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What Should Schools Know About HVAC Upgrades?

Experts in the ventilation industry say that bringing in air from outside through a filtration system is still the best way to improve air quality in schools, which studies have shown can affect student performance.

HVAC in Dallas
HVAC technician Armand Lajesse (left) cleaned the coils of an air conditioning unit on the roof of Wimbish World Language Academy in Arlington on July 22, 2022.
Elias Valverde II/TNS
Air quality in schools is becoming a top concern, not only to thwart the spread of COVID-19, with districts spending millions on upgrades, but also to reduce carbon footprints through the purchase of modern systems. Some research has suggested that indoor air quality goes beyond just health concerns to impact student performance. Experts in the field have said schools should opt for systems that, simply put, filter outdoor air and pump it into buildings while ventilating out the stale air.

Rengie Chan, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who works closely with the U.S. Department of Energy, said her lab has worked tirelessly to improve air quality in schools. In 2020 they co-authored a study with researchers at UC Davis about ventilation and air quality in schools and launched a campaign to better the quality of air in schools with energy-efficient solutions. In an interview with Government Technology, Chan said there is a direct link to air quality and student success.

“We think indoor air quality is really important because it impacts student performance. There are studies where they improve classroom ventilation and then see how students do in tests, and they show an improvement in scores,” she said.

But Chan said air quality is about more than sending bad air out of a building. The air pumped into the building needs a proper filtration system to ensure it is clean, especially in a state like California.

“We're affected by wildfires a lot. Filtration is really important, because when you bring a lot of outside air in those areas, whether it's contaminated by wildfire smoke or regular traffic emissions, you need to filter those areas to provide better indoor air quality,” she said.

One solution some school districts have tried to improve air quality is ionization — using electricity to charge airborne particles so conductors can pull them out of the air — though the jury is still out on whether the technology works, with not much research done outside of lab tests.

“Currently, there aren't any non-manufacturer-specific tests for those types of systems to demonstrate efficacy,” said Corey Metzger, a senior engineer with Resource Consulting Engineers in Iowa and a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

On the topic of bipolar ionization, Mike Wolf, the director of regulatory business development at Wisconsin-based HVAC company Greenheck, said technologies "were being misapplied” by schools. An ASHRAE working group is developing a method to test the systems to have more of an “apples to apples” comparison with other HVAC technologies, Metzger said.

“I'm hopeful that we're going to see some results coming out of the working group in the near future because I'm anxious to see what we can get from that and hopefully have some more concrete answers as to how things work,” Metzger said. “Because the reality is, from what I've seen, frankly, I would not say I'm an advocate for [using ionization] at this point.”

With experts suggesting ionization is not the way to go, what is the best solution? Wolf suggests the tried-and-true equipment.

“I feel like I'm bursting people's bubbles a little bit because they're looking for some new shiny way to solve world problems, and the reality of it is the foundation for fresh air, or for safe air in a building, starts with bringing fresh air in from the outside,” Wolf said. “It's been around for years. It's nothing new or sexy. It’s not rocket science. I mean, the equipment we have and have been selling for years is going to do the job.”

Speaking for Aircuity, an indoor ventilation company that has worked with hundreds of K-12 schools throughout the U.S., Chief Executive Officer Dan Diehl said he believes that a dedicated outdoor air (DOA) system like Aircuity's provides buildings with better efficiency, indoor air quality and carbon footprint reduction. The Aircuity systems, specifically, use sensors and monitors in each room to determine if a space needs more or less air, offering demand control ventilation strategies, which optimize the efficiency of the overall system, Diehl said.

“We’re a life cycle cost solution,” he said. “It's for people who care about the indoor air quality, the healthy, safety and productivity of it, and they care about the energy efficiency of the space because they benefit from lower costs and they want it to work over the life of the building.”

While Aircuity focuses on new construction when installing their HVAC systems, Wolf said Greenheck upgrades DOA systems that schools already have in place and adds units to rooftops of older buildings where HVAC systems were not initially installed. For schools looking to make upgrades to their systems, Diehl said there are a number of variables to consider.

“They need to understand the constraints of the mechanical equipment that they have in their building. And then they need to choose a path accordingly,” Diehl said. “If I'm a school district, and I have 10 existing schools and I want to see if a solution like Aircuity can work, I'm going to assess the mechanical equipment of that building and see if that can be deployed. If I have an older system like unit ventilator-type technology, I'm going to be assessing if I have an air quality problem or if I want to get somebody to come in and do some testing. Once I know my situation, I would find out what would be a potential remediation or improvement opportunity.”

The White House recently held a summit on indoor air quality attended by health and ventilation experts to encourage clean air in buildings. Both Diehl and Wolf are among experts in the field who work with lawmakers on shaping and influencing standards and requirements for air quality in schools and all buildings.

“Optimizing ventilation is kind of what we are focused on very narrowly and deeply,” Diehl said. “And we, as much as we can, would like to shape the government and others to do it the right way, which is maximum energy-efficiency, maximum indoor air quality.”

Wolf said a lot goes into getting bills written and signed into law to achieve this, and it’s easier said than done. He said that a key issue for schools continues to be funding, and without it, they push facility upgrades such as HVAC systems to the backburner.

“The federal government sees a lot of these schools are outdated and need to be updated both from an energy perspective and safety perspective,” Wolf said. “With legislators and code officials, it's two fronts: One is making the money available, but then the other thing is making [schools use the money for air quality improvements] actually a requirement.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.