The post you are about to read is based upon a factual account of a property condition assessment (PCA) recently completed for a commercial real estate property consisting of a multi-tenant industrial office and warehouse building located in a far northwest suburb of Chicago. Please note that specific information such as the property address and names of those directly or indirectly involved in this particular real estate transaction were intentionally omitted to maintain confidentiality given delicate subject matter of/affecting life and safety.
Having provided carbon monoxide (CO) testing of gas utilization equipment for well over ten years during the 1980's and 1990's in addition to having learned about the production, mitigation, prevention, testing, and harmful effects of elevated levels of carbon monoxide due to incomplete combustion of natural gas utilization equipment from a recognized leader/foremost authority on carbon monoxide testing in the industry by the name of Jim Davis—senior carbon monoxide/combustion trainer and consultant for the National Comfort Institute (NCI), who began traveling the country during the 80's and 90's conducting carbon monoxide training seminars for building and HVAC contractors, building inspectors, utility companies and virtually anyone interested in learning about carbon monoxide testing and proven methods to mitigate and prevent gas utilization equipment from producing elevated levels of carbon monoxide in flue gas known to cause CO poisoning—has without a doubt proven invaluable in heightening my awareness of conditions conducive to/indicative of incomplete combustion known to result in elevated/unsafe levels of CO in flue gas. Suffice it to say that any gas utilization equipment found to produce elevated/unsafe levels of carbon monoxide in flue gas is normally considered sufficient grounds by the gas company to shut-off gas to the property in addition to 'red' tagging gas utilization equipment responsible until such time the condition is addressed and no longer considered a threat to the life and safety of the building occupants.
CO Poisoning Goes Virtually Undetected in a Professional Office Environment
It's a cold, sunny Saturday afternoon in February and I've been given a reprieve in the weather thereby allowing me to use an outdoor scissor lift to safely access/observe a flat roof 24-foot above the finish grade (pertaining to the property for which I have been hired to conduct a PCA) without having to contend with rain/snow and below freezing outdoor air temperatures preventing a visual inspection of the roof much less conduct a higher level due diligent assessment of package rooftop units since gloves cannot be worn as they tend to interfere in attempting to access hidden system components such as air filter elements, blower fan motor assemblies, serpentine tube heat exchangers, etc. typically concealed from view in conducting a baseline PCA. In retrospect, everything appeared to be going well until I had reached the top of the roof whereby I could not help but notice a strong pungent odor emanating from a package rooftop unit operating on heat mode, an odor none other than 'Aldehyde', a byproduct of incomplete combustion of natural gas. Make no mistake in that the smell of Aldehyde is like no other in that once you have had a whiff, not unlike ammonia or skunk (think marijuana cigarette smoke), it's definitely a strong scent you will not soon forget. Moreover, ask anyone well versed in combustion of natural gas utilization equipment such as your local gas company rep or an experienced licensed mechanical contractor and they will tell you unequivocally that not only is Aldehyde a byproduct of incomplete combustion of natural gas but is more often than not accompanied by carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. I can also tell you from experience that whether you are outdoors or not, if you breathe in enough carbon monoxide, your cardio vascular system will be compromised whereby you may start to get dizzy, nauseous, vomit and pass out. A worse case scenario is that you may die in the process. Surprisingly, many don't realize that with exception of an elevated body temperature, carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms mimic and as such are often misdiagnosed for the flu. In reality, any legitimate medical website, such as Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins, will confirm the similarity of symptoms between carbon monoxide poisoning and the flu. However, many fail to recognize much less understand how a small confined or even large space without adequate ventilation/dilution air can result in death of people subjected to elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the air they breathe. Getting back to the roof, a visual examination of a serpentine tube heat exchanger inside/serving one of the package rooftop units revealed what appeared to be the beginning of a small crack/breech in the heat exchanger. As it turned out, this happened to be the package rooftop unit producing the pungent combustion gas odor cited earlier whereby a breech in the heat exchanger acts to allow flue gas to enter the circulating air stream (conditioned air) inside the building. Needless to say, if carbon monoxide is present under these conditions, it can be easily drawn into the conditioned air space. Moreover, upon disclosing this information to the operations manager of the tenant space below, he was only too quick to respond that a number of company employees had allegedly been home sick with the flue on more than one occasion over the past three months beginning November 2019 that had yet to end as it was fast approaching the end of February, 2020 at which time we were conducting the PCA. As this happened to be the peak of the flu season, no one mentioned or least suspected the possibility of CO poisoning. Interestingly enough, the operations manager stated that a number of employees no sooner returned home from work believing they were sick when they miraculously began to feel better a couple of hours later. This in turn led us to believe that while a number of employees may have well contracted the flu, many may have experienced CO poisoning instead without realizing it.
In short, based upon our conversation with the operations manager, he immediately apprised his boss who in turn contacted the property owner who allegedly contacted a qualified licensed mechanical contractor to put things in perspective. Two days later we were informed by the tenant that the gas was shut-off to their respective space served by the package rooftop units whereby portable electric baseboard heaters were purchased and brought in to provide temporary heat until such time a final decision could be reached as to whether to repair/replace the existing package rooftop units. In brief, we were later informed by our client that the seller had decided to replace all four package rooftop units. However, not knowing the exact reason/s that may have influenced the seller's final decision, our guess is that it was more than likely due to rooftop units well beyond their statistical life cycle, their reliance upon R-22 refrigerant currently being phased out of the industry not to mention two rooftop units with suspect heat exchangers accompanied by elevated levels of CO in flue gas creating a potential liability that could end up in a law suit. Hence, our client and new property owner was able to acquire four (4) brand new package rooftop units at an estimated cost of $36,000 to $42,000 not to mention manufacturer equipment warranties all of which resulted from a PCA paid for in the amount of $1,500. While this surprisingly represents a pay back or ROI equal to 24 to 28 times the cost of the PCA in which event I can assure you this certainly isn't the norm for every PCA we provide, it does illustrate how a PCA designed to best serve a client's needs, conducted according to document ASTM E2018-15 Standard Guide for PCAs can often pay for itself and a whole lot more.