After more than two months of lockdown, many businesses are starting to bring workers back into their workplaces. Each government has set its own standards for how this can happen, but the objective remains the same: How do you open businesses while continuing to contain the COVID-19 virus?
One of the big areas of concern, especially in large corporate buildings, apartment buildings, hotels and other multi-story buildings, is keeping public areas safe—including elevators, which may be their most critical features. Collectively, they make 18 billion trips annually in the United States. But, according to research conducted by the University of Arizona, public elevators can carry 40 times more bacteria than public toilet seats.
In addition to living on surfaces for as many as three days, there is evidence to suggest the airborne virus can stay afloat for a few hours, turning confined spaces like elevators into potential hotspots.
In buildings with just a few floors, perhaps it’s feasible to restrict elevators to those who truly need to use them – like disabled workers, cleaning crews, and others with items too heavy to carry. But, even then, they need to be disinfected regularly – ideally, after each use.
UV-C lights disinfect by disrupting the molecular bonds that hold together microbial genetic material or proteins. The technology has been used for decades to disinfect drinking water, waste water and hospitals.
Now, many companies are starting to test UV-C lighting to kill the virus. The technology is already being used to disinfect airplanes, busses, and rooms between uses to decontaminate them. It’s a much faster and more effective process than a manual cleaning process. So why not use it in elevators?
Ashla Systems has developed a UV-C system specifically for that purpose. Its light system can be retrofitted into the any elevator, turning them into smart elevators. The lights are automatically activated when it detects no human presence inside, sweeping the interior of the elevator with UV rays that kill virus and bacteria cells – both airborne and on surfaces. The decontamination process takes 10-15 minutes.
According to the company, demand for its systems is increasing from all parts of the world as employers and landlords look for the best ways to protect employees and residents. Four separate light strips, which draw very little power, are installed on each of the four walls they meet the ceiling, by licensed electricians. Normal turnaround time is about two weeks, though the company “got crushed with orders recently,” according to CEO Philip Rentzis.
The company has installed systems in New York City – obviously a hot zone – but also has gotten requests from New Jersey and Massachusetts, and more recently from the Chicago and Miami areas. It also has been fielding inquiries internationally, from London, Paris, and Melbourne.
The problem, of course, is how to keep elevators clean without significantly impacting traffic in buildings and creating large congregations of people waiting for them. Ideally, they would be cleaned after every use, considering how contagious the virus is. That may not be feasible during peak times, even with staggered schedules and limited building capacity and running the system in 10-minute cycles. Rentzis believes that, even if the system doesn’t run its full cycle every time, it can still be an effective tool for breaking reducing spread.
The truth is, COVID-19 has already changed how we work – and how we live – and most believe we will never get entirely back to pre-coronavirus situations. We are creating a new normal on the fly, and many companies have already announced broader permanent teleworking policies. Buildings with elevators are going to also have to develop new strategies for managing traffic during peak hours. It may mean staggered work hours, or identifying specific elevators for use by different companies and residents to make it easier to run the disinfecting process throughout the day.
Regardless of the flow management solution, physicals spaces are going to have to be disinfected regularly, and manual process simply aren’t going to be a long-term answer. Smart elevators, however, can be.