Major system overhauls aren’t the only way to improve air flow in restaurants


Air quality and ventilation may be making daily headlines, but for many operators, the prospect of investing even more resources in large system changes is simply out of the picture.

“From my observations, major air-handling equipment overhauls are simply not an affordable option at this point for operators,” says Doug Feltmate, principal, Planned Foodservice Solutions in Ottawa. “While the publicly funded institutions like schools and long-term-care facilities are getting the money to make these changes, restaurants and other businesses are only seeing wage and rent subsidies, and nothing for air-quality improvements.”

Operators are not putting in new ventilation equipment unless they are mandated to do it, observes Mark McEwan, Western Canada sales director /executive chef for Food Service Solutions in Calgary. “It’s just another extra expense on an already strapped industry. They’re not really interested in allocating more dollars.”

As the owner of two smaller restaurants in Edmonton, Dave Manna says he can’t afford to rip apart his Rosso and Bianca restaurants for new ventilation systems. “It’s just too expensive. We’re a small business and margins are tight. There are lots of higher- priority items.”

However, ventilation-system investments are becoming a necessary evil, says Joel Primeau, mechanical engineering consultant and ASHRAE instructor in Ottawa. “The industry is at a point where people care about ventilation. Operators appreciate that premises can make people sick if they’re not well ventilated.”

The good news is, not every improvement has to involve expensive equipment, he says. Optimizing air flow is the key. In some cases, conditions can be improved at a relatively low cost.

Typically, restaurants have negative pressure in the kitchens, where supply air is provided in the eating area and gets exhausted through the kitchen hoods, explains Primeau. “That means everybody gets exposed to the same air. In a regular setting, that’s usually not a problem. In the pandemic era, it is spreading potential bacteria. That has really raised the bar on ventilation requirements for restaurants and public areas.”

The underlying goal is to replace as much air as possible throughout the day, he adds. “That involves re-thinking air flow patterns in your space in the right quantities. If you have proper air flows, you should be able to generate a comfortable and clean environment.”

He recommends operators work with an air-balancing professional to determine the ratio of outside air coming in and exhaust air going out. “You want to find out how much air is being moved, how much is supplied from outside, and how much is re-circulated.”

Next, check the filtration system and how well it is operating, and upgrade filtration where required. Replace filters often. “Keep in mind that improving filter efficiency also requires changing the power of the fans pushing the air through because they are thicker and denser,” he cautions.

Open restaurants tend to have poorer ventilation because the warm air rises to the ceilings, especially in the winter, he adds. “It’s very common to see both ceiling diffusers and return grills near the ceiling. It makes a lot of sense to move the return grills closer to the floor because it forces the air to sweep the occupant area. It just requires adding some ductwork which isn’t that big of an expenditure.”

Primeau also suggests extending HVAC equipment operating hours. “Start it up sooner than the time people come in and run it a few hours after closing to make sure you really clear the air in the space” If possible, program your equipment to increase the amount of outside air.
Some operators are investing in UV lighting in their air filtration or UVC lighting sanitizers, says McEwan. “They can sanitize air as it comes through. The problem is, UV lighting needs exposure time, which depends on fan speeds and the ability for it to really saturate the air.”

McEwan believes there is some validity in investing in portable air quality and air exchangers in smaller spaces, but you have to do it right. “There is no point putting in a basic entry-level filtration system that doesn’t do multiple exchanges a day. It would need to be commercial grade.”

There are two main factors to consider when assessing air-exchange systems: fan speed and level of filtration. “It has to have a powerful enough motor to push air through a commercial grade filter,” says McEwan.

Manna did a test run of a Jasp’r Air plug-in unit for his Rosso Pizzeria. “Our space was small, so our options were limited. We brought in an air-exchange unit at the beginning of COVID to improve the air quality and to help people feel safe.”

Manna says that beyond the cost of equipment, awareness is also a challenge. “There has to be a demand from customers. It takes time for people to educate themselves on health and wellness.”

By Denise Deveau

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