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Back to School: Preparing Educational Facilities for Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Aug 20

By Justin Lee

The phrase “back to school” always brings a mix of excitement, anticipation, and stress for students, teachers, and parents each year. As schools across the country are gearing up for the 2020-2021 school year, these feelings are surely heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether the school plans to open online-only, bring students back in person, or a combination of both, the educational facilities on campus will play a key role in enabling educators to teach and students to learn. Ensuring these facilities are following industry best practices to mitigate the spread of the virus and provide a safe environment for those who need to use them will play a key role in determining if this will be a successful school year for all age groups from preschool through higher education.


Preparing for Back to School: Bringing Educational Facilities Back into Operation


Schools are accustomed to extended periods of low occupancy or dormancy each year; however, these periods typically coincide with either summer recess or scheduled breaks during the school year and are planned out well ahead of time. This school year educational leaders are not only grappling with how to safely educate their students but as most schools unexpectedly went online-only during the initial phases of the pandemic back in March they are also dealing with bringing their educational facilities out of an unplanned, extended hibernation. Operators of educational facilities will be dealing with a backlog of postponed maintenance, a host of critical failures of HVAC and lighting equipment, and will have the added responsibility of providing a safe environment – all while dealing with limited staff and partial work from home orders.


The maxim “Prioritize and Execute” will be critical to ensuring smooth operation as schools ramp back up. Taking a data-driven approach to operating educational facilities can help address many of these issues by leveraging technology to quickly identify the most pressing issues and allowing building operational managers to efficiently deploy their limited resources.


Figure 1 shows an example of how to apply this principle. This RTU had an unexpected compressor failure that was caught by leveraging technology to deploy algorithms to monitor the performance of the HVAC system. In this instance, the Rooftop Unit (RTU) called for cooling and enabled the compressors, but the Supply Air Temperature of the unit did not cool down.


Figure 1: Compressor failure in an RTU


In another instance, some of the VAVs serving an office area were scheduled to run for several hours after occupancy in order to provide increased ventilation for a post-occupancy flush out period of the space. However, despite being set by the building engineers to run after-hours the VAVs did not respond accordingly and due to programming issues, they continued to turn off at night. ASHRAE has stressed the importance of providing as much Outside Air (OA) as possible to occupied spaces to help mitigate the spread of the virus, so ensuring that all spaces are receiving proper ventilation flow rates is critical to safely operating facilities during the pandemic.


Figure 2: VAV shutting off despite being programmed to provide post-occupancy flush out period


Both of these issues occurred during periods of very low occupancy, and as a result, may not have been detected had it not been for the analytics running against the operational data from these systems. These issues were able to be addressed in a planned manner and will be fully operational and ready to go when the school year starts, as opposed to quickly trying to triage an emergency issue once educators and students return.


Back to School: Operating Educational Facilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic


There is a growing consensus that HVAC systems play a large role in mitigating (or exacerbating) the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, states1 “If managed poorly, [buildings] can spread disease. But if we get it right, we can enlist our schools, offices, and homes in this fight.”


ASHRAE has published detailed guidelines for preparing and operating schools during the upcoming school year. Some of the recommendations in their checklist for HVAC Systems include:

  • Maintain proper indoor air temperature and humidity to maintain human comfort, reduce potential for spread of airborne pathogens, and limit potential for mold growth in building structure and finishes.

  • Winter classroom design guidelines 72°F/40- 50% RH

  • Summer classroom design guidelines 75°F/50%-60% RH

  • Trend and monitor temperature and humidity levels in each space to the extent possible and within the capability of BAS, portable data loggers, and handheld instruments.

  • Consider having airflows and system capacities reviewed by design professionals to determine if additional ventilation can be provided without adversely impacting equipment performance and building Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ).

  • Measure building pressure relative to the outdoors. Adjust building air flows to prevent negative pressure differential.

  • Verify coil velocities and coil and unit discharge air temperatures required to maintain desired indoor conditions and to avoid moisture carryover from cooling coils.

  • Review outdoor airflow rates compared to the most current version of ASHRAE Standard 62.1 or current state-adopted code requirements.

  • Mechanical systems should operate in an occupied mode for a minimum period of one week prior to students returning (may be completed at the same time as teachers start returning to buildings) while assuring the outside air dampers are open.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and it is impossible for educational facility managers to track all of these items simultaneously without leveraging technology. For instance, by utilizing the control system and/or installing IEQ sensors to augment the available data it is possible to track metrics such as temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels in all spaces and notify building operators if any space is outside of the guidelines recommended by the ASHRAE pandemic taskforce. Figure 3 illustrates a sample dashboard that allows educational facility managers to quickly view pertinent data such as temperature, humidity, ventilation airflow, CO2 concentration, and building occupancy to ensure ASHRAE guidelines are being met.


Figure 3: Sample building health dashboard


These types of analytics and visualizations can help educational facility managers quickly pinpoint issues with their systems that are negatively impacting the health of their facilities. For instance, Figure 4 shows an example of a fault detected when the Relative Humidity (RH) was outside ASHRAE’s recommendation, which indicates an increased risk of transmission of the virus and potential impacts on occupant health.


Figure 4: Fault indicating RH outside of ASHRAE’s recommended range of 40%-60%


Keeping a close eye on ventilation rates will be important to mitigate the spread of the virus. Many HVAC systems are equipped with CO2 sensors, and these can be used as a good proxy to determine if the spaces within the building are receiving adequate ventilation airflow. Figure 5 shows two examples of leveraging CO2 sensors to detect deficiencies in ventilation airflow in a higher education facility (note the top graph is space CO2 ppm, and the bottom graph is AHU Outside Air (OA) damper position).


First, the CO2 detected in the zones served by AHU-4 and 5 increased significantly (#1) after the AHUs shut down for the evening. This indicates the rooms are still in use after the HVAC system shutdown and therefore these spaces are not receiving adequate ventilation airflow, so a schedule change needs to be made. The second issue detected is the Outside Air (OA) damper for AHU-5 closing to minimum position part-way through the day leading to a large increase in CO2 concentration (#2) in this space. This AHU’s Demand Control Ventilation sequence needs reviewed and reprogrammed to ensure proper ventilation flow to this space during occupied periods.


Figure 5: Ventilation issues in a higher education classroom

Conclusion

Whether or not school campuses and educational facilities will be hosting in-person instruction, the facilities on campus will still play an integral role in enabling a productive learning environment by hosting key staff and support systems. Ensuring these facilities are following industry best practices to mitigate the spread of the virus and providing a safe environment for those who need to use them will be of critical importance during this school year. Taking a data-driven approach to operating educational facilities will equip educational facility managers with the information they need to help ensure their facilities are ready for the upcoming school year and provide them the tools they need to quickly identify and address any operational issues that are sure to arise during the school year. All of this will play a key role in determining if this will be a successful school year for the millions of students that are about to head back to school.


Footnotes:

1. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/opinion/coronavirus-buildings.html

2. https://www.ashrae.org/file%20library/technical%20resources/covid-19/reopening-schools-and-universities-c19-guidance.pdf

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