How Upgrades, Preventative Maintenance Can Improve IAQ For K-12 Schools

From upgrades to routine maintenance, see how school leaders can use their HVAC units to create a better defense against poor IAQ.

K-12 indoor air quality
Photo by Adobe Stock

By Mark Orlovsky

K-12 schools provide future leaders with the knowledge they need to grow and develop. Children spend more hours at school than they do at home over the course of a school year, so it’s imperative that buildings are a safe and healthy place to be.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a vital aspect of a child’s experience inside a K-12 facility. While the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness for IAQ, many other viruses and sicknesses can spread if IAQ is poor. Air quality also plays a major role in how comfortable a building is for students.

As the school year progresses, the importance of enhanced IAQ will be heightened. With students in close contact, the danger of spreading viruses is always present. Mechanical HVAC units are one of the best solutions to limit the spread of airborne pathogens and increase the amount of fresh air in a space. While this equipment helps to promote clean air, there are additional measures facility managers and school leaders can take to maximize clean air and efficiency.

From upgrades to routine maintenance, see how school leaders can use their HVAC units to create a better defense against poor IAQ.

IAQ Solutions For Schools

When people think about improving IAQ, opening a window or turning on a fan comes to mind. A more effective solution is using mechanical HVAC units, which are designed to address heating and cooling needs while improving IAQ. Since all HVAC systems aren’t built the same, school leaders should consider making a few upgrades to these system to ensure its prepared to handle IAQ needs.

To start, multiple options are available for facility managers to improve filtration within their existing HVAC systems. One is to upgrade a unit’s filters so more particulates are filtered from the air. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommended MERV 13 filters for compatible systems amid the pandemic. These filters can remove up to 90% of particles between 1-10 microns in size; an optimal upgrade for K-12 schools. Facility managers should work closely with HVAC manufacturers to make sure their systems provide optimal filtration.

Another way to upgrade HVAC units to enhance IAQ is to install ultraviolet (UV) lights. According to ASHRAE, “Ultraviolet germicidal energy (UV-C) has been shown to inactivate viruses, bacteria, and fungi.” While UV lights shouldn’t be used as the sole filtration solution, when added to an HVAC unit, they can provide quality results for minimizing the number of active viruses and bacteria in the air.

Now, pertaining to comfortable air, humidity plays a major role. HVAC units allow facility managers to control the amount of humidity in the air. If humidity levels are too high, the air will feel sticky and promote organic growth like mold and mildew. If levels are too low, the air will feel dry. To keep students feeling comfortable, relative humidity should be kept between 40% and 60%.

Aftermarket Coil Coatings

Just as important as installing the proper upgrades for HVAC systems is protecting the interior components of the unit. For K-12 schools along the coastline or in other highly corrosive areas, coil coatings are a necessity for units to perform at maximum efficiency. If possible, OEM factory e-coating is the best option because it provides exceptional flexibility, durability, coil coverage, and corrosion resistance.

If factory coatings are not available, Daniel Fisher, sales director for Modine Aftermarket Division, says aftermarket products are available to create a layer of corrosion protection for the heat exchanger.

“Aftermarket spray-on coatings deliver a superior barrier against corrosive agents that could be detrimental to the HVAC unit,” Fisher said. “We always stress the importance of applying corrosion-resistant coatings to your HVAC unit because it will extend their useful life and keep them operating at maximum efficiency.

“If you are a school operating along a coastline, you don’t want to hinder IAQ performance because corrosion has damaged your unit. Additionally, IAQ engineering specifications for schools should consider the inclusion of aftermarket antimicrobial coatings as well to complement the effectiveness of UV lighting. These are just a few reasons for schools to consider spray-applied coatings when possible.”

To optimize HVAC protection with coatings, Fisher says coils must be cleaned regularly. When coating or coil failures do occur, oftentimes it’s because the owner didn’t perform adequate maintenance. No matter if it’s bare metal or coated metal, the proper cleaner must be used.

“One of the biggest reasons for failures is the improper cleaning of the coils,” said Fisher. “Some owners will simply rinse the coils with water, and that is not enough. It’s vital to identify the proper cleaner and perform regular, routine maintenance and cleaning. This will keep the unit performing safely and efficiently.”

Preventative Maintenance

One of the most overlooked yet important measures to take is regular or preventative maintenance. Facility managers can install all the upgrades deemed necessary, but if the unit fails, it was all for nothing. To ensure HVAC equipment is always ready, invest in a maintenance plan with an approved contractor. With a service agreement, FMs can always have trained technicians on hand, and preventative maintenance is completed to help units support IAQ needs and is running efficiently year-round.

When a maintenance agreement is in place, a trained professional will perform an inspection that includes:

  • Brush and vacuum all coils
  • Clean and vacuum inside the cabinet
  • Clean external cabinet surfaces
  • Check the condensate drain line, all electrical connections and all mechanical connections
  • Check belts and pulleys (if applicable)
  • Install new filters

Check and record operational data for cooling and/or heating operation. These preventative maintenance measures will help provide your school with optimal IAQ performance while ensuring systems remain operational.

Enhancing IAQ For Schools

IAQ is a main topic of discussion for the foreseeable future. Whether it’s another potential COVID outbreak or just seasonal allergies, IAQ should remain top of mind for K-12 facilities. With upgrades and aftermarket products available, school leaders can make the necessary installations to ensure their units are equipped with the proper tools to improve IAQ. Thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSR) fund, schools have access to funds that have been set aside by the government to make improvements to their HVAC systems.

Preventative and regular maintenance will keep machines running efficiently while providing maximum IAQ performance. By performing these steps, FMs will keep students breathing fresh air throughout the school year.

Orlovsky is the quality, warranty services manager for Modine Manufacturing Company. Modine specializes in thermal management systems and components, bringing highly engineered heating and cooling components, original equipment products, and systems to diversified global markets through its four complimentary segments: CIS; BHVAC; HDE; and Automotive.

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