Options for Vertical Transportation in the Wake of COVID-19

by Jennifer M. Bobbitt

As we cautiously emerge from our COVID-19 cocoons and individually expand our level of comfort in public settings, there are a few areas we may find ourselves stuck and confused about what to do. According to a recent article in NJ.com titled, “Elevators are a claustrophobic coronavirus nightmare. There may be new rules for riding them,” there are currently no state guidelines on elevators, nor does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer any guidelines. This means if there is no direction provided, you are left to decide whether to board the elevator that could fill up with people and their germs, take the stairs, or hold your breath and hope others around you are doing the same.

By now, we’ve all heard the recommendations about maintaining a safe six-foot distance from others to avoid the possibility of spreading respiratory particles. With the average size of an elevator at six to seven feet wide and deep, you can quickly do the math and figure out that there is not much wiggle room to provide the safe space between multiple patrons. It’s also unrealistic to believe that everyone will follow the same protocol as you, whether in the elevator cab or the queuing lobby area. With an estimated 900,000 elevators in the United States and so many opportunities for breathing, sneezing, and coughing in a closed space, what do you do to stay safe and keep your building occupants safe in the age of the current pandemic?

According to Wellogy (formerly Davis Wince, Ltd.) Architect and Principal Julie Delos Santos, there are many options to explore, and it depends on the size of your building and the number of cars you have running. Delos Santos should know, in the past 20 years with the firm; she has made quite a name for herself as the go-to elevator resource. From the modernization of historic elevators at the Moyer Judicial Center, which houses The Supreme Court of Ohio, to the Bureau of Workers Compensation Elevator Modernization and numerous service and passenger elevator modernizations, Julie has managed projects to modernize over 75 elevators, including 24 with Destination Dispatch capabilities.

Wellogy and elevator consultant Lerch Bates have worked on multiple projects together. They have proven themselves as valuable problem solvers when faced with a myriad of elevator challenges, like the current ones posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Delos Santos is currently working with Lerch Bates on an elevator modernization project at The Ohio State University but points to the completion of another recent project as a possible safe spacing solution for large buildings. The Vern Riffe Destination Dispatch Elevator Modernization is the best example of creating an efficient and safer elevator experience, both now and in the future, according to Delos Santos.

The Vern Riffe State Office Tower houses the Ohio Governor’s office, at the heart of the COVID-19 task force. The 32-story building was completed in 1988 before the Destination Dispatch system was an available option. Wellogy led the multi-phased modernization of 18 elevators and their respective machine rooms. All work is being completed in the fully occupied high rise office building. The design team worked closely with the Owner to phase the work in such a manner to minimize any impact to the building occupants. According to Delos Santos, “We are currently looking at options that the new Destination Dispatch (DD) system can provide to aide in social distancing for vertical transportation. There are several social distancing options related to this system.”

What is the Destination Dispatch system, and why is it a good option for buildings moving forward or upward?

The Destination Dispatch system groups passengers together by the same destination. So instead of pressing the up or down button, you will push the button for the floor you wish to go to, or in some cases, swipe a card and therefore creating a touchless system. The system will then direct you to a specific car in the elevator line-up, where you join others going to the same or adjacent floors, decreasing the number of stops for each trip. There are no buttons in the elevator that need to be pushed.

The system can also be adjusted to limit the number of patrons in a car going to a particular floor. An example would be if three people want to go to the 5th floor, they would be directed to go to elevator A. The next three patrons also going to the 5th floor might be directed to elevator B, and so on. According to Delos Santos, this might cause another issue with an increased queue in the elevator lobby. However, there are multiple ways to address this. The building operations may shift to create a system for social distancing in the lobbies, or perhaps the building occupants are assigned to staggered work hours to minimize peak times. Traffic studies can help to provide direction. “That’s where we have to get creative and add in more direction and signage,” according to Delos Santos, who admits to problem-solving elevator challenges in her sleep. “It is more difficult for vertical transportation that does not have the Destination Dispatch system. For a typical elevator system, it would be helpful to mimic some of the DD system features,” Delos Santos said.

The installation of the Destination Dispatch system not only allows for better occupant spacing but an overall increased efficiency of the elevators. If implemented in a new building, the DD system may allow for fewer elevators to service the same population compared to a typical dispatch system. It will also enable the Owner to adjust the security levels they would like to implement on specific cars in real-time.

Elevator Studies and Assessments are also a critical part of the equation. Delos Santos notes that a usage study and an assessment of your current elevator system can provide insight as to the best solution for your building. “The answers often reveal themselves, and when working with an elevator consultant and our engineering partners, we can quickly execute a solution to keep things moving up through the current pandemic and whatever new standards the future holds,” according to Delos Santos.

What are some other alternatives for smaller buildings and offices in lieu of a major renovation?

Delos Santos notes a host of new products coupled with directional signage and other operational changes. One option is staggering start and end times for employees to help reduce congestion in the cars as well as the lobby. Other options include the addition of ultraviolet rays (UV-C) technology. According to an article in Send2PressNewswire.com, UV-C light has been used for over 70 years to kill viruses. Directional signage can also be a useful tool when incorporated in the lobby and cars with circles placed on the elevator floor, indicating which direction to face for the best protection. Other options noted in a recent NPR.org article, “The Office Elevator In COVID-19 Times: Experts Weigh in on Safer Ups and Downs,” includes using antiviral stickers for the elevator buttons or utilizing buttons that can be activated by your feet, and HVAC air purification systems. The article also recommends wearing a mask and using tissues or toothpicks to push buttons. According to Delos Santos, “There are options both large and small to help building owners manage the risk. It is important to assess your traffic patterns and work within your means to keep your building occupants safe in preparation for whatever lies ahead.”