How to Maintain Your Restaurant Air Conditioning & Ventilation During COVID

At no time in the past, oh, century or so has restaurant air quality been of greater concern than right now. Pandemics have a way of forcing us into smarter overall habits, and providing clean air is definitely one of them. You may want to update your HVAC system to ensure your customers and staff are safe from an airborne pathogen. But along the way, hey, there’s nothing wrong with breathing better air at work, right?

The CDC has stated there is no proof that Covid spreads via HVAC systems. But if you want to be extra careful, you can take a page from what immunocompromised people have been doing for years: trick out your HVAC with UV lights, which incinerate viruses. And if you want to stay current on how different states are handling mask mandates, indoor dining, and other Covid measures, check out our state-by-state guide to restaurant reopening.

Aside from cost, there’s really no downside to getting a new system or updating your current one, to keep the air free of viruses, bacteria, and particulates that you’d rather not have in your lungs. While you’re at it, also consider your restaurant’s hood system, ventilation, and of course, heating and cooling. It’s all connected, after all. So let's get to it.

What is a commercial HVAC?

Pronounced “H. Vac,” HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. That V is what separates commercial units from home heating and AC systems. A commercial HVAC system used in a restaurant controls not only the temperatures but circulation and ventilation, making HVACs much larger and more complex than a home AC.

What does a commercial HVAC cost?

Open flames, steam, smoke, and other fumes make this a more interesting question for restaurants than for, say, a normal office or shop. Many factors contribute to your HVAC cost, including the type of unit, specific features, labor costs, and the type of restaurant you operate.

The simplest way to ballpark the price will be to add up the space you need to service and then multiply by $3 to $10 per square foot — or more, if you’re rocking those extra-high ceilings. According to The Cooling Company, a rough equation to use (based on 8-foot ceilings) is to divide your building’s square footage by 500 then multiply by 12,000 to determine how many BTUs your AC should move.

This is one of those expenses, like accountants and trash bags, where you don’t want to cut corners on the cost. Get an HVAC that can handle your space. If it works too hard, it can break. Then you’re shut, waiting on repairs. But also, don’t get an AC that’s too big! It might cycle on and off too rapidly, shortening its life. You want to Goldilocks this one.

How to calculate HVAC tonnage for your restaurant

Tonnage is the measurement of an AC unit’s cooling capacity. The larger the tonnage, the greater its cooling capabilities. For commercial spaces like restaurants, too low a tonnage means your space won’t get cool, and your energy costs will be silly-high.

Calculating the tonnage you need comes down to space, rooms, and square footage. Your architect ought to have these handy for you. If not, we got you.

  1. Get out your measuring tape. You need to calculate the volume of every room of your restaurant: dining room, bar area, kitchen — plus storage rooms, waiting areas, bathrooms, rec room, whatever. If it’s a space in your restaurant, it counts.   

  2. Get out your calculator. You remember the formula for volume, right? Width times length times height (i.e., your ceilings). Add up all the rooms, boom. That’s the amount of air you have to move.

  3. Get out your computer. Many HVAC websites provide a chart that will provide a square footage “range” as well as factor in your location (i.e. if your restaurant is in Florida, you may need a stronger cooling system) to determine the tonnage needed. A good example is available on   

  4. Get on the phone. Find a technician in your area that specializes in HVACs, ducts, and ideally, in restaurants. The size of your staff, the arrangement of other ventilation (e.g., windows and doors), the type of cooking you do — all of these will bear on what you need. This is a huge job, so come prepared to comparison-shop.

RELATED: ​​Bubble Dining: Should Your Restaurant Use Bubble Tents for Outdoor Dining?

How COVID has changed HVAC requirements

The pandemic has prompted many restaurants to upgrade their HVAC systems, perhaps to protect staff and customers, perhaps at the CDC’s encouragement. But you might not need to replace a system so long as you have professional maintenance staff who can help you keep your restaurant code-compliant and safe. The CDC’s guidelines for improving ventilation include the following.

  • Increase outdoor air circulation. Open outdoor air dampers wider to cut down on your HVAC recirculating your air.

  • Open windows and doors. No better source of fresh air than the outdoors, usually.

  • Fans, fans, and more fans. Set up fans to blow that fresh air in and blow old air out, to give even outdoor diners better circulation.

  • Keep up with your maintenance. Make sure your air filters are clean, your restroom exhaust fans work, and kitchen ventilation is clear.

How to clean ventilation systems

The last thing you want is a tricked-out HVAC system that you never bother to clean, and let it become a petri dish for pathogens. Keep your staff safe and your restaurant open — schedule maintenance by a HVAC professional.

Between those visits, though, you can do your part to keep things working smoothly.

  • Use the correct size and type of filter for your HVAC (it’s not a one-size-fits-all) and change it regularly. The same goes for your hood system, to make sure things like grease and bacteria emitted will capture properly. 

  • Speaking of vent hoods, clean them more often than you think. How much you clean your system depends largely on the type of hood and the volume of cooking happening in your kitchen each day. But a daily cleaning is a good rule of thumb. Filters for the most part can be cleaned with soap and water.

  • Install access doors to make cleaning easier. If it’s hard to reach certain areas, like the inside of ducts or fans, odds are your staff won’t clean them as often. Cleaning ducts is one of the most effective ways to help airflow and rid it of dust and germs and prevent mold from growing. Access doors are relatively easy to install, and they'll prevent future headaches.

How to repair your HVAC

Inevitably, things fall apart. Leaks spring. Noises clank. The cold air starts blowing warm. If you’ve done the easy things (guys, clean your filters already) then it’s time to call your professional. These systems have complex components and can be dangerous to fix if you’re untrained. Don’t get folks sick, and don’t break your expensive equipment. Even when there’s no pandemic afoot, you want your people to be able to breathe easy.

[Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels]