Schools made “improvements” to ventilations systems!?

It’s back to school season, and I’ve been getting great updates from the amazing teachers at my daughter (now 12) and son’s (now 9) elementary school teachers. It’s always so impressive to see the caliber of educators (compared to when I was in school I guess), and it’s made all the more impressive by the difficult conditions of teaching during a pandemic with masks, physical distancing and all the other items adding to complexity of trying to get kids to pay attention to academia.

What was really interesting was that each teacher vaguely mentioned an “improvement to ventilation systems” in their emails and during the online meet the teacher session. Knowing better than to press on things, I decided to instead ask my kids who are almost always far more in the know and also completely unable to be vague. 

First question was whether they had seen any new pieces of equipment in their classes (fans, switches, or new big noises for upgraded fans etc). The answer from each was “no, but we do leave the windows and doors open a lot”. Second question is if there was any trigger as to when to open the windows and doors. To which the answer was either “I don’t know” (my son) or “whenever someone thinks about it, and then we close them if we are too cold” (my daughter). 

This is likely going to be the answer you get from your kids in schools in Canada, the USA, or Europe. Most schools in these places are 1. Often very old and 2. Low tech even if they are new. That’s not really a huge problem because the solutions my children described were the common sense and pretty useful actions that people used in the 1918 flu pandemic to keep schools open. The biggest challenge we have today is that those strategies are now hitting head on with our current climate emergency. All those open doors and windows just means that the heating systems (for Canada) or cooling systems (for Australia or places that are cooling dominant during school terms) are working that much harder and using that much more in terms of carbon intensive energy. 

A data problem

Everyone is trying to do their best during the last 20 months of the pandemic. I don’t expect that schools should all be running out and putting massive new outdoor air supply systems into my kids class or air purification systems (which I know don’t all work that well). Part of the point of climate friendly solutions is to right size them so you save energy (and not use resources when you don’t need to). We can’t trade improvements in classroom indoor air quality for the next few years for many years of a heating climate due to energy or product overuse. 

The first way to solve the issue of the massive underventilation of schools is to first get our heads around the scope of the problem. 

Now make no mistake, most schools over the last 45 years have been under-ventilated on purpose (as all buildings were). This was well intentioned with the goal of saving money and carbon. It all started back in the late 1970’s, but that’s a topic for another article entirely. So the scope of the problem is to figure out how much ventilation we need to add for each particular school, class, etc.

The only way to do this, is to start measuring what is happening in these spaces. We’ve worked with IAQ consultants for years who have done the odd test in a school but this is almost never done yearly and almost never widely available outside of the people who commissioned them to do the study. 

The good news is that some smart school districts (led by smart policies) have started putting in real-time internet of things devices to start getting a sense of what is going on. For example the province of Quebec currently funded 10,000 sensors to start getting a handle of CO2, radon, PM2.5 (dust) and VOCs (chemicals). 

Personally I can’t wait to hear about the data that starts to come out of this project, because it can help us understand the next most important parts of this process which is analyzing the data, and coming up with actual solutions. 

A controls problem

One of my favorite bits of energy saving technology is also one that is great for a pandemic, and it’s called demand control ventilation. It’s a complex name for a system that  is actually pretty simple. What it means is that you use a trigger (in most cases a CO2 sensor for telling you the occupancy of a space) to bring in more outside air into a space. It’s super rare that I ever see it used on projects (often only LEED or other green projects), and in most instances it’s only ever used in boardrooms. 

We’ve worked with consultants who had great ideas around different ways to do demand control on a project. One brilliant example is using VOCs (chemicals) for a gym change room, as smelly shampoos and other perfumes are likely a better indication of when to vent that space or to bring in outdoor air. 

The big challenge we are going to have once we have all the data we need is that most HVAC, purification and other systems aren’t really built to do demand control. I expect to see a whole host of clever new controls companies (because I expect little innovation from large companies as I’ve worked with them for years) to make all this possible. At least we are starting to get the data we need (in some early examples). We need to be able to better control systems based on a new readily available data stream.

Hope for now, hope for the future

Over the next year, I hope to see every organization wake up to the fact that we can’t stick our heads in the sand when it comes to our indoor spaces. It’s the last giant black box out there. We know more about something even more complex (climate science) than we do about what is going on with indoor air quality. Especially in schools

What’s great about this is that kids like my daughter and her class won’t have to guess when to open windows and doors. They will at least get a better sense from actual data on when to do that. Luckily kids also care about the climate emergency, I bet this will mean massive energy savings just by arming them with data rather than vague guesses about when to open or close things. 

The hope is that they will also be the ones developing the next generation of controls that will help create systems that are smart enough to both keep them safe in the short term (like this pandemic) and over the long run.