Engineering safer air during COVID-19

How often is the quality of the air we breathe indoors taken for granted?

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, probably less-often than before. But what exactly goes into making our indoor air as safe as possible? Data, engineering, and teamwork are big parts of the collective indoor breathing process at the University of Utah. A task force made up of Facilities Management (FM) staff members have ensured that the air in University buildings in COVID-19 times is as safe as possible—and engineering and collaboration have driven this endeavor.

With over 300 buildings on campus and 16.5 million square-feet of building space, this task force had their work cut out for them. In addition to the sheer quantity of buildings, the diversity and complexity of the University’s facilities and ventilation systems added additional wrinkles to the challenge. The University has some of the oldest buildings in the state of Utah, manages some of the state’s most valuable assets, and is home to a uniquely diverse group of buildings. With spaces ranging from classrooms to vivarium rooms, laboratories to residential spaces, auditoriums to special collections—and many more types of spaces—there were a lot of considerations to be taken. All of these spaces had their own ventilation system designs, environmental requirements, and unique complexities.

“The process was overwhelming and daunting at times, which is expected with the scale and complexity of the University,” said Steven Klekas, Engineering Manager of the Sustainability & Energy Team (S&E Team). “However, it was a true honor to be a part of this great organization and the working teams that made this happen.”

The University’s response had to be systematic and well-structured. Many teams in FM came together to tackle this issue head-on: the S&E Team, the Facilities Engineering team, Operations and the building Controls team.

One of the first priorities was to ensure proper ventilation and determine the acceptable levels of occupancy for classrooms based on what ventilation was being supplied. The task force received a list of nearly 600 classrooms for evaluation and needed to turn these around very quickly.

To do this, the Strategy and Planning team had to know the designs of each ventilation system in every building and space, and the current configuration and operational set points for those spaces. They began by categorizing each relevant HVAC system into different detailed categories that identified attributes that have an effect on ventilation, and also compiled data for space use types, area, ceiling height, and occupancy numbers.

Through their model, they were able to determine the maximum acceptable number of people for each space while maintaining acceptable ventilation levels. They also determined how long it took to completely flush a room with fresh air, and calculated how many times the air was changed in each space per hour. From these results, the task force ranked the classrooms and other spaces into categories that informed their acceptability for safe use based on ventilation supplied. This allowed the Registrar’s Office to narrow their list of classrooms to spaces that were receiving the proper amounts of ventilation and create a much safer environment for students, faculty and staff.

Next, the Strategy and Planning team identified rooms that could be successfully modified to provide additional ventilation. They calculated the correct ventilation set points needed based on planned occupancy and delivered those with additional guidance to completely flush rooms with fresh air both before and after occupancy. This info was provided to the building controls team, guided by Karl Weeks, Building Automation Programmer in FM. Weeks and his team set about implementing these changes quickly and accurately. The combined efforts made a quick and efficient response to the ventilation challenge possible.

It took a blend of diverse expertise and decisive leadership to make this happen. Four licensed professional engineers on the task force,  David Quinlivan, Chris Benson, Steven Klekas and Isaac Schantz, lent their knowledge and experience. Quinlivan, Benson, Klekas, Schantz, Orfeo Kostencich, Bruce Starley, Bryan Cracroft and John Palo made up the Strategy and Planning Team. Benson, Klekas, Cracroft, Schantz, Weeks and Nate Howell served on the Ventilation Engineering Working Team which developed the data used to make these changes.

The undertaking as a whole required lots of hours, attention to detail, and teamwork to evaluate and analyze the many competing guidelines and recommendations from the State of Utah, the CDC, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), predominant industry leaders, and partnering higher-education institutions.  Benson, the Associate Director of E&S in FM, worked to generate a matrix to support an informed response on the challenge. He directed alignment on a unified approach between all of the teams.

Klekas used past career experience to help make the University a safer place. In a previous role, Klekas had designed and managed a research facility in Salt Lake City that manufactured a product with probiotic spores as the active ingredient. The probiotic spore size was very comparable to the size of the droplet nuclei (the transmission vehicle that the virus travels in). Klekas applied these physics and thorough-processes to the University to make ventilation safer. Cracroft and Schantz provided key engineering support which allowed this all to come together quickly as the task force delivered.

“I am very proud of the University’s ability to rise up to challenges like this and deliver for our customers and staff,” Klekas said. “It is truly remarkable the level of skill and knowledge present in Facility Management, and their ability to manage these complex and diverse systems.”

Safer campus buildings and cleaner air were not the only objectives of the task force. They have been able to share these vital lessons learned with other institutions. Their work has been shared with other universities in the state, Salt Lake County facilities management partners, and other PAC-12 partners.

The safety of students, faculty and staff at the University of Utah is a top priority. Thanks to the ventilation task force, we can all breathe a little easier.