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Commercial HVAC system giving me asthma

March 3, 2019

We moved into an office building on Sept 1, 2018. Sometime in January, I noticed I had been coughing and clearing my throught regularly for no apparent reason (no cold/flu) and I wasn't even sure when it started. It progressed and eventually I went to the doctor on Feb 8 and she prescribed an asthma inhaler. Bingo... cough immediately stopped.

So then I started connecting the dots on possible causes and I remembered my new desk sits under this behemoth HVAC system and it is 30 years old! In September we had tons of A/C problems and the repair people were out on a regular basis. That's how I found out its so old. But look at this picture. It's also filthy:

We are going to approach the landlord to do something, but we're not sure how seriously they will take the complaint. Firstly my boss is going to do a DIY mold test. He looked around for a broader air-quality DIY test, but couldn't find one. We could look harder perhaps. Or hire someone. But that costs more money and the landlord should be paying. And can these professional companies be completely trusted? They likely want remediation business.

So a couple of questions, especially if any professional HVAC people monitor these forums:

1. is it correct installation for a vent and a return to be right next to each other?

2. Is it correct to assume that sitting right under those is affecting my air quality? What about the entire office? (about 2000 sf)

3. is airduct cleaning a viable option? I know there are a lot of scams done. I read a thread about doing that in an office and they said the mess left behind was bad and needed 2 days of cleaning.

4. are filters for 30 year old systems readily available? How often should they typically be changed?

5. would a desktop or even room size air purifier do any good competing with a large return/vent in the same vicinity as me? I would guess the HVAC would win the contest over any floor or desk appliance.

6. Is the visible black on the grids normal dirt? or more suspicious?

Also, before we moved in there was a leak in one of the nearby ceiling tiles from A/C condensation They fixed it and replaced the stained tile. I vaguely recall there were more stained tiles that got replaced too, but I'm not positive. This puts me on alert for mold potential. But my boss said he looked around above the tiles and didn't see any.


Comments (14)

  • PRO
    Austin Air Companie

    Hi Wendy,

    Commercial HVAC is considerably different from that of a residential based HVAC system. In some cases this is due to size of the equipment.

    Residential based HVAC are predominantly split systems in the 2-5 Ton sizes or capacity of those systems (not weight). A split system is typically 3 separate parts (gas furnace, AC indoor coil, AC outdoor condenser). A package system is a large 'package' that contains all 3 separate parts, connects to a curb on the roof which is then attached to return and supply duct work. In some cases package units are installed on the ground with side return and side discharge although this configuration is quite rare due to the amount of space they take up.

    In commercial you can have a split system as well but typically only if the capacity is limited to the 5 ton size. Commercial package units (that typically sit on a roof curb) can be up to 25 ton and sometimes larger.) In some cases I've seen larger split systems for commercial (larger than 5ton capacity) but this is quite rare.

    Because the picture you show has a recessed ceiling the equipment configuration from split to package type system it could be either variety.

    Because sizing for commercial is so much larger than that of residential, this often times puts commercial into a realm all it's own. Duct work is larger, designs of those duct systems can be considerably different than what is found in residential type systems mainly because of the amount of air they are moving.

    Now for the bad news about who is likely responsible for fixing / and or replacing this 30 year old problem. Commercial rental agreements can be quite complex, So this isn't to say you will be holding the bag or won't be holding the bag... ultimately you will have to sit down and read that rental contract your company signed before moving into this building.

    If I had to guess, I would say that you and your company will be on the hook to replace, clean, service that equipment. Unless the leasing company of that building includes these services which is extremely rare. If they do include these services you are often bound to using a certain provider.

    A few facts, you moved into a building with a 30 year old HVAC system. The company before you was probably more astute in their financial planning. They may have leased that building for 20 years.... realizing that old HVAC unit and what they would be on the hook for decided to move to a newer building.

    In commercial leasing world, the businesses are given a shell that shell is leased in some cases for 20 years. Once leased that company comes in makes the changes they want to the structure. This includes HVAC, building infrastructure needs like office type settings, battery back up systems (UPS), Server rooms (cooling needs for those server rooms) etc.

    In terms of cleaning commercial HVAC ducts, this would require specialized service because the duct systems in commercial are considerably larger than residential. In some cases replacement of those ducts may be the only option. Yes, it will be a filthy job regardless of what you decide.

    You're going to have to break out that lease agreement and find out what the landlord is responsible for. Because this unit is 30 years old, leads me to believe the tenant is, because this could be the very reason the last tenant refused to sign a new lease and moved.

    (Note: residential leases are the exact opposite of a commercial lease.)

  • WendyB

    Thanks for the explanation on HVAC. I wasn't thinking all that much about the liability part of it, but you raise some good concerns. As background, this is a 3-story building with approx 12 units total. I know there are multiple systems in place because I have been told that the building owner has replaced some. I don't think a single unit services each suite, so I suspect we are not responsible for that infrastructure, but it's definitely something to check out. Our system is on the roof (but I don't know if other components are elsewhere too). I think the last tenant went bankrupt!

    Any specific guidance on my 6 questions?

    7th: best approach to assess air quality?

  • fsq4cw

    Perhaps an independent testing of indoor air quality is in order. If the air is not fit to breathe then perhaps the landlord would be on the hook to repair or replace or your employer would have just cause to break the lease.

    In addition to mould, the system and air should also be inspected and tested for Legionella. Nobody wants Legionnaires Disease!

  • PRO
    Austin Air Companie


    Unfortunately HVAC is an in person kind of business. All the systems would need to be evaluated in person to be able to give you any real ideas toward rectifying your HVAC issues. So I would have to take a pass on attempting to answer any of your questions. (guessing, is not going to do you any good.)

    There are no two HVAC systems exactly the same, and problems due to 30 year old equipment and a new tenant just moved in, there is no real way to know how these units have been maintained over those past 30 years. (especially with a former bankrupt tenant just recently vacating the place.)

    In 1 years time commercial equipment wise, neglected maintenance can be a costly endeavor to correct in most cases. Unless the equipment was shut off and not used... of which that is never the case. Your example, we're talking 30 years!

    Best way to assess air quality would be to find a commercial services company that specializes in commercial mold remediation. They should be able to assess the indoor air quality of the building.

    It's possible that your lease arrangement 'might' be that you're responsible for HVAC maintenance and repairs and the building owner 'might' be responsible for replacements. But I say this hesitantly because commercial leases are a wild bunch that rarely cover such things. Again, you will have to pull out that lease contract to see what the building owner will cover / won't cover.

  • maifleur01

    You have been given some good advice as far as the HVAC system but I will give you an aside about your asthma. While dirty air will contribute to it and cause symptoms to flare you have probably had it for a long time. The cause is unknown.

    Having worked in a certified Sick Building and looking at the pictures I would request a test for Stachybotrys chartarum or black mold. In some areas you can ask your local health department to do the testing. The black may be just long term dust but better to be safe than sorry.

  • WendyB

    I like the idea about the health department. I dug up some local air quality testing companies to contact, but I'm typically leary of such. I would trust the health department though. Plus, that would certainly get the landlords attention!

    In the meantime, I have been honing in on some potential air purifiers. I've been reading articles and reviews and I think it may help. It's going to be tricky in an office setting with open hallways and that huge return right over my desk, but I am starting to think purifiers actually do something. And I am leary about duct cleaning possibly making matters worse. New ductwork is not realistc. The HVAC filters are probably low MERV ratings. Not too many good options.

    My boss did a DIY mold test. While he was at it, he cleaned the grid and vacuumed some of the area. I guess that's good but there goes possible evidence. He later found out the DIY mold test was a piece of junk after reading reviews.

    I am old enough (no numbers, please!) that I don't think asthma could have been lurking for that many decades, but maybe so. I probably ought to see an allergy/asthma specialist. The PCP didn't even ask me about any recent environmental changes! I guess it wasn't on the 10-minute allotted checklist. :-)

    So, after I presented the air quality testing companies ($) and air purifier possibilities ($) to my boss, he decided its time to approach the building owner for the next step -- whatever that may be. Stay tuned.

  • w0lley32

    What is covering the floor? If carpet, when is the last time it was professionally cleaned, and how often does it get vacuumed? I am not saying your asthma is not caused by the HVAC system, but I once had asthma and it turned out I was allergic to dust mites, and too much exposure to them is what was triggering my asthma. Once I got rid of the carpet in my bedroom, no more asthma! My doctor told me that dust mites thrive in carpeted and upholstered items.

    I think it would not be a bad idea to have the carpet, at least around your workstation, professionally steam cleaned, if the area is carpeted.

  • mdln


    If you are concerned about air quality at work, ask your employer to check the ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems and to make sure there is no water damage. If you think that you have symptoms that may be related to IAQ at your work, talk to your doctor about them to see if they could be caused by indoor air pollution.

    Under the OSHAct, you have the right to contact an OSHA Office (see a map of OSHA offices) or to contact OSHA’s toll-free number: 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) or TTY 1-877-889-5627. Workers who would like a workplace inspection should send a written request (see area office addresses). A worker can tell OSHA not to let their employer know who filed the complaint. It is against the Act for an employer to fire, demote, transfer or discriminate in any way against a worker for filing a complaint or using other OSHA rights. For more information on filing a request for an on-site inspection and the investigation process, see the webpage. States with OSHA-approved state plans provide the same protections to workers as federal OSHA, although they may follow slightly different complaint processing procedures.

    You may also request a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). At no cost to employers or workers, NIOSH may investigate workplace health hazards in response to requests from employers, employees and their representatives, and federal agencies. For more information, see NIOSH's Health Hazard Evaluation Program.

  • WendyB

    Ah interesting. I think of OSHA for factories and more serious illnesses, but I guess IAQ is IAQ. We are a small close-knit office and my boss seems concerned and serious about doing something. He's not very confrontational so I will have to be sure he does not procrastinate with the building owner.

    We are pretty sure the landlord is responsible lease-wise, but that reference does shed another angle on responsibility. will keep in back pocket for now!

  • maifleur01

    WendyB if there is a black mold problem as I suspect based on where I used to work any susceptible employee can develop long term problems being exposed to it. Your mention of your boss trying to clean up the problem sent shivers of horror through me. Mold remediation is not something to be done without proper face masks not just the over the counter type. Black mold likes a moist area to grow such as the lungs. Symptoms of infection are easily dismissed as minor problems or even depression. My doctor thought I had depression because I just did not feel well. Then I started coughing and regular cold medication did not work so I was x-rayed. My lungs had a thin spiderweb looking material. Later when black mold became news I saw pictures of similar lungs. It would take time for anything to show on an x-ray but if your boss starts coughing he needs to tell the doctor what he did.

  • WendyB

    Update: Today the building owner brought in a air-duct cleaning person to take a look and prepare an estimate. I didn't make a great first impression. I didn't know it was the owner. When they came in, I made a face and said I thought we were going to do testing first and that I wanted new ducts rather than duct cleaning that makes a mess. The owner retorted "i've been doing this for 50 years...I have many buildings. I know what I'm doing...". Jeez. Building owner does not make an HVAC expert. And not updating a 30-year old system and letting the building get to this state doesn't speak to his landlord credentials! Although, I do commend the responsivness and willingness to fix the problem. I tried to make nice when I figured out who he was.

    I had told my boss earlier air-duct cleaning was the last thing I wanted after stories I read about it making a mess of the office, but I guess he didn't mention it to the owner as I requested. So the 4 of us (owner, boss, me, airduct rep) had in depth conversation about the issues. The airduct cleaning guy said it is very rare to find mold in this type of scenario but they do look for it and will clean it if it is minor or stop and report it otherwise. When I told him I had read multiple stories about office air-duct cleaning leaving a mess behind, he replied that those companies failed at their job. He assured us there is no mess or disturbance left behind. He described the process in detail, but I zoned out in the tech talk. I didn't hear that they cover or clean all surfaces. They claim the technique cannot generate extra dirt. hmmppph.

    We talked about air-quality testing (which he does not do), and they were unclear if it would serve a purpose. To me, test then treat seems to be the natural order. One would want to know the particulate count b4 and after cleaning, right? I surely do. It is still up in the air what we will do. My boss said maybe he will pay for the testing if the owner won't. He seemed to agree with me that testing first was the right thing to do, but yet he still seems inclined to use dust on surfaces as a metric. I said its the stuff you can't see that the testing is for. Is it? I don't really know.

    Meanwhile, I bought an air purifier for my bedroom. Its on order. I can't wait to see if I wake up less congested.

    Meanwhile, the heater hasn't kicked on much or maybe at all this week. I stopped taking my inhaler last week to see if coughing came back this week. The temps have picked up a bit and we get a lot of afternoon solar heating. I almost wanted to put the A/C on today it was so warm. So it might be difficult to assess anything once heating season dies down.

  • PRO
    Austin Air Companie


    Something to keep in mind that there are thousands of different kinds of mold. While true that some various kinds of black mold can be deadly and cause a wide variety of health problems for those that breathe those mold spores, it is not uncommon for duct cleaners to use scare tactics to increase the bill. You kind of have to take these things with a grain of salt, unfortunately. If you had someone test the building that 'ONLY' does testing and doesn't have an 'extra' incentive of finding something, that would be completely different.

    So naturally if the lease of the building is descriptive enough as to who is responsible and for what they are responsible for, this could attract the attention of the owner of the building, quite easily.

    Because if your company was to pay for testing of the building and the findings were something of harm to the occupants of the building the building owner could be held negligent, the least of being held responsible would be the loss of tenant(s) to a building that suffered another business that had failed.

    Why did the previous business fail? That business catches wind of a lawsuit due to health concerns of the building they once occupied. So it's quite easy to see how things could spiral out of control for this poor building owner with 'experience' of doing this for 50 years.

    Due to negligence, if the owner of the building is responsible for the overall safety and maintenance of the building in terms of air quality (according to a signed lease) this is likely why he became involved. The last thing he would want to do is provide your company and excuse to break the lease and move or worse yet file a lawsuit against him and his 50 years experience. (That lease, is your contract. A contract within the eyes of the law is binding.)

    The other con with duct cleaning is that the duct cleaner is not fixing anything. The problems as to why there was a problem to begin with will reappear again later, because the cleaning is merely treating the symptom.

    How long it takes for air quality problems to come back is anyone's guess, as something may have been changed to this 30 year old HVAC system, you know because they have 50 years experience of owning various buildings.

    Thanks for keeping the board updated with your progress.

  • WendyB

    I didn't think the air duct cleaner was using scare tactics. The scare already exists in the reality of the situation -- dirty visual and asthma!! He seemed professional and realistic and optimistic. (I'm not, but that's another story). I'll be checking yelp of course!

    I am not thinking in terms of lawsuits in the least. Are you a lawyer? LOL I believe the boss and probably the owner are actually concerned with doing the right thing. He walked in saying "we're here to help you with your problem". My main concern is identifying the right solution so I don't need long term inhalers with their side affects. I love my job and just looking for best solution for all.

    Clearly, there are challenges with IAQ testing; challenges with duct-cleaning; challenges with air-purifiers. No one knows the ideal roadmap. Suppose it was your daughter sitting under that crap. What would you be expecting of the owner?

    p.s. former tenant was a one-man roadshow not likely sitting at that desk. He bought out the prior company. I think he just dissolved his business and went to work for some other company. I don't really know if bankruptcy was involved or not. irrelevant. I think you may be looking for problems that do not exist. But thanks for the feedback.

  • PRO
    Austin Air Companie

    Am I a lawyer? no. But commercial RE is very lucrative market for ambulance chasers. (ever watch TV in late afternoon? LOL)

    Keep in mind you spend probably at best 1/3 of your day here. So the asthma could be a combination of this place and what you are doing away from it.

    FYI, Ozone can make it more difficult for you to breathe deeply. Other forms of air pollution may also trigger your asthma. ... Airborne particles, found in haze, smoke and airborne dust, present serious air quality problems. People with asthma are at greater risk from breathing in small particles. (If you have high ozone away from this space, then the small particulate from this place in combination what you are doing away from it 'may' be giving you the result you have.) Clearly I AM GUESSING. That is all a forum board provides. It is up to you to investigate the matter fully on your own.

    I am looking for problems that don't exist? well you said bankruptcy, I let my imagination run wild. (I have a vivid imagination, just visit my YouTube channel.)

    I have not a single ounce of psychic powers. As this thread would certainly show.

    I only have insight as to what someone says, the rest is just random guesses.

    Never been to this property, every property is different.

    Forum boards in this regard 'can be' dangerous places to obtain advice and in some cases information.

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