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COVID-19

Preparing spaces for worship post COVID-19 outbreak

Augusta Air Balance assisted the First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., in reopening its doors after the COVID-19 outbreak and the steps it took can be used as a model for other facilities.

By Joseph K. Hardy September 22, 2021
Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

The COVID-19 outbreak has put the brakes on most gatherings of large numbers of people. While sports, musical performances, and movie theaters were among those most affected, churches, synagogues and mosques were also, for the most part, closed for business just like most commercial entities.

In an effort to determine how to reopen safely and return to some sense of “normalcy” — however that might look — religious organizations and retail establishments are all trying to determine the best course of action to take to return to day-to-day and week-to-week activities. Religious groups present a special set of circumstances, since each has its own rhythm for daily and weekly gatherings. As TAB, commissioning, and energy management firms, we are uniquely positioned to assist these groups with their reopening efforts.

Augusta Air Balance assisted the First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga in reopening its doors. What follows is how we assisted the staff in their planning and implementation of protective measures.

A little background information will help explain the measures that are being taken: The church had a congregation of about 3,000 resident members. The church buildings were arranged in a campus setting consisting of seven free-standing buildings utilized for various activities such as Sunday services, bible study, weekday education, and sports events. All of these present different opportunities for virus spread. Four of the buildings were conditioned using chilled water/hot water fan coil console units. The remaining three had central heating and air conditioning also fed by the central energy plant.

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

These buildings are the focus of this article:

  • Sanctuary/administration
  • Chapel/fellowship
  • Gymnasium/contemporary worship space.

Similar measures were taken in all three spaces, but the sanctuary was our focus. Located in a structure along with the administrative suite of offices, the sanctuary was served by three of the seven central air handling units (AHU), all having chilled water/hot water coils and central energy management control system (EMCS). The main air handler had 100% outside air capability. AHU no. 2 and no. 3 provided up to about 50% outside air at design air flow.

ASHRAE’s Position Document on Infectious Aerosols, in the works since 2017 and published on April 14, 2020, included the following two COVID-19 statements that were approved by ASHRAE’s Executive Committee and Epidemic Task Force, specific to the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “due to the unique relationship between the statements and the protective design strategies discussed in [the] position document.”

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols

Approved by ASHRAE Board of Directors April 14, 2020; expires April 14, 2023

COVID-19 Statements

Separate from the approval of this position document, ASHRAE’s Executive Committee and Epidemic Task Force approved the following statements specific to the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two statements are appended here due to the unique relationship between the statements and the protective design strategies discussed in this position document: Statement on airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of HVAC systems, can reduce airborne exposures.

Statement on operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission: Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air. Unconditioned spaces can cause thermal stress to people that may be directly life threatening and that may also lower resistance to infection. In general, disabling of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems is not a recommended measure to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

ASHRAE offers COVID-19 building readiness/reopening guidance

Create a strategic plan prior to opening a building. The plan should include measures to make occupants feel safer, ensuring supply chain for critical items such as filters and communication plans for building support and safety measures for occupants. If the building opening takes place when personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements are still in place, ASHRAE’s Occupancy Guides can be referenced to deal with functioning buildings during the epidemic.

Review HVAC programming to provide flushing two hours before and post occupancies. This includes operating the exhaust fans as well as opening the outside air dampers. For buildings without the capacity to treat large quantities of outside air and when outside air conditions are moderate, open all windows for a minimum of two hours before reoccupation.

Ensure that custodial scope includes proper cleaning procedures built from EPA and CDC guidance on approved products and methods:

  • Disinfect high-touch areas of HVAC and other building service systems (e.g. on/off switches, thermostats).
  • Disinfect the interior of refrigerated devices, e.g. refrigerators, where the virus can potentially survive for long periods of time.
  • Run the system on minimum outside air when unoccupied.
  • Garage exhaust, if any, should run two hours before occupancy.

The church staff, along with congregational leadership, embarked on a plan of action designed to make the resuming of worship services as safe as possible for the participants. The ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols, published April 14, 2020 along with CDC guidelines, were provided by AABCo for their use and reference. Though social distancing and surface cleanliness measures were taken, they don’t require any assistance from a TAB, commissioning or energy management firms. The measures taken inside the air handling systems, however, benefit from all three specialties.

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

ASHRAE and CDC recommendations for non-medical facilities are very similar. ASHRAE’s Position Document on Infectious Aerosols, states in part, “…HVAC systems can have a major impact on transmission from the primary to the secondary host.” Because of this, the following recommendations were offered:

  1. Increase outdoor air quantity as outdoor air temperature allows; 100% being the optimal. Disable any demand control ventilation controls.
  2. Change AHU filters to MERV-13 or higher if possible.
  3. Run system(s) 24/7 if possible or as long as possible if 24/7 operation is not possible. Run units on minimum outside air during unoccupied periods.
  4. Add portable room AC units with HEPA or >/= MERV-13 filters with consideration to clean air delivery rate (more on this later).
  5. Add duct- or unit-mounted, upper room, and/or portable ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) devices in connection to in-room fans in high-density spaces.
  6. Maintain room temperature and relative humidity as applicable to the infectious aerosol of concern.
  7. Bypass energy recovery ventilator systems that can leak potentially contaminated exhaust air back into the outdoor air supply.
  8. Design and build inherent capabilities to respond to emerging threats and plan and practice for them.

With the information gleaned from ASHRAE and CDC, the leadership took the following measures in order to begin using the sanctuary spaces for corporate worship:

  1. Open outdoor air dampers to allow for 100% or maximum outside air to be introduced to the space.
  2. Install MERV-13 filters in all units.
  3. Procure and install UVGI and ionization units in the AHU’s.
  4. Run HVAC systems 24/7 prior to occupancy. Flush areas with 100% outside air for at least two hours before and two hours after occupancy.
  5. Install high-wall mount UV light units in restrooms.

You may question why the UVGI plus ionization in units with MERV-13 filters? ASHRAE’s Systems states that MERV-13 filters remove </= 50% of particles 0.3 microns in size. The COVID-19 virus measures .01 microns in size. Therefore, one could assume that a MERV-13 filter is much less than 50% effective in removing the aerosolized COVID-19 virus. The UVGI and Ionization measures provide a higher probability of capture/destruction of any of the particles that might be in the return/outside air stream.

In addition to these measures, the congregational seating was planned for social distancing. Masks are a required part of Sunday attire. The janitorial staff is cleaning surfaces prior to and following all occupancies. There is no choir or congregational singing.

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

Courtesy: Augusta Air Balance

And, yes, everyone is praying that we have taken the proper steps to protect those attending the services.

This originally appeared in the AABC TAB Journal. AABC is a CFE Media content partner. 


Joseph K. Hardy
Author Bio: Joseph K. Hardy, TBE, Augusta Air Balance Co., LLC