in her west St. Louis County home.

“It’s reassuring,” she said. “I noticed the air seems lighter. It seems easier to breathe.”

The Sterionizer devices, the largest of which costs $10,000, can be integrated into the ductwork of heating and cooling systems, or used on their own in smaller spaces, usually for less than $1,000. Beyond cleaning the air, said Anton’s president Craig Denton, they remove smoke, odor and other pollutants.

Denton brought one with him to his 14-year-old son’s hockey tournament and left it running in the locker room.

“It took the nasty smell out,” he said. “It smelled like a natural forest.”

Denton sold seven that day to hockey parents.

It took a pandemic to prioritize HVAC work, he said. Customers have been more consistent with filter replacement and ductwork cleaning, chores that used to fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

“Our eyes are open,” Denton said. “We need to worry about air quality.”

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