Clearing the air: Assessing and upgrading ventilation systems part of plans for an in-person fall

June 24, 2021 11:30 AM

In preparation for a full return to in-person classes and operations this fall, Western is taking extra steps to ensure ventilation systems in buildings and classrooms are maintained and optimized to maximize health and safety.

That includes following industry recommendations of the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), said Elizabeth Krische, associate vice-president (facilities management).

Those recommendations include following public-health guidelines to prevent COVID-19 transmission, such as wearing well-fitting masks; optimizing building ventilation, filtration and air cleaning by increasing outdoor airflow rates, good filtration and air purification where required; optimizing air distribution; and ensuring HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems are working as they should.

“Significant upgrades have been underway for months, and we’re following or exceeding all requirements, recommendations and standards,” Krische said. “Our teams are hard at work right now assessing classroom spaces to confirm ventilation systems are working as intended and are meeting or exceeding ASHRAE standards.”

Western uses a variety of MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rated air filters based on the activities in the spaces. Air filters vary from MERV 10 to 14 across the campus. In areas with a higher potential for aerosolization of particles, like in the Music Faculty buildings, the university has completed a full overhaul of the air filter programs. The Electro-mechanical shop completed this work with the support of Western’s filter supply partner.

Additionally, in some places like practice rooms in the Don Wright Faculty of Music building and Health Services patient examination rooms, air purifiers have been added to further improve the air quality in these specialized spaces.

Additional measures focused on improving air flow include:

  • ramping up building ventilation fans two hours earlier and keeping them running two hours later than usual every day to keep the air as fresh as possible during normal business hours;
  • not shutting down ventilation fans (a process known as ‘shedding fans’) on hot/humid days, as is traditionally the case as a way to reduce energy consumption during high-demand times;
  • maintaining HVAC systems to peak operating performance;
  • upgrading HVAC air filters to MERV 13 or greater, where possible, to capture smaller particles and improve indoor air quality;
  • maximizing outside air coming into buildings, where weather conditions permit, so HVAC systems draw in as much fresh air as possible;
  • contracting “air balancing” experts who ensure ventilation systems in buildings are functioning as it should; and
  • sampling classrooms, study spaces and work areas to check for effective air exchanges and making adjustments as needed.

The steps being taken are precautionary as there have been no known cases of COVID-19 transmission through building ventilation systems on campus.

Matthew Mills, Western’s director of health, safety and well-being, added, “While we’re working hard to keep our facilities healthy and safe, we also know that best practices in preventing COVID-19 transmission on campus start with individuals committed to taking care of themselves, each other and the community. One of the best ways you can do all of those things, is to get vaccinated.”

At Western this also means wearing a mask indoors, practicing good hand hygiene and staying home if feeling unwell.

“It seems like a low-tech answer, compared with the complexity of our upgrades to building systems, but it works. The Middlesex-London Health Unit and medical professionals are pretty clear on that, so that’s our direction to the Western community as well,” Mills said.

For additional health and safety information on campus, visit the ‘building readiness’ section of Western’s COVID-19 website.