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Operating and Improving School Buildings in the Age of COVID

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Operating and Improving School Buildings in the age of COVID


2020 has brought about new challenges and amplified the normal challenges of operating and maintaining school buildings.  In this article we explore some of these challenges and offer a few suggestions and directions from our perspective how school administrators might address them.


Operation of Buildings:

In the last few months, we in the facility management and building construction industry been asked by many of our clients how to safely operate buildings in the age of Covid.  We often point our clients to professional and code developing organizations like ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) that have published best practices to safely open up school buildings. See links at the end of this article. The following are suggestions from ASHRAEs literature, along with our thoughts on each topic.

  • Outside air ventilation
    • Outside air is a necessary component to any HVAC system, and code requires a certain amount even pre-COVID. In the early days of the pandemic, some professional organizations recommended full building pre- and post-occupant air purges and 100% outside air when possible.  The challenge with these strategies is that many school HVAC systems are typically not designed to handle 100% outside air.  As a result, bringing in more outside air than systems are designed for could cause other issues, such as equipment failures or comfort and humidity (moisture) issues, which can also lead to other health problems.  So, while this can be a good mitigation effort to fight against Covid transmission, use caution in using excessive outside air in your ventilation strategy.
  • Routine inspection and maintenance on HVAC equipment
    • Always a good idea anyway, this will help ensure equipment is operating properly and providing proper ventilation.
  • Filtration
    • ASHRAE suggests MERV 13 or higher if possible. The higher the MERV rating the more efficient they are at capturing airborne viruses.  Increased filter efficiency generally results in increased pressure drop through the filter. Ensure HVAC systems can handle filter upgrades without negative impacts to pressure differentials and air flow rates.  Consult equipment manufacturers, design engineers, and product literature to know the highest filter rating your equipment can accommodate.  Also note that if increased ventilation rates are used, filters will need to be changed more often. 
  • Air Cleaning
    • ASHRAE states some air cleaning technologies could be considered a supplement to ventilation and filtration strategies in the fight against Covid transmission. Pre-Covid, we used several of these air cleaning strategies to reduce pathogens and contaminants in interior space, which decreased the need for outside air. We have seen success with these strategies and seen reductions in energy consumption as a result. So, when we are finally back to pre-Covid operation these strategies can reduce energy use while making your educational space healthier. 
  • Energy Consumption
    • Energy usage could vary greatly depending on mitigation strategies. Select the ones that meet your operating needs and make sure you consider energy and operating costs. As we move past COVID building operating strategies in the coming months/years, care should be taken to return outside air dampers and strategies back to normal.  HVAC energy use could easily double if bringing in large amounts of outside air, so ensure that normal operating strategies return to normal when appropriate to avoid excessive energy bills.


Improving Buildings:

School administrators are always challenged with balancing building needs and capital project funds.  In the age of COVID this may have created even more challenges for school districts.  One strategy school business officials have at their disposal is the Performance Contracting mechanism. Enabled by RSMO 8.231, this allows school districts to fund building projects out of energy savings, and often provides flexibility to address building needs outside of a bond issue.  Alternatively, we have seen schools combine bond issues with an energy project through a Performance Contract to effectively extend the amount of work that can be accomplished through the bond issue.  Often, Energy Services Companies (ESCOs) will evaluate utility bills and buildings at no cost to help determine if this mechanism could be of value to your district.  NAESCO is the National Association of Energy Services Companies, where you can find active companies that might be able to help you in this effort to improve your buildings.



Questions? Contact: Ryan Terry, PE, CEM

Business Development Manager - Navitas