Outdated HVAC Systems May Hinder Return to School

While some schools are already back in session, others will be “headed back” after Labor Day.

Outdated HVAC Systems May Hinder Return to School

School administrators have been working hard to determine whether or not it’s safe enough to allow their students to return to classrooms for in-person education. Every state is a bit different, each city or county, even more so. A friend and private school administrator in Washington State recently shared with me their plan to return in-person and mentioned one of the major tasks they completed was having their entire HVAC system tested and updated.

And this got me wondering...how many schools are unable to go back to in-person teaching simply because of failing HVAC systems and lack of funds (and/or time) to fix them?

In a United States Government Accountability Office Report titled: “School Districts Frequently Identified Multiple Building Systems Needing Updates or Replacement,” they found that more than half (54%) of the school districts need to “update or replace at least two building systems in many of their schools.” The report estimates that 41% of school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their schools (approximately 36,000 schools nationwide).

The CDC’s webpage on “Operating schools during COVID-19” lists ventilation considerations as part of their back-to-school plan for Maintaining Healthy Environments.

“Consider ventilation system upgrades or improvements and other steps to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants in the school. Obtain consultation from experienced Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) professionals when considering changes to HVAC systems and equipment. Some of the recommendations below are based on the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) “Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

A June 2020 story written by an epidemiologist supports the CDC’s recommendations for the maintenance of HVAC systems in schools. Proper maintenance and upgrades could help redirect airborne particles and keep them from spreading from room-to-room. The author recommends understanding and evaluating how air moves through rooms before installing new devices or upgrading HVAC systems.

“[These] evaluations could include a blower-door test, which involves creating calibrated pressure in a room and then monitoring the flow and leakage. Several options, some involving HVAC upgrades and others focusing on simpler changes, could address any problems detected. These solutions might include installing doors or air curtains, generating overpressure above suspended ceilings, and sealing any gaps in them.”

If there is something positive that comes out of this pandemic, it could possibly be that schools and the government begin looking at long-term, high efficiency solutions for ventilation challenges in schools across America. We need more than BAND-AID fixes and although the Rebuild American Schools Act was introduced in 2019, it was not included in the recent coronavirus aid bill.

What are your thoughts on how schools can design better, longer-lasting HVAC systems?

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