Safely opening education facilities: HVAC implications for consideration
ASHRAE and the CDC are issuing protocols to address indoor air quality, especially in education institutions, which are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to impact every building system through operational changes in one way or another. As many building owners and occupants look to ensure the indoor air that is circulating throughout buildings is safe, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) are issuing protocols to address indoor air quality, especially in education institutions as they are among the first to tackle the COVID-19 logistical challenges head on.
As educational leaders question the ability to reopen safely or implement other measures, leadership is continually pressured to open for a variety of financial, academic, and community reasons. But, despite significant pressure, they must also accommodate the bargaining units of each district, faculty, and support staff unions.
Combined with the challenges of COVID-19 and the corresponding extreme financial duress, leaders and communities are trying to select and implement the best solutions for everyone. However, as the pandemic continues, schools may need significant emergency funds to reach this year’s unique goals.
Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), many schools are directing emergency federal funding to support learning while mitigating the risks of spreading the virus. Specifically, some of these funds have been directed at:
- Enhanced filtration to improve air quality and ventilation in HVAC systems
- PPE and cleaning supplies
- Additional equipment including 1:1 student laptops and supporting software
- New buses to accommodate social distancing requirements
- Relocating trailers to create additional classroom space for face-to-face instruction
- Staffing additional full-time nursing positions
- Reimbursements for unanticipated expenses as a result of abruptly shifting students and administration to distance learning, remote work, etc.
Additionally, in the instance of face-to-face instruction, there is an acute focus on air ventilation in school buildings coming from concerned faculty, parents, and students who want to ensure their school’s HVAC systems have been assessed to comply with the appropriate protocols to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. For this assessment, it’s important to make sure the building has been assessed by a professional or HVAC expert to ensure accuracy and to avoid complications. In compliance with CDC and ASHRAE developments, here are a few things to consider and expect during this assessment:
- Before making airflow adjustments, perform a system evaluation.
- Prior to ordering and installing MERV-13 filters, ensure systems can accommodate them (MERV-13 filters are becoming unavailable due to short supply).
- Review sequence of operations protocol to ensure adequate ventilation per CDC guidelines and proper air exchange rates.
- Assess particulate filtration options to determine if filtration is adequate (i.e., this typically involves increasing the MERV rating of the filters used, but potential impacts to total air flow and air change rates must be considered).
Another effective technology against COVID — when properly applied and engineered — is ultraviolet light disinfection. UVC light can inhibit biological growth on surfaces and can potentially neutralize airborne viruses.
By thoroughly assessing facilities with a qualified engineering team and best applying relief funds, several effective strategies can be implemented resulting in a safe learning environment, an optimized HVAC system, avoided unintended consequences to ventilation, cost savings for modifications, and a flexible system allowing for changes as conditions warrant.
Although opening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic presents many challenges for school administrators, careful planning, engineering, and proper application of mitigation strategies and funds can help enable educational systems and facilities succeed despite current circumstances. And, today’s challenges are also providing opportunities to optimize and build better in the future.