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Posted in Coronavirus, Health & Safety, HVAC / Mechanical, Industry Trends, Newsworthy


School boards received $700M for facility improvements, but are kids returning to healthier schools?

Ontario schools have definitely had their share of ups and downs. From student cohorts, to online learning, the 2020/2021 school year proved to be a roller-coaster of new experiences.

As parents and students adapted to a myriad of public health measures, including facemasks and social distancing, school facilities were faced with unprecedented operational challenges.

From the onset of the pandemic, school officials and facility managers have inherently become pseudo epidemiologists, working around the clock, implementing new measures to improve indoor air quality.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) put together an Epidemic Taskforce to provide guidance on mitigating the risk of COVID transmission within schools. This guidance was formulated to help facility managers retrofit and plan for the improvement of indoor air quality and to slow the transmission of viruses via the HVAC systems, noting that the underlying effort should be to mitigate risk of airborne pathogen transmission through a combination of strategies, including increased ventilation, better filtration, improved air distribution, or use of other air cleaning or treatment technologies.

The federal and provincial governments quickly responded with a COVID Resilience Infrastructure Stream (CVRIS) allowing the Ministry of Education to administer $700 million for education related projects.

“We are taking a major step forward by investing further in the safety of our schools, including action to improve air quality and renovate schools, so all students remain safe through this pandemic.” Said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, shortly after the funding announcement was made last November.

Fast forward>> nine months later, and just weeks ahead of kids returning to class, we decided to investigate and determine what exactly has been done and whether school boards have been able to increase airflow in their facilities.

Our research led us to uncover the Cleaner Air for Schools program, a collaborative initiative launched in March of 2020 between NERVA Energy, Mohawk College and Climate Change Leaders.

At first glance, it would appear that this program allows school boards to significantly increase ventilation without the need for costly mechanical upgrades or lengthy building disruptions. The claim seemed a little utopic, so we decided to dig deeper and determine whether the hype is, in fact real, or just another marketing ploy to capitalize on the COVID economy.

Upon reviewing their public case studies, majority of which derive from Ontario’s education sector, we we’re quickly impressed. Reports showed average ventilation improvements ranging from 20-45%, which our technical correspondents confirm is quite significant without actually upgrading mechanical equipment.

So what’s the secret behind these results? Perhaps special robotics or artificial intelligene? Unfortunately, the response is much less exciting; it is actually a combination of complex engineering and an award-winning technology out of California that was recently funded by the Bill Gates Foundation. The process is called Aerosolized Duct Sealing, and it consists of rehabilitating ductwork infrastructure and sealing ducts from the “inside-out” to virtually eliminate air duct leakage.

Considering that the concept of duct leakage was completely foreign to us prior to writing this story, we decided to reach out to Joshua Lewis, a recognized energy advisor and recipient of the International Energy Innovator of the Year award.

“Duct Leakage is substantial issue that is widely overlooked in large facilities. ASHRAE estimates that most commercial buildings experience 10-25% air duct leakage. This requires HVAC systems to work more than necessary to keep buildings at comfortable temperatures.” said Mr. Lewis, adding that “A recent study from the Building Commissioning Association quantified duct leakage as a $2.9B problem.”

So where did this magical Duct Sealing solution come from? We sat down with Rob Hallewick, President of NERVA Energy who provided some historical background.

“Aerosolized Duct Sealing was developed by the Lawrence Berkley National Institute in California. It has been around for over 20 years and has a plethora of industry awards” said Hallewick, noting that “The technology was heavily underserviced here in Canada until NERVA acquired the rights to service commercial buildings”. 

Mohawk College has been a Research and Validation partner to the Cleaner Air for Schools program since its inception. We reached out to Tony Cupido, Research Chair, Sustainable Building technologies, here is what he had this to say:

“This program has been a vital resource for school boards to address mechanical inefficiencies, and underserviced ductwork infrastructure which can lead to suboptimal airflow. To date, participating schools have been able to increase airflow by an average of 45%” said Mr. Cupido, adding that “This results in better indoor air quality, improved HVAC efficiency and ongoing utility savings, at a time when schools need it most.”

Finally, we decided to reach out to a few school boards who are currently enrolled in the Cleaner Air for Schools program in order to gauge their experiences and results. Here are the highlights from some of the school officials we spoke to:

Domenic Maniccia, Manager of Facility Services
Grand Erie District School Board (Norfolk County, Haldimand County, and Brant County)

74 Facilities  |  3.4 Million Sq. Ft.  |  26,000 Students  |  2,800 Staff

“The first few months of the pandemic we’re extremely challenging, with new information about the propagation of COVID-19 surfacing every day.  We noticed there was a consistent message from industry experts calling for increased air volume and air exchange rates. We decided to conduct air volume testing in schools to quantify their performance and determine strategies to increase those numbers wherever possible.”

Results from Duct Sealing: Average 69% airflow increase in 7 projects completed to date, with 10+ additional projects currently underway.

Tim Ellis, Superintendent of Business
Trillium Lakelands District School Board (Muskoka, Haliburton, and Kawartha Lakes)

54 Facilities | 2.5 Million Sq.Ft. |  16,000 students  |  2,100 staff

“When COVID-19 closures were announced, there was a great sense of concern, not necessarily panic, but deep worry about how we we’re going to keep our staff, students and community healthy. We quickly shifted our attention to strategies that could increase airflow and capture a virus that is airborne.”

Results from Duct Sealing: Average 40% airflow increase in 5 projects completed to date, with 10+ additional projects currently underway.

Bill Murray, Manager of Facility Services
Renfrew County District School Board (County of Renfrew, Pembroke)

29 Facilities  |  1.8 Million Sq. Ft.  |  9,000 Students  |  1,500 Staff

“When schools initially shut down it was a very difficult time. It was very stressful and we had a lot of information coming at us from many different sources. We looked to ASHRAE and the CDC for their guidance, and followed their recommendations for increased filtration and air exchanges in schools.”

Results from Duct Sealing: Average 37.5% airflow increase in 2 projects completed to date, with 15+ additional projects currently underway.

Story continued….

There’s no doubt parents would like their kids back in class, but concerns over classroom ventilation and how that could affect COVID-19 transmission, remains to be a pressing issue. With the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus circulating and most students still too young to be vaccinated, parents are seriously considering their back to school options.

The good news is, facility managers continue to work vigorously in their quest to provide improved ventilation and healthier teaching-learning environments for students, teachers, and staff.

Success stories like the ones we shared from Grand Erie, Trillium and Renfrew are not often “front page” news, making it apparently clear that ongoing communication and public awareness should continue to be a vital component in our back-to-school strategy.



Story by: Hunter Parker, Special Correspondent