Facilities Management altered air quality operations is focused on keeping campus healthy

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Working proactively behind the scenes, Auburn University Facilities Management has put into place several modifications to its daily operating procedures aimed at helping to keep university students, faculty, and staff healthy during COVID-19.

“When the pandemic hit this spring, we pivoted from normal operations to put tremendous focus on COVID-19,” said Dan King, associate vice president of Facilities Management. “We launched ahead with changes by pulling out all the stops to do what needed to be done to provide the best environment within campus buildings we could to help keep the campus community healthy.”

In addition to cleaning and disinfection, building signage installation and space modifications, Facilities is placing a significant amount of time and effort on continuing to improve building air quality.

Building air flow contractors were brought in early on to begin assisting Facilities experts in implementing building air flow testing and modifications to improve air quality.

“Facilities, working in conjunction with input from the AU COVID-19 Task Force, has done a comprehensive and admirable job in hardening the campus as much as possible to the spread of the pandemic, said Bruce Tatarchuk, Ph.D., Charles E. Gavin III Professor of chemical engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. “Their measures have been many and varied, not the least of which has been a careful assessment of current building operational practices, as well as increased makeup air to the HVAC systems of these buildings and the use of significantly higher efficiency air filters. While social distancing and other CDC guidelines are clearly still in vogue, Facilities has certainly stepped up to provide the safest possible campus environment that it can.”

To date, Facilities has modified more than 94 percent of campus buildings with central mechanical systems to maximize outside air supplied within the building. Facilities has also upgraded building systems to include MERV-13 filtration where possible and extended system run times to allow for increased flow to further improve air quality.

“According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), these filters are very efficient in removing at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (roughly 3,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair),” said Chandana Mitra, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics who works with a NASA-funded research team looking at aerosols and rainfall variability in urban areas.

“The most relevant factors, in relation to air quality, seem to be the extent to which a heating and cooling system can reduce the concentration of viral particles in air. We have been evaluating systems and making adjustments that maximize air quality,” said Bob Hix, Facilities Management assistant director of Design. “Our main focus has been on improving filtration levels and increasing outside air supply where possible.”

This includes the latest applications of industry best practices for building mechanical systems as recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, and CDC.

“In the early days of the pandemic, it was looking like more intensive alterations would be required for building systems to reduce spread of the virus. As the transmission of coronavirus is now better understood, CDC and ASHRAE have updated their guidelines and a majority of the university’s HVAC systems already meet these requirements. The probability of transmission of the virus through air handling units and HVAC systems appear to be very limited compared to the effectiveness of wearing a mask and social distancing,” said Mark Aderholdt, university engineer within Facilities Management.

Visit the Facilities COVID FAQ page for a detailed listing of COVID related Q&As, in particular “Building Systems.”

It is important to note this air quality work is in addition to efforts Facilities put into place this spring when it began ordering all the personal protective equipment (PPE) it could as supplies became available. Hand sanitizing stations and sanitizing wipes dispensers were ordered and distributed throughout campus. Touchless restroom fixtures were ordered and five Facilities team members were assigned to work fulltime installing at least one in each restroom throughout campus, with over 950 faucets installed to date.

All was made possible by the Facilities’ COVID-19 Taskforce which includes five working committees. Each assigned a different area of focus and charged with developing and executing a comprehensive return to campus plan, and monitoring and reporting progress on a weekly basis. The committees are still active and comprised of 30+ team members, including faculty from engineering and building science, as well as representatives from Auxiliary Services and Athletics.

Facilities has also created “COVID-19 Building Readiness Fact Sheets” for most academic and administrative buildings on campus. The fact sheets detail the COVID-19-related actions taken in a particular building. View the fact sheets by visiting the Facilities COVID Portal.

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