The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a Feb. 25 webinar to inform 1,652 attendees — composed of school maintenance and facilities staff; teachers, administrators and school health staff; technical support and contractors; local, state, federal and tribal government agencies and others — about ventilation verification and indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools so decision-makers can make intelligent, informed choices in how they spend government funding.

The independent executive agency, which is tasked by the federal government with environmental protection matters, gathered experts in the field to add to the discussion. Chris Ruch, director of training at the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), who also is a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force for Schools and Universities, shared IAQ information released last summer in a white paper he co-authored with Theresa Pistochini, engineering manager at the University of California, Davis Energy and Efficiency Institute.

Ruch also co-presented details on proposed guidelines for facilities on ventilation and filtration of schools for a safe reopening and continued operation.

“This has shined a light on the importance of this work on a daily basis,” Ruch said. “The general public normally doesn’t think about air conditioning unless it’s broken. The spotlight on IAQ has highlighted what we’re doing.”

At this point in the pandemic, most people understand what can be done on a personal level, including social distancing, using hand sanitizer, hand washing and wearing face coverings. Ruch has found school officials and building owners now want to know what they can do going forward long term to protect students and staff.

“Indoor air quality can solve more problems than just COVID-19,” he said. Ruch was working on a white paper about ventilation and high levels of CO2 in schools before the pandemic and shifted to include diseases such as COVID-19 in the study. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity where you have the funding to do it. This can all be done, built up over time.”

Federal funding for school IAQ assessment, verification, maintenance and retrofits is flooding into many areas in need. The EPA’s webinar was meant to help educate those decision-makers on how to wisely spend that money so it has a lasting positive impact.

To Ruch, this means hiring a skilled, trained and certified HVAC professional to conduct the HVAC assessment outlined in the white paper. From there, the technician can consult with the design engineer and building owner to decide the best course of action. Sometimes that could mean replacing filters and other mild adjustments. Other times, the assessment could suggest a full system overhaul.

“There is a lot of money coming in, and either they can do it right or wrong,” Ruch said.

Last year, the Sacramento City Unified School District purchased 480 air cleaners for $1.22 million — a 20% down payment of a $6 million contract — for schools, only to remove them earlier this year due to teachers’ safety concerns and incorrect information about the technology, according to The Sacramento Bee. In regards to filtration, the devices purchased would effectively clean 130 square feet, meaning at least eight devices would be needed to clean a 1,000-square-foot classroom, far more than purchased or in the budget for the school district.

“If done right, it could bring a lot of issues of ventilation out into the open,” Ruch added.

Getting expertise out to decision-makers responsible for the IAQ in schools is reaching one audience. The other concern is to inform members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), to let them know they already have the skills to complete the work that will be generated thanks to the influx of government IAQ funding.

“This isn’t a TAB program. This isn’t a service program. This is work every contractor and sheet metal worker already does. No one is left out of this,” Ruch said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

For additional information on ventilation verification, visit NEMI’s Ventilation Verification page.

The National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) is a not-for-profit organization jointly funded and managed by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers. It provides supervisor-level training and inspector/design professional training to SMART members and signatory contractors in testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB), fire smoke damper testing, smoke control systems testing, indoor air quality, sound and vibration testing and Mechanical Acceptance Testing. Additional information can be found at www.nemionline.org or by calling 703-299-5646.

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