Healthy Schools

Proper IAQ Solutions Improve Air for Students with Allergies and Asthma

By Peter Snow

Allergies are among the most common medical conditions affecting children in the United States, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Many children are affected by asthma and allergy triggers at school, such as molddust mites and strong cleaning chemicals.

May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, and with so many children living with one or more allergies, it’s important for school administrators and facilities managers to learn how they can improve the air quality in schools in order to keep students safe.

Clean air in schools is not only essential for addressing respiratory concerns but also has broader benefits for overall health and learning. The American Lung Association emphasizes that healthier indoor air can benefit both students and staff. A clean and well-ventilated environment supports cognitive function, concentration and the general well-being of everyone in the school community.

Dated School Facilities and Equipment

The average age of an American school building is 49 years old and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly a quarter of the nation’s schools have one or more buildings in need of extensive repair or replacement and nearly half have been reported to have problems related to indoor air quality.

The energy crisis in the 1970s prompted the construction of more airtight and insulated buildings worldwide which led to reduced fresh air circulation in air conditioning systems. Subsequently, the combination of inadequate ventilation, lack of proper air conditioning, human activities, and various materials and chemicals significantly impacts indoor pollution.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that around 41% of public school districts are due for HVAC updates or replacements.

In about half of the 55 schools GAO visited in six states, officials described HVAC-related problems, such as older systems that leaked and damaged flooring or ceiling tiles.

And, according to GAO's survey of the 50 states and District of Columbia, most states do not conduct statewide assessments to determine school facilities' needs and instead leave this task to school districts.

School administrators and facilities managers where equipment is dated need to consider upgrading mechanical HVAC equipment in order to improve and enhance IAQ within their schools.

For the safety of students and staff modern mechanical HVAC systems offer the best solution to provide the necessary IAQ.

When it comes to updating HVAQ equipment, there are three main areas administrators and facility managers should focus on: controlled ventilation, dehumidification, and filtration, especially if improved IAQ is the goal.

Proper ventilation to improve air quality

Ventilation plays a crucial role in maintaining proper IAQ within school facilities. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) emphasize the importance of adequate ventilation in limiting the transmission of pathogens.

Proper HVAC systems should allow for the right amount of fresh air circulation. Setting ventilation rates effectively ensures that fresh air is introduced while old, potentially contaminated air is expelled. This balance contributes significantly to improving IAQ and creating a healthier environment for students, staff, and attendees. A crowded classroom that is properly ventilated will enhance comfort and overall well-being of everyone in attendance.

Adequate filtration: The key to removing harmful contaminants

Another important step to improving IAQ is filtration. It’s important that HVAC units filter out as many particulates as possible to help prevent the spread of contaminants.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends MERV 13, which means the filters can remove 90 percent of particles between 1-10 microns in size. Where compatible, facility managers should consider ASHRAE’s recommendation for upgrading HVAC system filters. If a MERV 13 filter cannot be accommodated in the system, then use the highest MERV rating you can.

Optimizing indoor humidity levels

Humidity significantly impacts indoor air quality. To create a comfortable environment and limit pathogen growth, attention to humidity levels is crucial. If the humidity levels are not properly maintained, it leads to the indoor air becoming sticky and unpleasant, fostering mold, mildew, and organic growth. According to the EPA, the ideal relative humidity range lies between 30% and 50%. Facility managers should maintain humidity within this optimal range to ensure comfort and prevent harmful conditions.

Choosing the right HVAC solution

For classrooms, single room units truly are the best way to ensure the space is properly ventilated and they offer sufficient IAQ.  They are more efficient at combatting allergens and maintaining proper humidity levels because they are controlled on a single-room basis as opposed to the whole facility.

An example of a single-room solution would be Airedale’s Sentinel® Vertical Unit Ventilator, which provides the proper amount of fresh air ventilation and operates in conjunction with a school’s central chiller/boiler.

The installation and maintenance of single-room HVAC units are often simpler and more cost-effective than rooftop systems, making them a practical choice for schools looking to upgrade their HVAC infrastructure. 

Classrooms are often packed with children, so if space is a concern, installing units designed with a small footprint would provide the least disruption. Airedale’s ClassMate® offers a small footprint, is designed with noise reduction and is easy to install.

Enhancing IAQ leads to improved student health and safety

As school administrators and facility manager contend with the task of ensuring a safe and supportive learning atmosphere, it's crucial not to underestimate the importance of improving schools’ IAQ.

Equipping HVAC systems with proper ventilation systems and high-efficiency filtration lays the groundwork for addressing school-born illnesses and fostering general health for student communities.

The nationwide statistics on student allergies and asthma underscore the urgency of prioritizing IAQ in educational settings.

Peter Snow is the Technical Training Manager for the IAQ division of Modine Manufacturing Company.