Casino-hotels’ challenge: Scrubbing smoke from air |

Casino-hotels’ challenge: Scrubbing smoke from air

John Seelmeyer

Not all that long ago, hotel casinos that didn’t smell like cigarette smoke were about as common as teams of unicorns prancing down South Virginia Street at 2 in the afternoon.

But given the desire of hotel customers to get to rooms, restaurants and other amenities without passing through clouds of smoke on casino floors, engineering teams at hotel casinos in Reno and Sparks are working overtime to provide smoke-free air.

Even as they do so, health officials and clean-air advocates are pushing hard for the next steps — including a wider ban on smoking indoors — to reduce the risks of second-hand smoke.

Reducing the odor of smoke is a devilishly tricky job, says Dean Parker, executive director of facilities at the Peppermill, which has put big amounts of energy and cash into the work in the past couple of years.

The challenges, Parker says, are particularly tricky in older casinos where low ceilings trap smoke close to the floor and decades-old ventilation systems weren’t designed with today’s smoke-averse consumers in mind.He points, for instance to basement restrooms in an older section of the Peppermill. The restrooms’ exhaust fans, he says, move enough air that they affect airflow — and efforts to remove smoke — from the slots area a floor above.

Carlton Geer, president and chief executive officer of JA Nugget, says the most basic design philosophy of big properties challenges efforts to keep inside air free of the smell of cigarette smoke.

JA Nugget has been undertaking extensive studies of ways of improving air quality inside the property as part of its $50 million renovation plan.

“Air quality is an intangible,” he says. “People don’t notice when it’s good. But they notice when it’s bad.”

Since the energy crisis of the early 1970s, Geer explains, designers sought to reduce heating and cooling costs through the design of tightly sealed buildings that reduced the amount of outside air — hot in the summer, cold in the winter — that is brought into hotels and casinos.

But smoke-reduction strategies usually rely — at least partially — on delivery of more fresh air from outside the building. And that can drive up energy consumption for hotel owners who have been putting a lot of work into conservation efforts.

“You have to take a holistic approach,” Geer says.

The Peppermill, for instance, started its efforts with the installation of 30 plasma air generators.

The technology, which was installed next to existing air filters in the Peppermill’s duct system, uses bi-polar ionization to neutralize odors, cigarette smoke, mold spores and airborne bacteria.

But the Peppermill’s next step, Parker says, seeks to solve the problems that arise with bringing hot or cold outside air into the building.

On days that either very hot or very cold, he explains, economizers choke down on the amount of outside air into the building. That reduction of outside flow — up to 70 percent on some days — results in stale air.

The answer? Technology known as “Energy Recovery Ventilation Systems.”

An ERVS, Parker explains, is a large heat-exchanger wheel that allows the building’s mechanical systems to bring in 100 percent fresh air year-round.

The wheel mixes fresh air from outside, whether it’s hot or cold, with temperature-controlled air from inside before it’s sent through heat exchanger. That means that the systems never choke down.

The Peppermill modified two large handlers with ERVS — dramatically improving air quality in its high-limit slots area — and it’s installing two more that handle the low-ceiling areas in its hotel lobby and in front of its Chi restaurant. The company also is installing air-purification systems at its Western Village property in Sparks.

But Kevin Dick, Washoe County district health officer, notes that there is no risk-free level of exposure to second-hand smoke, and air-cleaning technology simply doesn’t do the job.

“The public should not have a false sense of protection as a result of efforts to reduce odors in spaces where cigarette smoking occurs,” says Dick. “The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers has stated the only means of effectively eliminating health risks associated with indoor exposure is to ban smoking activity. No other engineering approaches, including current and advanced dilution ventilation or air cleaning technologies have been demonstrated or should be relied upon to control risks from environmental tobacco smoke in spaces where smoking occurs.” The only way to remove the risk, he says, is a ban on indoor smoking.