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Shedding Light On UV-C: Which Post-Pandemic Sterilizing Technologies Are Worth The Spend?


Self-cleaning fixtures, electrostatic foggers, air ionizers, even antimicrobial hand towels — in 2020, janitorial offerings began to sound like science fiction movie props. 

Native Management co-owner and Chief Operating Officer Carlos Saez, who manages 10 properties in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area, was inundated by options for new pandemic-appropriate sterilization services.

"Oh, geez, I think there is a new option every single day," Saez told Bisnow. "I’ve got somebody calling me from a blocked number, telling me they want to sell us services. Some of these machines don't even exist yet," he said of options that vendors are claiming they can sell before they are widely available on the market.

"At the beginning [of the pandemic], everybody rushed and bought toilet paper. We’re still not sure why that happened," he said. "In a way it's kind of like that with some of these new cleaning technologies: everybody panic-buying without doing the research."

Ron Weiner, CEO of office furniture company iMovr, agrees. He has expressed skepticism about the ability for most office furniture finishes to stand up to the abrasive cleaning products that are often used in increasingly prevalent electrostatic misting and fogging services. For Weiner, the flood of new office-friendly applications for UV-C light sterilization also raises questions.

"I’m staring at a $60 device on Amazon that was $40 two months ago," Weiner said "It’s just big enough for your phone or mask, and these things are selling like crazy."

The subject of years of research, recently UV-C technology has been increasingly widely used in hospital settings, disarming pathogens (like viruses and bacteria) by zapping and frying their DNA. One benefit of UV-C devices is that they are inexpensive, he said, but the drawbacks are worth noting, too: "They are, however, carcinogenic and can cause eye damage" by burning the eyes’ corneas.

"We have one [sample] unit we received from a manufacturer in China, a monitor stand with a drawer, with three solid-state UV light emitters," Weiner said. "You move the keyboard and mouse under the monitor stand then close the drawer to block the light from hitting your eyes, then hit a button. The thing is, this thing has open sides," which the light shows through, he said. 

Of course, there are plenty of safe ways to wield the technology — such as robots, which are already being deployed in hotels and hospitals. And beyond the market for individual-use devices like phone sterilizers and hand-held UV-C wands, buildings are exploring ways to use the technology on a larger scale, such as using it to cleanse empty elevator cars or to zap air with disinfecting powers as it circulates through an HVAC system.

New York City's Magnolia Bakery recently announced plans to install a portal full of lightbulbs in the entrance. Walking through the portal — as one might walk through a TSA scanner — would emit a theoretically harmless-to-humans version of UV-C light called far UV-C light, killing germs on patrons as they enter the building.

Research has shown far UV-C is effective in killing viral pathogens like H1N1, but the installation of this technology in public buildings is giving some researchers pause: Discover Magazine reported on the plans, interviewing University of Colorado Boulder environmental engineer Karl Linden, who said he was "quite shocked” at the idea of far UV-C as a frontline of defense in public spaces.

In part, that’s because there is little to no verified published research on what impacts it may have on humans over prolonged periods. Without more research on its effects on humans, Linden told Discover, "my excitement [is] tempered with the concern that it could be an application that could have some dangerous side effects or direct effects."

Even if it proves harmless, other scientists tell Discover they have a different concern: that such a measure may be relatively pointless. If a person is infected with the novel coronavirus, Discover reported, they will put pathogens into the air by breathing, no matter what kind of disinfecting portal they may have passed through on the way in. 

While property managers, owners and developers need to do research and exercise scrutiny to ensure they are coming up with solutions that address the problems at hand without fostering a false sense of security, high-tech cleaning services are expected to be in high demand. A late May survey by OpenWorks found that 83% of business leaders indicated it was "likely" or "very likely" that they would increase the frequency of cleaning their offices or facilities, and nearly all of those planned to add regular disinfection to their cleaning programs.

"Sanitation services are trending as the new employee retention tool," Dave Teper of Tangram Interiors told GlobeSt. in mid-May. "The proper documentation process seems to be the biggest driver in piquing the interest of owners because there is great value in not only telling your staff but also showing them what has been done."

In other words, according to Teper, the comfort may come more from the idea that action is being taken than from the measurable impact that action has on reducing the spread of the virus. GlobeSt. took this idea a step further, speculating that hi-fi sterilization programs may, like energy reduction and sustainability programs, become so sexy that their existence, data aside, "could be a competitive tool to retain quality tenants and for businesses to retain employees."

To some extent, Saez said optics do play a role in the decision-making process, putting measures in place to ease the minds of both owners and tenants which is, if nothing else, a more attainable goal than certain reduction of risk. But he added it is his obligation to both the property owners and their tenants to be discerning. "Property management is such an interesting dynamic, to be the person the tenant needs, but also filling that role for the building owner. We need to not say yes to everything that’s out there, not cost our buildings unnecessary money," he said. "We have to be smart.

"We’re not pretending to be experts on the coronavirus, but we’re trying to talk to as many experts as we can," he added. "We’re trying to be ahead of it. A lot of that comes to us educating our tenants. Every other day, there’s something better, but before we put tools in the tenants’ hands, there is a lot to figure out."


CORRECTION, July 1, 2:31 P.M. ET: A previous version of the story misstated Dave Teper's place of employment. The error has been corrected.