The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way colleges and universities operate. As institutions adapt to this new reality, it’s critical that they also address long-term plans for bringing students and faculty back to campus.
While focusing on keeping students and faculty engaged through virtual learning and abiding by ever-changing safety guidelines and standards, mitigating COVID-19 and other airborne diseases should be among institutions’ top priorities as they prepare for reopening.
Creating and maintaining healthy buildings has always been important, but it’s especially crucial both during and after the pandemic. We now understand that aerosols and droplets with virus-containing respiratory secretions are much more likely to transmit through the air, and campuses must consider the role a building’s HVAC system plays in the spread.
To boost these systems’ capabilities, facilities managers should begin by taking a closer look at their buildings’ indoor air quality (IAQ) and ventilation systems.
Mitigating the risk of infection
Students and staff need to feel confident that the indoor environments they spend time in, like classrooms and dormitories, are adequately supporting their health and safety. When retrofitting buildings to create healthy spaces, it’s essential to realize that no two buildings’ risk of infection are the same and varying factors such as location, size of the space and number of occupants affect how strategies are implemented.
For healthier indoor air, facilities managers should consider how certain clean air solutions can reduce virus and infection spread.
Clean air is a function of outside air combined with filtered and disinfected air. Increasing the amount of outside air entering a building reduces infection risk by diluting potentially contaminated outdoor air.
By looking at the building’s clean air delivery rate (CADR) in air changes per hour, facilities managers can obtain a quantitative measurement of how often a space’s air volume is replaced, indicating the relative risk of infection. This allows them to create a baseline measurement that they can use to set clean air KPIs.
Prioritizing clean air solutions in indoor spaces
Many higher education institutions are turning to clean air solutions to reduce virus transmission as students return to campus.
For example, the University of North Dakota (UND) recently installed clean air solutions in campus facilities. The upgrades, including bipolar ionization solutions installed in the air handling units, are helping UND deliver healthier and safer environments for student learning and living.
When deploying clean air strategies to increase IAQ, universities and colleges like UND can look to trusted industry standards for guidance. These standards, such as those set by The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), should be referenced to determine which solution will provide the appropriate ventilation rates based on building or space type.
For instance, ASHRAE Standard 62.1, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, suggests that outdoor air ventilation rate should be five to six times per hour for higher education institutions.
With this in mind, colleges and universities can begin by upgrading their HVAC ventilation and filtration systems. While standard filtration helps to remove larger particles from the air, it’s critical to increase particle and virus collection by upgrading to higher-efficiency filters.
Per ASHRAE guidelines, MERV 13 filters are often the quickest and most cost-effective option to improve air delivery, making them especially appealing to campuses beginning their clean air initiative. When considering filter upgrades beyond MERV 13, such as HEPA, facilities managers must consider how increases in pressure drops across those filters can impact mechanical systems.
Disinfection is another critical solution that can impact IAQ. Installing disinfection technologies to air handling units, such as ultraviolet C (UV-C) lighting can help deactivate airborne bacteria and viruses while more effectively removing dust and other particles. Moreover, negative-pressure environments created through isolation solutions help contain contaminated air and prevent it from traveling elsewhere in the building.
When making building retrofits to increase HVAC efficiency, it’s recommended to prioritize monitoring and maintenance to ensure these systems are providing the benefits as intended. Inspections and servicing equipment must be completed at the recommended frequency to track results and meet pre-determined facility goals. These services are required to ensure clean air is maintained and occupants are protected.
Getting started on your clean air strategy
Every campus’ clean air needs and challenges are different. Beginning with an IAQ assessment can help identify where to focus efforts, resulting in a tailored approach and implementation of solutions that will introduce the appropriate amount of clean air delivery, all while supporting campus goals and keeping students and faculty safe.
While the process of installing clean air solutions may seem daunting, working with a trusted partner can help institutions analyze their budget and financing options, existing assets and building needs to create a safer environment for students and staff.