Healthy Schools

Surviving Extreme Heat in K–12 School Facilities

Extreme heat is becoming more and more of a problem during the early and late weeks of the school year. According to NBC News, dozens of schools in cities across the country had to shut down or revert to remote learning in August 2022 because of the hot weather and improper air conditioning. Much didn’t change at the end of the school year as the late-spring heat wave forced schools in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes regions to do the same thing in early June, according to The Washington Post.

In many cases, aging and outdated HVAC units were not designed to deal with increasing temperatures from climate change and are not capable of the ventilation rates now prescribed to maintain proper indoor air quality and mitigate the risk of infectious disease spread. “The average school building is 50 years old,” said Mike Pickens, the executive director of the National Council of School Facilities in an interview with EducationWeek. “Forty-one percent of schools in our country need their HVAC system updated or replaced.”

To prevent hot temperatures and poor air quality from being an issue for K–12 facilities, it’s important for school leaders to be proactive in their preparation. While HVAC units are a great provider of clean air and air conditioning, it’s important to keep these units maintained throughout the calendar year and keep proactive planning in place to replace outdated equipment.

Maintain Units

With the importance of providing healthy air to spaces, HVAC equipment needs to perform a number of functions. The ability to perform consistently and efficiently is heavily dependent on a proper preventative maintenance schedule. Every HVAC unit has different needs that are outlined in the Installation and Service Manual that is included with the unit, including any equipment lockout procedures to ensure safety. One of the most important tasks to do on a regular basis is filter replacement to ensure air is filtered for the space but also helps keep coils, fans, motors, and other components clean.

It’s also important to inspect and clean coils to ensure their heat transfer capacity is not hindered. Drain pans should be cleaned to minimize biological growth. At least annually, wiring and electrical connections should be checked and tightened as needed. Dampers should be checked to ensure they properly function and close when in the off or unoccupied position. Outside air louvers should be checked to ensure there is not any debris or nests.

These are just a few of the common things that should be done as part of regularly scheduled maintenance. When this is not performed, indoor air quality will suffer, energy usage may increase, and equipment life may be reduced.

Replace Aging Units

Just like any machine, HVAC units are not built to last forever. With the increased strain hotter temperatures put on the unit, their lifespan may be cut even shorter than expected. On average, an HVAC system should last roughly 15 to 20 years. At that point, there should already be a plan in place by K–12 school leaders to replace the unit with one that is properly sized for current conditions, provides ventilation to meet current recommendations or code requirements that have evolved significantly even over the last few years from the pandemic, has a higher MERV-rated filtration, and is more energy efficient, just to name a few reasons. If beating the heat and providing excellent air conditioning and IAQ is your goal, it’s important to be proactive and replace older, outdated units.

Upgrade or Retrofit Existing HVAC System

If your existing unit is less than 15 years old, retrofitting the system with air conditioning and IAQ solutions will help alleviate some of the issues from extreme heat conditions. Retrofitting an existing unit with air economizers can provide an efficient way to meet the cooling demands and utilize less energy in the process. Installing dehumidification solutions would also be vital during the hotter months due to their ability to maintain comfortable relative humidity levels and promote positive IAQ.

Of course, before making any retrofitting attempts, school leaders and facility managers must make sure the HVAC unit can handle the additional components and added static. If the unit is not compatible, it can result in motors failing or less airflow, which can be problematic during hotter months. It’s important to do the required research before retrofitting your existing unit. Failure to do so could result in poorer air quality, hotter classrooms, and wasted money. Also, the cost of retrofit may exceed the cost of simply buying a new unit.

Beat the Heat

Being proactive is always better than being reactive. If you realize your HVAC unit needs to be replaced or retrofitted on a sweltering hot day, then you’ve waited too long to address the problem. Getting ahead of the issue and replacing old units or making necessary upgrades will be beneficial for keeping students and faculty comfortable throughout the school year. Whether you are installing air economizers or installing a brand-new unit, being proactive can help schools stay open on extremely hot days and provide an atmosphere that enhances a student’s learning experience.

About the Author

Michael Schires is the Senior Product Manager for the IAQ division of Modine Manufacturing Company.

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