UVC light inactivates viruses and other airborne pathogens, improving indoor safety
By Del Williams
Although LED light fixtures normally emit non-harmful visible light with a 400–700 nm wavelength, lower-frequency UV light LEDs can effectively kill such pathogens. UVC, a very powerful UV light wavelength of 180–280 nm, is viricidal, bactericidal, and fungicidal since it passes through the outer wall of the pathogen and causes damage at the molecular level. The destruction ultimately leads to inactivation of the pathogen, making the cells unable to reproduce.
UVC is known to disinfect air, water, and nonporous surfaces and has been used for decades to reduce the spread of tuberculosis, influenza, and Legionnaires’ disease. According to the CDC, UVC is the only recognized technology for effective germicidal treatment against airborne pathogens.
The CDC has also determined that the integration of in-room UVC sources in conjunction with buildingwide HVAC systems has great promise, particularly given the growing knowledge of the dangers of airborne viruses. Best of all, these stand-alone UVC fixtures can be used continuously throughout the day, in occupied rooms, even when the HVAC system is off.
“In indoor settings, one of the best ways to combat airborne viruses is to continuously recycle individual room air while safely treating it with UVC radiation,” says Michael Fischer, president of Energy Harness Corporation, a Florida-based designer and manufacturer of LED lighting for a variety of commercial settings. “Unlike traditional wide-spectrum fluorescent or mercury vapor UV tubes, LEDs can produce UVC by controlling the specific wavelengths of light emitted. In addition, they don’t contain extremely toxic substances like arsenic or mercury that are inherent in the traditional UV tubes.”
Prior to the pandemic, Energy Harness responded to the demand for hydroponic “grow” lighting and designed LED lights with color spectrums (including UV) to mimic sunlight. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Fischer says his team quickly realized the potential effectiveness of UVC technology to deactivate viruses and used the technology to design a fixture to combat the airborne organisms. However, achieving this requires technology that can safely deliver the proper UVC dosage in a specific combination of three main factors.
“Ultimately, germicidal efficacy of ultraviolet light is based on dosage, distance, and wavelength,” explains Fischer. “Dosage is a function of UVC power multiplied by exposure time. Distance is the proximity of the pathogen to the UVC source. And wavelength is the nanometer range of the ultraviolet light.”
According to Fischer, to eradicate pathogens effectively, the UVC wavelength should be in the germicidal range, with a peak of approximately 268 nm. The intensity must be high enough to irradiate the space, and the duration must be long enough to affect the organism. He spells out the equation as (Wavelength Intensity * Duration) = Dosage Delivered.
After significant R&D, the LED manufacturer developed a ceiling-mounted UVC system called Active Airflow that circulates room air many times per hour into an enclosed chamber, where UVC disinfection occurs.
Due to its unique patent-pending design, the unit allows for an exceptionally long exposure time. The internal germicidal chambers are filled with hundreds of high-powered LEDs arranged in close proximity to the airborne pathogens as they move through the fixture. With the intensity, the distance, and the time measured, Energy Harness can effectively “control” the UVC dosage. In addition, the LEDs in the unit irradiate in the most effective germicidal range (with a 260–280 nm wavelength).
When the Active Airflow LED fixture was tested by Intertek Laboratories (ETL), a nationally recognized testing laboratory, it was shown to be 99.9% effective in eliminating airborne pathogens. Further laboratory testing directly on the SARS-CoV-2 virus revealed that the LED technology in the Active Airflow fixture inactivated 99.998% of the virus—within one second. A virus reduction rate of 99.999% is the maximum sensitivity that the testing mechanism could measure.
Because the unit houses the UVC LEDs internally, it does not produce any visible light in the room it disinfects. With the unit mounted in the ceiling, the people occupying the space are completely shielded from the UVC. Each LED fixture can typically disinfect a 256-square-foot area, depending on average occupancy, occupant activity level, etc., and multiple units can be deployed in larger rooms, according to Fischer.
When installed in standard ceiling grids, the pathogen-inactivating UVC LED fixture can be used continuously through the day in occupied rooms, which enables constant airborne disinfection of the air throughout the area.
The unit is UL and CSA certified by ETL and is manufactured in an EPA-registered facility in Florida. It has also been certified by ETL to produce no harmful ozone and is registered with the California Air Resources Board.
To help mitigate the spread of viruses, Union Health, an integrated health system in Indiana, installed 48 of the Active Airflow UVC LED light fixtures last year at its facilities, primarily at entry points, waiting areas, and testing areas. This year Union Health is installing a second round of fixtures.
“We are looking for different ways to protect our patients, our visitors, and our staff. So, after in-depth research, we were happy to move forward with the purchase and the installation of these devices,” said Mike Mullins, system director of facilities at Union Health System, in a TV interview last year.
Although this UVC LED fixture works independently from the HVAC system, it still uses active air handling to draw room air into the unit. The standalone approach of the disinfection system could make it simpler for most facilities to install. The unit is designed to fit into a grid ceiling much like a troffer luminaire and takes up the same space as a single 2- by 4-foot ceiling tile. In addition, although the primary focus of the Active Airflow UVC LED fixture is on safety and the continuous disinfection of airborne viruses, aesthetically pleasing architectural designs are also being developed to complement a variety of interiors.
As healthcare facilities are seeking to make their indoor areas safer while occupants are still in the room, the installation of fixtures that can continuously kill airborne pathogens will be vital to aid safe operation.
Del Williams is a technical writer who lives in Torrance, California.