It only took a deadly virus and toxic wildfire smoke to put air quality in the forefront of public consciousness, according to Oleg Volkov, a local heating, ventilation and air conditioning installer.
“I’ve been in the industry for a while now, and I noticed before, when you tried to sell someone a 5-inch filter instead of having a 1-inch filter, that can only do so much. It’s not really good air filtration – people wouldn’t really understand that. They were like, ‘I already have one, why would I need it?,'” said Volkov, 29, an install manager at Washougal Heating & Cooling. “I think with the smoke we had and when COVID started, people were more open to listen about air quality in their home.”
Filtration quality could be compared to the different styles of masks: There are N95 masks at the high end of protection, and basic cloth masks at the low end. Depending on the number of layers and material, there is more or less protection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even released recommendations for reducing the spread COVID-19 inside buildings, since virus particles indoors spread between people more easily than outdoors. In addition to masks and distancing, the federal agency advises to upgrade HVAC systems and equipment and increase air filtration and air flow, among other things. Some research has shown that maintaining humidity levels between 40 to 60 percent indoors can also help prevent the virus from spreading. On the other hand, too much moisture in your home is prime for bacteria growth.
“There’s a lot of equipment out there to clean your air,” Volkov said.
The Columbian caught up with Volkov to learn more.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in the former Soviet Union. We immigrated here right after 9/11. I lived in California most of my life. When I moved to Portland, I was working in a church community as a counselor. I never planned to be in HVAC. When I got married, I was doing a fruit business at the time. That got slow, which pushed me into looking for another job. I decided to go into (HVAC) because I needed to support my family.
How has the job been impacted by the pandemic?
So, I would say it’s been pretty weird. There were expectations that the economy was going to crash. There was a lot of fear in the industry. We had issues in the beginning of the pandemic with equipment because manufacturers thought that everything was going to slow down. Because of COVID-19, they closed the factories for about a month. We had issues with getting the equipment because they didn’t make them, and people were still ordering them. We did have times where either people were sick, so that did limit a lot of things such as going into people’s homes. They want an estimate on the phone or they’d push their maintenance months out. But I wouldn’t say it was a major blow to our business in particular. It’s been fluctuating.
What have you learned about HVAC systems in the pandemic and during wildfires?
Being in HVAC, our main goal is air comfort, air flow. Our biggest goal is not about machines; it’s about making customer comfortable. With the pandemic, the industry itself they’ve been having a lot of focus on filtration and air purity. It did open the door to educate the community about air quality inside the home. Our sales with things like filter caps and air scrubbers did go up. We did give out discounts because we understand people were struggling financially.
What is the most ideal set up someone could have at home during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, the one thing you want to focus on is making sure your system works. It’s not only about COVID. We have the flu and other airborne things. When you don’t have air circulation, it’s not good for the house. Moisture allows bacteria to grow. Another big thing is focusing on the filters. Not only does it protect the customer, but it also protects the system. A lot of systems fail because of dirt. When it clogs up, you’re circulating a lot of dirty air throughout your house. Getting your duct work cleaned every five to seven years is what is recommended. Another big thing is investing in air scrubbers. There are a couple different types of air purification systems on the market, but I’d say invest into any of them. Any of them is better than nothing. I have one in my house, installed one at my mom’s house and at my parents-in-laws’ house.
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Did you see impacts to the business during or after the wildfires in particular?
All these things have to do with air – whether it’s COVID-19 or wildfires, pretty much anything that has to do with air. It gets people to think. The first thing they think of is HVAC in your home because it’s a sacred place. That’s where your kids are. It does help in a sense to get things into perspective. We meet people and they don’t understand the importance of air quality. But with COVID and when we had wildfires, it does open the door to listen. It helps us explain not to necessarily sell stuff but to help them out. It’s not just a sales call; it’s an investment into your health and into your home.
What’s your advice for people who might be curious about their HVAC systems during the pandemic?
I’d say the biggest thing is air filters. That’s the most basic and most crucial part of HVAC systems. Not to be all mechanical. I didn’t understand this at a point in my life. I’ll be talking to a customer and I can tell that I already lost them. A lot of people don’t even know they have air filters. They bought a house; they don’t meet with the new owners or do a walk through. I just bought a house not long ago; the inspector doesn’t tell you all the details. They just tell you it works and that’s it. People end up paying a lot of money during the emergency service calls. So do maintenance ahead of time.