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Improving Indoor Air Quality in Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities must ensure their facilities provide a safe, healthy, and productive environment as students and staff return to the classroom.

As students and faculty return to class, colleges and universities across the U.S. are looking for ways to ensure their facilities provide a safe, healthy, and productive environment.

While cleaning surfaces, wearing masks, facilitating social distancing, and testing is a good start, it’s not enough to prevent infections within campus buildings. Industry experts are recommending that additional measures should be taken—the most important being improving indoor air quality.

Is your campus ready?

It’s clear that keeping campuses closed will have long-term effects on both students and society as a whole–but opening schools is presenting a multitude of challenges. Even before the pandemic, research showed that poor indoor air quality in schools directly hampers student health and academic performance and negatively impacts teacher productivity and retention. In addition to spreading infections, airborne pollutants such as molds, dust, and fumes negatively impact student health, ability to concentrate, and classroom performance. To that end, ASHRAE, the organization that determines the technical standards for indoor building systems, has asserted that existing HVAC systems should be modified to increase airflow in an effort to halt transmission of COVID-19.

What can be done?

1. Improve filtration

At approximately 80-160 nanometers (about 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair), the coronavirus particle is tiny. Such small virus particles stay airborne and can travel long distances carried by airflows in the extract air ducts of ventilation systems. Most school buildings utilize a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 5 to 11. Retro-commissioning and tuning-up existing HVAC systems can help reduce airborne pathogens and will improve indoor air quality. If the system is older, colleges should consider replacing it with a modern system with a MERV-13 filter and ultraviolet light treatment. HEPA filters are another option.  Unfortunately, since HEPA filters are very thick, require large amounts of energy, and since most large buildings weren’t designed for this type of equipment, they can be a challenge to install and expensive to operate. A possible work-around includes using stand-alone HEPA units in individual, high-capacity areas.

2. Increase natural ventilation

In addition to reducing energy consumption, natural ventilation provides higher air exchange rates and, in turn, a more significant dilution factor. (Research has established that children in classrooms with high outdoor air ventilation rates tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests in math and reading than children in poorly ventilated classrooms.)

3. Control humidity

We’ve known for years that damp conditions and mold increase the risk of respiratory issues by as much as 30% to 50%. Research suggests that keeping humidity between 40% to 60% may help to limit the spread and survival of viruses within buildings while minimizing the risk of mold growth. The humidity within an enclosed space can be reduced by using ventilation fans, repairing any leaky pipes, and even using a dehumidifier.

4. Use light to combat pathogens

Initial tests conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s biodefense research laboratory show that sunlight is detrimental to the coronavirus—especially ultraviolet light. Portable ultraviolet units are already being used to sterilize surfaces in hospital rooms and other public places, but these should be used only when those areas are unoccupied. Shorter wavelength UV light (254-nanometer UVC) is particularly germicidal and is currently being used in clinical settings to inactivate aerosol pathogens. New studies are also being conducted using lamps that emit continuous, low-dose ultraviolet light, known as far-UVC, which can kill viruses and bacteria without harming people.

Building engineers have stated that it's critically important to ensure indoor air turns over frequently, is mixed with lots of fresh air and that it passes through filters that remove viruses. Ventilation systems for campus buildings vary, but most rely on the same basic design.  An ideal system optimized to reduce the spread of coronavirus should look like the image below. (Image courtesy of The Washington Post.)

Covering the costs of campus upgrades

The cost of additional health measures and facility upgrades necessary to improve indoor air can be a significant issue as education officials prepare for the 2020-21 school year. The economic slowdown is impacting revenue from enrollment, and competition for funding on capital projects has never been more challenging.

Centrica Business Solutions offers several budget-neutral funding solutions. Private colleges can use our Energy-as-a-Service (EaaS) offering which is a pay-for-performance, off-balance sheet financing solution. This can be utilized to implement infrastructure and water efficiency upgrades with no upfront capital expenditure.

In conclusion

Students, teachers, and staff spend a large portion of their day indoors. Ensuring that all campus indoor facilities are adequately ventilated and have good indoor air quality is critical to protecting and supporting their health and well-being. Centrica Business Solutions can help.