How This Elementary School Improved Its IAQ

Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, PA improved its IAQ to create a better environment for students and staff.

Compiled by Facility Executive and Armstrong Ceiling Solutions
From the April 2023 Issue

Studies have shown that the indoor air quality (IAQ) in educational facilities makes a significant impact on students’ ability to learn and the overall health of all building occupants. In addition, poor IAQ leads to higher absenteeism, and poor acoustics are linked to lower test scores.

Panther Valley Elementary, built in 1953 in a low-income area, decided it was time to invest in solutions to enhance the experience for students in its older building. According to Scott Fisher, the school’s Director of Buildings and Grounds, after learning more about how lighting and acoustics play a role in building occupant health, the school embarked on this project in the summer of 2022, before the start of the school year.

To determine its indoor environmental quality (IEQ), Panther Valley placed AWAIR indoor environmental sensors throughout the school. The sensors measure seven key IEQ factors: temperature, humidity, CO2, volatile organic compounds (VOC), particulate matter (PM2.5), noise, and light.

During initial monitoring, the overall indoor environmental AWAIR scores moved between fair and good, averaging in the low 80’s. Air quality issues identified as primary areas of concern were ventilation rates and light levels. Secondary areas of concern included CO2 thresholds, noise, and thermal comfort levels.

school IAQ
This is what the ceiling in the elementary school looked like before it was updated.

Refreshed Ceilings

To help address these concerns, the school replaced the ceilings in a 780-sq.-ft. third grade classroom and a 450-sq.-ft. nurse’s office. The classroom houses about 27-32 students and is in use for the entire school day.

Ultima high light reflectant ceiling panels from Armstrong Ceiling & Wall Solutions were installed in both spaces. The smooth-textured panels with a non-directional visual are both washable and impact-and-scratch-resistant.

An in-ceiling Armstrong StrataClean IQ Air Filtration System was also installed in the classroom to improve indoor air quality. The system captures and removes 90%of airborne contaminants, allergens, and other particulates using the proven MERV 13 filtration.

An internal fan draws air through one side of the grille. The air then moves through a MERV 13 filter and discharges back into the space through the opposite side. One unit can filter the air in a 1,000 square foot space every hour. With the fan running, air in the occupied space is constantly filtered to provide clean, purified air.

Like many schools in the northern part of the country, Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, PA has no (or a limited) HVAC system. As a result, air changes per hour (ACH) in the classroom were only .5 ACH. Following installation of the StrataClean unit, ACH increased to 1.5 ACH. Increasing ACH helps reduce exposure to airborne contaminants. In addition, particulate matter and CO2 levels decreased.

“It’s certainly helped with the air refresh rate,” says Fisher. According to him, teachers are particularly excited about the classroom ceiling updates.

“I know how important indoor air quality is for both myself and my students,” says Tori Koerbler, a third grade teacher. “I’m a severe asthmatic and I haven’t had any episodes since the start of school and the room renovation.”

In addition, an in-ceiling Armstrong VidaShield UV24™ air purification system was installed in the nurse’s office. This unit operates by continuously drawing air into a self-contained chamber in the ceiling plenum where the air is treated safely with ultraviolet light air-cleaning technology. The cleaner, disinfected air then circulates back into the room reducing occupant exposure to viruses and bacteria.

Third party testing proves that this system neutralizes 97 percent of infectious pathogens on the first pass of air through the system. This contributes to healthier spaces by minimizing allergy and asthma triggers and by reducing the level of other infectious pathogens in the air.

school IAQ
The same classroom now has an upgraded ceiling, with an added air filtration system. (Photos: Panther Valley School, Contributed by Armstrong Ceilings)

Improved Lighting And Acoustics

In addition, the new ceiling panels provided improved lighting. Estimated light reflectance value of the existing ceiling was in the 40 – 60 range, while the Ultima ceiling panels have a light reflectance of 88.

By upgrading to Ultima ceiling tile and new LED light fixtures, light levels in the spaces more than doubled from 116 to 253 lux. Improved light reflectance brightens spaces, maximizes light, and enhances visual comfort by reducing eye strain and glare.

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The acoustic environment also improved. The Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC) of the ceiling increased from .55 to .75, meaning the new panels absorb 75% of the sound that strikes them.

“Standing in the hallway and looking into the rooms, you can just see the difference,” says Fisher.

A Healthier Environment

The feedback the school has received, from parents, students, and staff, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Coming out of COVID, it’s important we continue to explore what’s next for air quality in the building,” says Principal Rob Palazzo. “As far as the future, we will continue to regard improved indoor environmental quality as a long term investment.”

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