In anticipation of a gradual return to campuses this fall, staff at York University have been hard at work updating air filtration and ventilation systems to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, instructors and staff.
Stewart Dankner, the University’s director of property management in Facilities Services, has overseen much of this work, which has been underway since the start of the pandemic. His team carefully monitors the latest science and trends in air filtration to understand what has been working to protect communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, including in hospitals where there has been a real need to protect patients and health-care providers who are interacting in close proximity.
Q: What has York University done over the past year to upgrade ventilation systems to improve health and safety in classrooms and office spaces?
A: Over the course of this past year, we have made changes to improve air flow in buildings on our campuses and have installed some of the best air filtration products available to protect against airborne COVID-19 virus particles.
The good news is that we started from a good place, after having upgraded ventilation control systems over the past number of years. All our academic buildings, for example, have mechanical ventilation in place that allows fresh air to be circulated.
In classrooms, offices and mixed-use spaces, ventilation is designed to use a portion of fresh and recirculated air. However, in our upgrades, we have focused on maximizing the amount of fresh air that these systems can handle, running them 24-7 to improve air flow. The air in classroom spaces is purged before students arrive and after they leave.
In addition, we have used air filters like what you would find in hospitals, especially in key buildings where higher occupancy is expected and where there is a mix of fresh and recycled air. These filters are being replaced at a higher rate of frequency for increased health and safety protection.
Finally, at room and building entranceways, we have disabled forced air recycling to reduce the possible recirculation of airborne particles in these spaces.
Q: What has been done to improve safety in lab spaces?
A: The air in labs is purified on an hourly basis to remove harmful vapours, contaminants or particulates. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems also help to safeguard against air being recirculated.
We have made improvements to ensure that the air in buildings is purged on a regular basis, with laboratory ventilation running 24-7. In many of these spaces, we’ve modified the HVAC systems to prevent the re-entry of contaminants in the air.
Fan coils have been disabled to avoid the constant recirculation of air in rooms, and in those lab spaces where this cannot be done, fewer people are being allowed in at the same time. This further reduces the risk of harmful particulates in the air.
Q: What is now considered to be the standard to protect health and safety in indoor spaces in the pandemic?
A: We follow the latest recommendations and guidance set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. This includes the following, which has now been implemented at York:
- increasing outdoor air ventilation to boost the amount of fresh air that is circulated in indoor spaces;
- improving central air and other HVAC filtration to the highest possible levels;
- keeping systems running for extended hours or on a 24-7 basis, where possible;
- adding portable room air cleaners with HEPA or higher quality air filters in the spaces with higher occupancy, to further protect health and safety;
- maintaining appropriate air temperature and humidity levels to address infectious aerosols; and
- where possible, disengaging energy-saving strategies that might otherwise increase the amount of recirculated air or reduce fresh air in our ventilation systems.
Q: What are the other steps being taken to make sure that York’s students, faculty, instructors and staff will be safe when they come to campus?
A: The Facilities Services team has been reviewing the many new systems that have entered the market. These systems, with new technology and emerging ventilation products, aim to improve health and safety.
The Facilities Services team has been working and continues to work closely with York researchers and professors who specialize in this field. The knowledge and support they receive from York’s academic experts help them to effectively assess these products so that they can make informed decisions on which products will deliver on the goal to improve air quality.
Certain day-to-day practices have also been adapted to protect health and safety. For example, when cleaning floors and surfaces, the ventilation systems are turned off to allow airborne particles to settle.
While we have taken many steps to ensure the health and safety of our community, it will be essential to follow public health guidance on wearing mouth and nose coverings, maintaining physical distance and ensuring that community members do not come to campus when they feel sick. These practices, combined with the improvements to the ventilation system, will play an important role in keeping everyone safe.