Indoor Air Quality & Energy Efficiency Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Article | 05.06.2021

The April 21, 2021 Wednesdays With Wightman Town Hall explored research conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) regarding means to efficiently optimize indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools for students, teachers, and staff while mitigating the spread of contaminants and viruses such as COVID 19.

Wightman Recognized Educational Facilities Planning (REFP) expert, Carl Baxmeyer, opened the discussion by introducing speakers Dr. Lisa NG, Mechanical Engineer, NIST, and Ian T. Hadden, Director of Energy Management Services, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Founded in 1901 and now part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST is one of the nation's oldest physical science laboratories. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is a metropolitan research university that is a driving force in the growth of both Little Rock and Arkansas.

Mr. Hadden, who specializes in designing energy-efficient mechanical systems for educational facilities that achieve optimal IAQ and airflow, began by defining IAQ as 'the nature of the indoor air as it relates to the health, well-being, and productivity of the building's occupants.' He noted the primary factors that impact IAQ: Contaminant Source Control, Humidity Management, Ventilation, and Filtration. When creating a framework for effectively managing your district's IAQ initiative, Mr. Hadden recommended utilizing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Tools for Schools kit.

Dr. Ng, who focuses on IAQ and ventilation research, then explored potential ways to optimize IAQ while limiting exposure to contaminants such as COVID 19 in a typical classroom and assembly rooms. She stressed that many paths are available to achieve a desired degree of IAQ in a particular space. Means taken will vary depending upon the size of the learning space, type of exposure control implemented (i.e., wearing face masks, installing MERV air filters, etc.), and the type of HVAC system utilized (i.e., central air, window units, etc.). She noted that indoor air quality and energy efficiency are not mutually exclusive. There are many ways to optimize IAQ while conserving energy and lowering initial and long-term operating costs.

Mr. Hadden then explored strategies for optimizing performance relative to investment, energy, and life cycle costs. He noted that 70-80% of charges, including those for utilities, maintenance, and equipment, etc., are incurred after construction is complete. Thus, building energy-efficient buildings with durable materials that are easy to maintain is key to controlling long-term costs.

He recommended utilizing the EPA's free Portfolio Manager tool to benchmark and track energy and water usage and cost savings. Mr. Hadden stressed that good operational and maintenance (O&M) and custodial practices are a critical first step to optimizing IAQ. He noted that proper care of indoor air is about more than 'quality control.' It encompasses the safety and stewardship of your investment in facilities, students, and staff. Thus, custodial staff should receive training, from the outset, in best practices regarding routine maintenance.

A key takeaway is that it is critical to understand that there is no 'one-size-fits-all solution' and that the method chosen to optimize IAQ should be unique and tailored to the situation at hand. It's crucial to select an efficient system that your staff is readily able to operate and maintain. Ultimately, good IAQ practices support the core mission of public schools: educating children.

Our next meeting, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, will feature Nicki Britten, health officer with Berrien County Health Department.

To attend the next town hall, sign up here.

Here is a recording of the session: