SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19 disease) has changed how we address indoor air quality. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has backed many ways to stop the spread of infections. One major tactic has been funding to improve indoor air quality and increase the circulation of air in public buildings. Schools with students and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade are one of the biggest beneficiaries. Hundreds of billions of dollars are available to improve indoor air quality in schools.
Many schools across America have taken steps to upgrade HVAC systems, but there are still billions of dollars in grant money available for another year. Schools can use this money to upgrade existing systems. In addition, use of newer technology such as ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights can help create a healthier school environment for students and staff.
Indoor Air Quality in Schools
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America's schools were in need of an HVAC upgrade. A 2020 government study found 41 percent of public school districts needed to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of the buildings surveyed. That percentage equals about 36,000 school buildings across the nation.
Preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has been the focus over the last few years, but there are several other reasons to improve indoor air quality in schools. Indoor air quality is a fundamental aspect of healthy buildings—and healthy buildings help keep students healthy. Students learn better with clean air and quieter HVAC systems, and they stay healthier when fewer pathogens are in the air. Properly installed and maintained HVAC systems not only reduce airborne viruses; they can also filter out particulates and pollution from events like wildfires.
There are other benefits to upgrading school HVAC systems. Newer HVAC systems are quieter. Upgrades cut audible disturbances caused by older outside or inside HVAC systems. Quieter systems enable effective communication, which leads to improved student performance.
Upgraded HVAC systems can be more energy efficient, which help saves money thanks to lower energy bills. These savings can pay for other enhancements to the health and quality of the environment.
Schools that have not been able to upgrade their equipment have taken other measures. Some schools increased the number of air exchanges per hour throughout the day. Others changed thermostat settings at certain times of year to increase air circulation. But system upgrades are a reliable, effective way to provide cleaner air to students.
Federal Grants Can Pay for HVAC Upgrades
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided hundreds of billions of dollars for public buildings. For schools, the plan earmarked $122 billion for ventilation and filtration upgrades. The plan contained two funds: the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief program. These funds pay for:
- inspecting, testing, and maintenance of current ventilation systems;
- purchasing portable air filtration units with HEPA air filters;
- purchasing MERV-13 (or higher) filters for HVAC system and air conditioners;
- purchasing fans;
- repairing windows and/or doors;
- servicing, upgrading, or replacing HVAC systems consistent with industry standards; and
- other approved upgrades.
Since the grants became available, many school districts have used the money, but there are still billions of dollars available.
To help school administrators set priorities, the EPA has issued a Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. The EPA recommends the following:
- Create a clean indoor air action plan. A plan will:
- Assess quality.
- Schedule upgrades and improvements.
- Factor in HVAC inspections and maintenance.
- Optimize fresh air ventilation indoors by bringing in and circulating clean outdoor air.
- Enhance air filtration and cleaning using the central HVAC system and in-room air cleaning devices.
- Engage occupants through communications to increase awareness, commitment, and participation for these issues.
There is also a checklist to help give direction for improvements using the funds.
How to Apply for Grants to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools
American Rescue Plan funds are available through September 30, 2023. Regulations require the use of current American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards for equipment. States administer the distribution of grant money and each state has a different way of providing the funds. States also determine requirements to track spending. If you are a school administrator, consult your state department of education for information on how to apply for funds.
- CDC: Improving Ventilation in Schools
- EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools
- Lessons from the Field Webinar
- CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on the Efficacy of HEPA Filters and Masking
- Paper on Proposed Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification/Repair Program for School Reopening
- U.S. Green Building Council Fact Sheet on Germicidal UV (UVGI) Systems in Schools
How to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
The ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force has created guidelines to help plan improvements. Proper ventilation is one of the best ways to keep a healthier indoor air environment. Preventative actions can also reduce the chances of spreading pathogens that cause disease.
If you are in the market for an HVAC upgrade, consider upgrading to an electronically commutated motor (ECM). ECMs operate at variable speeds meaning that even in lower power modes, ECMs can provide a constant stream of air.
Other air quality improvements can help you achieve even better indoor air quality. One option is a UVC light that reduces airborne pathogens. Air filters help trap pathogens, but UVC light provides the best results in reducing airborne pathogens by sterilization. UVC lights for HVAC systems are proven to be effective against SARS-CoV-2, influenzas, and other pathogens .
The U.S. Green Building Council recommends considering a UVC system when there is a need to:
- provide a large equivalent air change rate;
- remove contaminants near a source; and/or
- mitigate higher-risk locations or places where people are gathering in high density locations like gymnasiums, theaters, libraries or schools.
UVantage - the Best Choice in UVC Sterilization for HVAC Systems
UVantage™ is a UVC-based sterilization solution operating within the HVAC system and is an efficient, effective, and safe way to sterilize airborne pathogens . UVantage works seamlessly with existing HVAC systems to sterilize the airstream to reduce pathogens in air. UVantage is housed inside the blower so there is no risk of exposure to harmful UV lights. Its location inside the blower is also ideal for cleaning the air before it goes through ducts. In addition, UVC sterilization reduces pathogens from growing on the blower wheel and adjacent filter.
Fresh air, filtration, and proper operation of an HVAC system are all ways to improve indoor air quality. When used along with best practices recommended by the CDC, UVantage can help you achieve cleaner indoor air in your school building.
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