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HVAC Upgrades Aim to Reduce School Energy Use, COVID Spread

Between the challenges of COVID-19 and climate change, schools are becoming increasingly interested in modern HVAC systems that can filter and circulate air while reducing energy consumption.

A graphic from Aircuity suggests how schools could maintain proper ventilation, according to studies from ventilation company Aircuity.
Though K-12 schools have been replacing outdated HVAC systems in recent years with air quality somewhat in mind, much of the focus of those capital projects had been largely on cutting energy costs and reducing carbon footprints in the fight against climate change.

More recently, HVAC upgrades in schools have drawn the spotlight as a potential weapon in the arsenal against COVID-19, according to Dan Diehl, CEO of the indoor ventilation company Aircuity.

Diehl said the need to replace outdated ventilation systems, designed and built decades ago, could play a major role in mitigating viral outbreaks as millions of students return to in-person learning.

“Everybody’s hyperaware of indoor air quality, and we’re seeing a huge uptick in business. It’s coupled with the demand for carbon footprint reduction,” he said, noting that the company has worked with dozens of new clients in public education to renovate and test vent systems.

Diehl said the company has modernized air ventilation systems in about 150 public schools across the U.S. over the last 20 years to reduce energy consumption and improve air quality. He said much of the company's focus has been on testing commercial, institutional and laboratory ventilation systems for optimal performance.

According to a 2019 case study from Aircuity, the company worked with the Cambridge Public School District in Massachusetts to guide upgrades to its HVAC system via the company’s digital indoor air quality (IAQ) platform, which measures air quality over time to test how well new ventilation and filtration systems are working. The upgrades were designed to help facilities use 43 percent less energy than a typical Massachusetts school and 70 percent less than other schools nationwide. Some of those Cambridge schools have received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) v4 Platinum certifications – ratings from a global building certification program by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.

Aircuity's system assesses air quality through a multiplexed system and sensors that gather air samples for lab testing to monitor the presence of small particles and pathogens in the air. The company says its air quality monitoring platform can reduce energy use by as much as 60 percent, while ensuring proper ventilation and filtration.

“If somebody does produce their own air quality strategy [with their own HVACs], we help them understand — ‘Is this actually working?'” he said, adding that air quality is assessed according to World Health Organization guidelines.

“We’re taking air samples from each room in a building and bringing them to a centralized location to measure the air quality,” he said of the process. “There’s good guidance on what a clean environment looks like."

Cambridge officials said the tool has played a vital role in efforts to reduce carbon emissions while providing peace of mind about the return to in-person learning.

“On-demand ventilation is a key part of our strategy to reduce energy consumption, which in turn helps us reduce the size of our new HVAC systems. Aircuity has been a major partner with us on our new schools to help ensure healthy indoor air quality while also minimizing our energy needs and equipment," Kris Weeks, manager of net-zero projects at Cambridge Public Schools, said in the case study. "In addition, [the platform's] historical data logging system has been a great help to our facility staff, and Aircuity has done an excellent job servicing our systems to keep them running optimally."

The company is seizing on a trend of schools and local governments investing in air quality control, ventilation systems outfitted with UV lights and other tools that test for the presence of CO2 and pathogens.

Though many schools built in recent years make use of systems that are designed specifically for energy efficiency and proper air circulation, Diehl said public schools often face unique funding constraints, in contrast to company clients in the private and higher ed sectors with more funding for capital projects.

He said schools often elect to start from scratch by building new facilities with circulation and energy efficiency in mind. Among the newer designs promoted by Aircuity is a dedicated outside air system (DOAS) model that Diehl said "provides 100 percent fresh air" throughout buildings.

“It’s more energy-efficient and it’s a better ventilation design,” he said. “That's a very popular design now for newer K-12 schools, and we’ve done hundreds of those types of projects.”

The attention on indoor air quality is unlikely to disappear for schools and in-person workplaces moving forward, as the pandemic threatens to remain an endemic.

“There are a lot of old schools around, and like many buildings, they’re not designed to operate in a high-performance way from a ventilation perspective,” Diehl noted. “It’s going to be a major issue over the next 20 years to continually upgrade schools and buildings to become safer environments to work and learn.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.