HVAC Best Practices to Make Schools Safer During COVID-19

To prove safer classroom environments to an auditor when federal funds are used to make improvements, schools will likely need to do more than show a receipt.

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Funded by federal dollars, K-12 and higher education institutions across the nation have been overhauling heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) this year. However, to prove safer classroom environments to a federal auditor, schools will likely need to do more than show a receipt. They must follow industry best practices to achieve results supported by science and data-driven reporting.

In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law, which designated more than $120 billion in relief funding to help schools reopen safely, including repairing and improving HVAC systems. Considering the mounting scientific evidence that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted as an airborne virus, a school HVAC system's ability to filter out viruses and other pathogens has become critical.

As a more-than-30-year veteran of the HVAC industry, I caution schools against hastily launching an overhaul of their HVAC systems or placing expensive bets on unfamiliar technology. Instead, I recommend they follow industry best practices endorsed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and secure an accredited and certified indoor air quality (IAQ) firm to conduct a thorough assessment of their HVAC systems. The following are questions a thorough assessment should answer:

When was the current system manufactured and installed?

According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, "State of Our Schools, 2016," the average age of a U.S. public school building in the 2012-13 school year was 44 years. Older buildings often have mismatched systems and technologies. Only a certified and experienced building scientist can determine if they are working properly and efficiently. It is easy and lucrative for HVAC firms to recommend replacing everything, but it may not be necessary.

Is the current system clean and free of mold, legionella or other dangerous microbes?

The visual inspection and testing of a system are required. If a system has recently been shut down or turned off for any period of time, perhaps during a COVID-19 lockdown, mold, legionella or other dangerous microbes could be present. The environmental cleaning of the current system may be called for. A certified technician can discern if an environmental cleaning is insufficient and replacement of the contaminated components is necessary.

Can the current system handle the increased flow of outdoor air as recommended by the CDC?

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommend increased amounts of outdoor air be added to indoor spaces. Of course, outside air contains greater amounts of particulate and moisture, which create maintenance issues for an HVAC system. A certified technician can guide you on the maximum addition of outside air your current system can handle or recommend modifications.

Can the current system maintain the minimum required airflow even with more restrictive HEPA filtration recommended by the CDC?

Current CDC recommendations call for increased high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration. This helps remove particulate matter and dangerous microbes like the COVID-19 virus. However, increased filtration can reduce airflow, which also is essential to reducing the airborne presence of the virus. A certified HVAC technician can determine the maximum amount of filtration your system can handle, while still producing the desired airflow.

Does the current system need to be supplemented with air purification units?

Whether an HVAC system needs to be supplemented with air purification units (APUs) depends on the system. If after a thorough review, test and assessment of your system, an accredited building scientist recommends adding APUs, then look for those that utilize a combination of the following technologies found to be effective at controlling IAQ: filter media, electrostatic precipitation, ionizers, needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI), ultra-germicidal irradiation (UVGI) and adsorbent media.

Does the current system offer IAQ monitoring to stay in front of potential threats?

An effective IAQ monitoring system monitors building conditions 24/7 with an all-in-one module. A remote team alerts facilities managers of changes that could impact IAQ.

Does the client have an operations and maintenance asset evaluation?

The way I see it, the HVAC system is a building's most valuable asset and the biggest factor in energy consumption and environmental pollution. It is nearly impossible to understand the efficacy of its operations without knowing the history of an HVAC system. If you do not have an operations and maintenance assessment, a certified HVAC technician can help you create one. It is a critical tool to help a secondary or higher education institution develop best practices in the use of ARPA funds.

In summary, there is no magic pill to solve all HVAC issues and ensure a safe environment for our students. But, working with an accredited and certified IAQ firm, school administration officials can conduct a thorough assessment of their HVAC systems and learn what their specific needs are. Such a firm will help them make wise and efficient use of ARPA funds to finance any necessary remediation of their systems. Finally, should audits become necessary, an accredited and certified IAQ firm can provide the science and data-driven reporting auditors will ask for to justify a school's HVAC expenditures.

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