Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Cleaner Air, Better Students

Cleaner Air


Does your school district have an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) management program in place? If not, you might want to consider developing one and implementing it. A number of studies show that students and teachers perform better when breathing good, clean air.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately one-half of the K-12 school buildings in the U.S. have IAQ deficiencies.

What causes poor IAQ? There are several possible causes says Dave Story, PE, senior associate mechanical engineer with Harriman, an engineering firm based in Auburn, Maine. “Someone may close the outside air dampers as a way to save energy,” he says. “Or the outside air dampers could fall out of adjustment or fail.

“The air handling system could be set up wrong in the first place.”

Any one of these problems will reduce or even block the flow of fresh air into a building and eventually reduce the quality of IAQ.

Cleaner Air


Fresh Air. After years of struggling with inadequate space and environmental and health hazards, voter approve the new Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough, Maine. The new 800-student school has modern building systems and geothermal heating and cooling that is projected to save up to $70,000 in annual energy costs. The systems also are designed to introduce up to 100 percent of outdoor air. Providing the fresh air improved the IAQ throughout the school.

And poor IAQ can create a number of problems. According to the EPA, poor IAQ affects the health and comfort of students, teachers and administrators, which in turn has an adverse effect on performance. What’s worse, the EPA notes that poor IAQ can cause short- and long-term health problems, require costly repairs and even give rise to liability problems for the school district.

In severe cases, schools have been required to close and temporarily relocate faculty, staff and students — a very costly undertaking.

As might be expected then, taking steps that improve IAQ will improve performance. A 2015 study that appeared in the “Journal of Environmental Economics and Management” reported that the performance of students in one Texas school district improved “significantly” following projects that raised the quality of indoor air.

In response to such reports about the beneficial effects of better indoor air, approximately half — 50 percent — of the more than 13,500 school districts across the U.S. have reported implementing IAQ management plans.

Eighty percent of those programs have turned to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools” for guidance.

The EPA Tools for Schools program recommends 11 specific steps to improving IAQ:

  1. Familiarize yourself with EPA videos about IAQ. These include the “IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit” and “Taking Action & Ventilation Basics” and “IAQ Walkthrough.”
  2. Appoint an IAQ Coordinator to manage the IAQ program.
  3. Put together an IAQ Team that includes students, teachers, administrators and representatives from each group within the school.
  4. Research IAQ throughout the various rooms in the school.
  5. Identify IAQ problems using the IAQ Tools for Schools checklists.
  6. Review the problems you have identified.
  7. Conduct a walk-through inspection of the school.
  8. Prioritize and resolve IAQ problems, beginning with health and safety.
  9. Set IAQ policies and develop an IAQ management plan. The EPA has published a model plan.
  10. Follow up on your plan with inspections aimed at assessing the quality of your problem solving performance. Schedule IAQ events and set up a filing system for IAQ information.
  11. As you begin to manage IAQ effectively, become a mentor for other schools.

The EPA recommendations stem from a U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics report filed years ago — in the year 2000. That report found that one-quarter of U.S. school district buildings requires extensive repairs.

Cleaner Air


The EPA recommends that school districts implement IAQ programs in all schools district-wide. The EPA, however, does not require compliance with its recommendations, nor does it require recordkeeping related to IAQ. Then again, a number of states have enacted legislation setting IAQ standards.

An IAQ Plan in Action

The Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough, Maine, has implemented an IAQ program developed by Harriman.

Throughout the school, ventilation needs vary for different spaces. Ventilation needs, of course, depend on how different spaces are used, the number of people using the space and the square footage of the space.

Fourteen custom modular indoor air handing units provide ventilation at Wentworth. Each unit can deliver 100 percent outdoor air.

To raise the level of ventilation effectiveness, fresh laminar air enters the rooms low, from the base of the walls. Heat produced by occupants and equipment rises up and creates a natural plume of used air that returns to the air handler.

A portion of the air is exhausted to the outside by the air handler and replaced with fresh air. Discharge air temperature for a displacement system is lower in the winter and higher in the summer. Managing a displacement system carefully can reduce the energy needed to heat or cool the air.

Such ventilation can also help to deal with potential carbon dioxide monitoring. At the Wentworth school, Harriman installed a carbon dioxide monitoring system the constantly checks carbon dioxide levels inside and outside the school’s buildings.

Get Down on the Floor

Generally speaking, most ventilation systems distribute air through vents placed high on the walls or in the ceiling. Harriman systems, however, go against the traditional grain.

“Typically a classroom or office building ventilates with an overhead distribution system,” says Harriman’s Story. “We ventilate at the floor — from zero to four feet, and we provide room neutral air, close to the temperature users want.

Cleaner Air


“Systems with floor displacement diffusers have been our standard practice for about five years now — so this is relatively new in the industry.”

The story goes on to say that floor diffusion systems can ventilate with lower airflow, which in turn requires less energy to heat and cool. “We’re not mixing air,” he says. “We’re just delivering air to the occupied zone, and so we’re only heating or cooling air at the desired room temperature.

This is how the Harriman approach to improving IAQ in a room — by providing fresh air at the breathing zone and not mixing it. It is a displacement system that does not require as much heating or cooling of the air as a traditional system.

“We also use radiant flooring, which provides even heat across a room,” Story continues. “A traditional system uses thin tubing around the bottom perimeter of a wall. The tubing carries water heated to 180 degrees. It takes a fair amount of energy to heat water to that temperature.

Harriman’s radiant flooring system places tubes beneath the flooring and uses water heated only to 80 degrees. The water passes heat to the flooring surface, which, in turn, radiates into the room — there is no need to use energy to blow hot air into a room.

Story goes on to point out the even more savings can come from generating hot water. “Because this system uses hot water at lower temperatures than traditional systems,” he says, “it is possible to replace a traditional hot water heater with a condensing boiler.”

A condensing boiler, says Story, operates at an efficiency rate of 95 percent, compared to an 83-percent efficiency rate for a traditional boiler.

All told, then, healthy indoor air quality enables the occupants of a school building to function at peak efficiency. In addition, maintaining healthy IAQ will make it possible to manage a building’s operating costs more effectively and, in some cases, actually reduce those costs.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .