COVID-19 has forced everyone to redefine back to work, back to school and, what seems elusively, back to what we considered normal lives. With many schools resuming in-person attendance after being closed since mid-March, improving air quality is hot on the back-to-school list of must-haves. Aside from addressing how to teach while masked and how to enforce social distancing, the educational sector has had to figure out how best to combat the small airborne particles that can contribute to the transmission of the virus and other airborne infectious diseases.
This has caused the spotlight to fall on HVAC building systems and the task of helping to ensure better indoor air quality. Now, more than ever, mechanical engineers are being tapped for their HVAC design ingenuity to rethink indoor air quality and identify immediate strategies for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in schools and residential buildings.
School officials in the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut have been consulting with RZ Design Associates’ mechanical engineers, Peter J. Luchini, PE and John Pouliot, Jr., PE, for their air quality recommendations for the town’s elementary and middle schools.
“With the focus on air quality improvement and prevention, we centered our discussions on near-, mid- and long-term timelines,” says Luchini. “The most immediate needs that should be met includes opening outside air dampers and adding glycol into the hot water system to prevent freezing once the winter temperatures hit. We recommend ventilation systems remaining operational 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Additionally, verifying that all exhaust fans are operational and setting the outside air intake to be slightly less than the exhaust will help to strike a balance,” he says.
According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), because small particles remain airborne for some period of time, the design and operation of HVAC systems that move air can affect disease transmission in many ways including:
- Supplying clean air to susceptible occupants
- Containing contaminated air and/or exhausting it to the outdoors
- Diluting the air in a space with cleaner air from outdoors and/or by filtering the air
- Cleaning the air within the room
- Controlling the airflow patterns within a space to minimize occupant to occupant exposure.
Pouliot says for the mid-term, they recommended ionization purification for unit ventilators, air handling units and roof top units while future plans include budgeting for new energy recovery ventilators for outside air ventilation and more extensive HVAC upgrades.
In addition to their 90 years of combined engineering experience, Luchini and Pouliot derived these strategies for the Town of Wethersfield based on the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force’s Indoor Air Quality Guide. Created to help combat the increasing volume of COVID-19 cases, the guide better prepares building owners and maintenance staff for controlling airborne infectious diseases in a variety of ways including dilution ventilation, laminar and other in-room flow regimes, differential room pressurization, source capture ventilation and filtration (central or unitary).
The residential sector has also sought out RZDA. Mechanical engineer Kenneth Hipsky, PE, LEED AP, has been consulting with the Housing Authorities in Bristol, Hartford and Waterbury to advise on HVAC upgrades for their various affordable housing properties.
“We’ve discussed with these clients the need for air purification systems, touchless fixtures including motion sensor faucets and light fixtures to help reduce germ spread,” says Hipsky.
An in-house database has been established for the firm’s engineers to share coronavirus and indoor air quality articles, research materials and proposed HVAC/IAQ strategies.
“Sharing the scope of work from projects of this type and staying current with what is happening with COVID-19 and other challenges to air quality allow our staff to continue to offer engineering and design solutions that make a difference to those on the receiving end of our services,” he adds.
Kenneth A. Hipsky, PE, LEED AP is a vice president at RZ Design Associates, Inc. and has more than 30 years of experience in HVAC, plumbing and fire protection design in both the Plan/Spec and Design/Build delivery methods spanning a variety of projects for public safety, multi-family housing, primary and secondary education, industrial and federal, state and local government. With a focus on sustainability and green building solutions, Ken designs mechanical systems with energy conservation and his clients’ bottom lines in mind. A UCONN cum laude graduate, he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1990.
John Pouliot, Jr., PE’s career spans four decades and encompasses all aspects of mechanical systems design including system development from the conceptual level, budgeting, life cycle cost analysis, load and energy use calculations, equipment selection, coordination and specification writing. He is responsible for quality control and compliance for RZDA’s institutional, commercial, industrial and residential projects, troubleshooting HVAC deficiencies, identifying corrective measures for existing facilities, feasibility studies and overall project management. John earned an associate’s of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1978 from Hartford State Technical College and continued his education at the University of Wisconsin.
Peter J. Luchini, PE has more than 50 years of engineering and consulting experience concentrated primarily on energy conservation for HVAC system and control design for commercial office, retail, high-rise residential and multi-storied hospitals, laboratories, museums, galleries and educational facilities. He shares his expertise with RZDA’s clients as a project manager and mechanical engineer. An alumna of MIT, Peter earned his bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1959.