• HVAC
  • COVID-19
  • Building Systems
  • Building Energy Management
  • Air Quality Monitoring

HVAC Solutions Can Prevent COVID-19 in Schools and Save Costs

Daniel Talero
Dec 07, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

As the majority of US schools reopened or transitioned from hybrid to in-person learning in fall 2021, HVAC upgrades largely funded by federal stimulus have been put to the test in supporting indoor air quality (IAQ). However, new studies suggest that many of these investments may not be having their intended effect on measures of air quality or perceptions of school safety. To avoid more school closures, retain parent confidence, and stretch budgets, administrators need to focus on ventilation and filtration, not disinfection. These lessons are relevant globally as 77 million students remain unable to attend school due to the pandemic.

A Need for Guidance on HVAC

Studies have consistently shown that IAQ is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, which occurs through microdroplets in the air and to a lesser extent on surfaces. This fact might suggest that the air needs to be disinfected just like surfaces do. More than 2,000 schools across 44 US states have taken this approach, installing high cost ionizing, plasma, or dry hydrogen peroxide air disinfection technologies according to Kaiser Health. The effectiveness of these technologies as IAQ assets has been deemed unproven or even counterproductive by the Lancet COVID-19 Commission. Boeing also studied disinfection technology and judged it ineffective for disinfecting surfaces in airplanes.

A Better Approach

Better guidance can support COVID-19 assurance as well as financial and stakeholder needs. IAQ experts agree that ventilation is crucial to improving IAQ. Instead of disinfection approaches to reduce pathogen and contaminant concentration, schools would do better by increasing the air changes per hour within building spaces, upgrading to MERV 13 filtration for central air units or installing portable HEPA air filters. A quiet unit (or combination of smaller units) can increase the number of air changes by 3 to 5 times in an 800 square foot classroom. This type of unit costs about $500 and uses less energy than a portable air conditioner.

No Need for Overkill

The suite of proven technologies for effectively preventing COVID-19 spread is limited. Beyond ensuring basic pathogenic control and occupant comfort, massive HVAC investments may be avoidable. These are complex systems, and upgrade maintenance may exceed the technical expertise that school staff can reasonably provide. A simpler approach may also allow school districts to extend budgets in the long term. The focus on IAQ primarily stems from the need for COVID-19 assurance, and as the threat of infection wanes, more funds will be available for building investments for healthy building needs. These include investments in water quality, food quality, lighting for regulating circadian rhythms, fitness, acoustic and olfactory comfort, ergonomic environments, and more.

New Solutions

A new suite of smart building offerings is making this level of control more accessible for schools. 75F’s low CAPEX building management systems and AirVisual's real-time air quality monitoring through mobile apps support a variety of IAQ benefits, including:

  • Dynamic airflow balancing: Dampers in air ducts can prevent hot and cold spots within a building.
  • Outside air optimization: This function uses more outside air versus air conditioning returning air for air, which improves energy efficiency, occupant comfort, and occupant health through demand-controlled ventilation.
  • Particulate concentration monitoring: This monitoring involves dashboarding of CO2, volatile organic compounds, dust, outside air pollution, and other metrics.

For more information on healthy buildings solutions, see Guidehouse Insights’ report Healthy Buildings Hardware for the Post-COVID Era.