According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office estimate, about 41% percent of school districts need new or updated HVAC systems in at least half of their schools. However, for schools that want to improve air quality, something as massive and expensive as an HVAC renovation is often easier said than done.
School budgets have already been stretched incredibly thin, thanks to COVID-19, and the process of reviewing and understanding what needs to be changed in an HVAC system can often take up a considerable amount of time for those that even can undergo a renovation.
As a response, many schools have been getting creative, turning to their ceiling systems to help either boost or augment aging HVAC capabilities.
Ceiling Retrofits May Improve the Efficacy of HVAC Systems
According to an eSchool News article, school facility managers and indoor air quality specialists have discovered an all-new type of ceiling panel to help improve indoor air quality. It’s a clever solution, too. With a unique, gasketed design, the ceiling panel can drop into many existing ceiling systems and works by creating an almost airtight seal with the ceiling grid.
By sealing up the room, more air can flow through return vents, where it can be filtered and cleaned. According to the same article, independent testing reveals it can increase the effectiveness of existing HVACs by up to 40 percent.
These tiles can also be used in the set-up of isolation rooms or sick bays. As per CDC and ASHRAE suggestions, many schools have set up special quarantine areas for those with COVID-19 to prevent them infecting others, however, air flow and pressure play a critical role in the effectiveness of these measures.
Schools can better seal off rooms using the special gasketed tiles, thereby allowing them to better maintain localized pressure. In doing so, they can create negative pressure areas for these quarantine space to prevent infected air from entering the main circulation.
Ceiling Panels, Now With Added UV Cleansing
A staple for years in healthcare settings, UV lighting is now finding broader use amongst offices and other public spaces. Specifically, its UVC that’s being used in these settings.
This specific wavelength of UV light has been scientifically proven to deactivate pathogens such as COVID-19. In addition, it does so without generating any harmful byproducts, such as ozone or VOCs, and now, it comes in the form of yet another uniquely designed ceiling panel.
The unassuming panels work by drawing air into a hidden chamber above the ceiling before hitting it with UVC lighting. On the first pass alone, the system neutralizes up to 97% of all airborne pathogens.
The cleaned air then cycles back into the room, with the positioning of the ceiling unit taking full advantage of natural air motion, in comparison to portable filtering units. The UVC fixture is also shielded within the unit, preventing any UV rays from escaping into the room.
According to the CDC, one of the main advantages of this type of fixture is that the air being disinfected is closer to room occupants. Plus, installing the panels can be a great cost-effective measure if adding new filtering systems to an existing HVAC isn’t in the budget.
These panels also help when existing HVAC systems cannot handle increased filtration or more air changes.
Schools Test the Innovative Retrofits for Themselves
Schools are already beginning to see the results of these solutions, with administrators at Neff Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania recently receiving the test results of their retrofits.
Being unable to pursue HVAC renovations due to budgetary constraints, the school instead sought to test the gasketed ceiling panels and UVC filter panels by installing them in a 925-square-foot classroom that would house 19 students five to six hours each day.
The results revealed that following the retrofit, air exchange rates increased by 30 percent on average. Other testing also revealed that the bacteria and fungi levels in the room had dropped significantly, with bacteria levels being lowered by 68 percent and fungi by 100.
The fact that Neff saw such substantial results should be good news to school administrators, and facility owners outside of school systems as well. While the road to good indoor air quality in facilities often seems overwhelming with the possibility of an HVAC renovation, those who might not have it in their budget to tackle the mammoth systems can rest easy knowing innovative solutions are making alternative routes safe, affordable and healthy for all.