California schools’ indoor air quality the focus of NEMI, UC Davis white paper

Last year, the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) and the University of California, Davis began working on a white paper providing signatory companies a guide to assessing indoor air quality in California schools.

The white paper was based on a study conducted by UC Davis’ Western Cooling Efficiency Center and the Indoor Environment Group of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which found over half of new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in schools had “significant problems within three years of installation” and that “the vast majority of classrooms in California continue to fail to meet minimum ventilation rates.” It also reported nearly 20% of classrooms had average daily maximum carbon dioxide levels above 2,000 parts per million (ppm), where an adequately ventilated classroom should not exceed a concentration of 1,100 ppm.

When carbon dioxide levels are above 1,100 ppm it affects cognitive learning, productivity and absenteeism, costing school districts millions of dollars.

Initially, the goal of the white paper was to lay out a plan for certified and licensed testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) companies to assess, maintain, adjust, and, if necessary, repair existing HVAC systems to verify proper and efficient operation as well as safety standard compliance. Additionally, it would recommend installation of carbon dioxide sensors in classrooms to verify proper ventilation. An HVAC Assessment Report would document the work performed and identify any additional needs to improve the system.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

Once shelter-in-place orders were lifted and there was talk of children possibly returning to classrooms in the fall, questions regarding indoor air quality went from common shop talk in TAB companies to features on the nightly news.

Chris Ruch, director of training for NEMI, and Theresa Pistochini, engineering manager for the UC Davis Energy and Efficiency Institute, pivoted their plans, edited the white paper and prepared “Proposed Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification/Repair Program for School Reopening.”

The revised paper outlines an assessment program developed to prepare schools for reopening during the COVID-19 crisis by certifying school facilities with functional air ventilation and filtration systems that meet or exceed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and California Energy Commission requirements, as well as meet the recommendations for reopening schools set forth by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

“There are the things that make you feel good, like you’re helping — washing your hands, wearing a mask. But there are things occupants of buildings can’t see. They measure the temperature in the space, and they think that’s the end,” said Duane Davies, CEO/chairman of National Air Balance Company and president of California’s chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). “This is a very important step to getting kids back into a healthy and safe environment.”

Since the white paper was released this summer, Davies, along with Paul McGrath, principal, MEYERS+ ENGINEERS in San Francisco, were two of the first to complete an assessment on an independent school in the Bay Area with 7-, 20- and 30-year-old buildings, only the newest of which has an active mechanical ventilation system.

“This assessment has come at a good time,” McGrath said. “Quite a lot of people in the trades have kids in schools, and it’s a great concern.”

When the assessment was conducted at the beginning of August, McGrath wasn’t surprised at his findings. New classrooms built in the last seven years were not receiving requisite outside air. In fact, technicians wondered if the building had ever been balanced.

“That was fairly illustrative right there,” he said. During the assessment, technicians balanced dampers to boost the outside air. “We left it in a better place than when we started. By spending 20 minutes in each classroom, we were able to make major improvements, doubling the outside air volume. As bad as it was before we performed the assessment and TAB, I think this school was still better than most. It was eye opening.”

Other, easier adjustments were to the filters and their proper installation. MERV 13 filters, recommended by ASHRAE, capture 89% of virus particles, as well as significantly more outdoor and indoor pollution compared to more standard MERV 8 filters.

“Some adjustments took a few minutes. Others will require construction,” McGrath said.

Because buildings can’t be redesigned and rebuilt, other fixes will take more time and creativity. Older buildings on the school’s campus weren’t designed with ventilation systems. Codes when they were built allowed operable windows to serve as the source of ventilation.

“How could we expect the school to keep the windows open when they are right beside the highway with all the pollution, or even worse, during the wildfires that are becoming the norm?” McGrath said. “They effectively have no fresh air, and this is where the kids are trying to learn.”

Less than half of the classrooms had a ventilation pathway and, of those, none receive appropriate outside air or have relief air paths, McGrath said.

Of the classrooms tested, 56% had no active ventilation; moreover, none of those classrooms met code ventilation levels prior to assessment and adjustment, McGrath said. All of the classrooms adjusted were able to meet the requisite ventilation levels for post-COVID occupancy without the installation of any new equipment.

“It’s not just a learning issue, it’s one of social equity,” he added. “Let’s help create a future where all California kids have the best start in life. COVID-19 has given us a good opportunity to hit reset on ventilation for schools.”

Even if school districts agree to assessments, it is still not going to be easy. Due to building age, design and maintenance, TAB technicians may face different challenges than with commercial buildings. Davies encourages “initiative and creativity.” Discussing class sizes, building age, maintenance schedules and complaints from occupants can help make the assessment more accurate and effective.

“The TAB technician is going to have to be proactive to find out what is and what was,” Davies said. “We’re going to have to be thinking outside the box on these.”

“We normally count on TAB technicians to diligently follow the air volumes noted on the design drawings when they balance,” McGrath added. “In this case, we’re going to need creativity. There may not be drawings as a road map and being scheduled to assess a school for a day might be a one-shot opportunity for technicians to improve kids’ lives.”

The white paper’s effect on contractors
At first glance, many contractors may not believe an indoor air quality assessment is in their wheelhouse. Davies hopes to educate those contractors to realize that it is.

While some parts of an indoor air quality assessment are left to industrial hygienists, the assessment outlined in the white paper specifically utilizes skills most union sheet metal workers already possess, Ruch said.

The assessment outlined in the white paper focuses on ventilation, air quality/filtration, thermal health (temperature and humidity), and safety — all of which sheet metal workers are trained to complete. For those in California, if they are certified to complete work under Title 24, they are more than qualified.

“Filtration, ventilation and disinfection are what’s recommended because there is no silver bullet to solve the COVID-19 problem,” Ruch said.

Much like HVAC Fire Life Safety more than a decade ago, indoor air quality assessment in schools, as well as in other commercial buildings, is an emerging market. Not only will it help children learn in a healthy building, while enhancing their health and safety, but it can also increase work hours for sheet metal workers who are trained and certified to complete it, namely members of SMART.

“If you do not have healthy environments, you’re literally starving the occupants of oxygen. It’s a huge shot in the arm for this industry,” Ruch said. “We want to make sure the SMACNA and SMART teams are ready when people come knocking.”

In addition to the white paper regarding schools, another was created for commercial buildings.

“This has to be a whole new market for us,” Davies said. “Not one company can do it all. There are a lot of changes going on in the industry, and we need to be prepared.”

The National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) is a not-for-profit organization jointly funded by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. NEMIC identifies opportunities, seeking to create or expand employment for SMART members and programs that assist SMACNA contractors.

For more information on emerging market opportunities in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry, contact the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) at https://www.nemiconline.org or call 800-458-6525.

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