Massachusetts School Districts

Wakefield

Bala Consulting Engineers is currently assisting the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) by performing HVAC system evaluations for more than 10 school districts encompassing over 60 schools. Since studies have shown that COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets in the air, schools (as well as businesses of all kinds) are eager to understand the systems within their buildings and strategies to improve indoor air quality for their occupants.

The goal of Bala’s assessment is to provide an understanding of each school’s existing HVAC systems, any limitations they may have, and provide short and long term recommendations to improve air quality that are not proprietary to specific equipment manufacturers.  Our work includes a visual assessment of the existing HVAC systems, commissioning of the existing systems to identify any system deficiencies, performing airflow readings and calculating air change rates for the system and individual rooms. The information, which will assist each school district with their short and long term reopening plans, is packaged into a custom, comprehensive report tailored to each specific building. Due to the size and urgency of this assignment, Bala is utilizing engineers and commissioning agents from all five or our offices.

Earlier this summer, DESE sent a list of approved consultants to all the school districts in Massachusetts to assist with reopening their schools. Bala was selected to be part of this effort based on the extensive research we performed and distributed from the beginning of the pandemic.  Various districts reached out to Bala to discuss our approach to HVAC system evaluations, improvements and recommendations.  Some schools requested a more detailed evaluation, to measure the airflow and calculate the actual air change rates.  Air change rates are calculated by measuring the quantity of air being supplied to a given space. This can be based on the quantity of outdoor air or a combination of outdoor and highly filtered or treated return air.  A report from the Harvard School of Public Health notes that five air changes per hour (ACH) is suitable to properly dilute existing contaminants within a space, with six ACH or above being ideal.  The older HVAC systems in many buildings are not able to meet these recommended air change rates. The school administrations are faced with a number of challenges and timing is a primary driver. Therefore, practical and effective short- and long-term strategies need to be developed to improve indoor air quality.   

Once the assessments are complete, Bala’s report details the short- and long-term HVAC recommendations for improving air quality performance. Short-term suggestions include improving filtration, opening windows and/or using portable air purifiers. Long-term suggestions include more thorough renovations such as replacing air handling units, providing supplemental ventilation systems or investing in technologies such as bipolar ionization. Since the building evaluations are an extremely time sensitive process, it has been important to focus on short-term changes. Long-term solutions may require the adoption of new HVAC technologies and follow up design work. However, the long-term upgrades will ultimately benefit the overall health of the buildings and establish sound capital investments that go far beyond a COVID-19 response.

Bala has been performing these assessments for schools old and new, with some buildings dating back to the 1800s. All school districts are eager to reopen their doors but understand the need to take the necessary measures to allow their teachers, staff, and students to feel comfortable returning.  These evaluations are an integral step in that reopening process but are only part of the multi-layered approach needed to address this complex issue. 

Read more about our short and long term HVAC Strategies for Re-Opening k-12 schools https://www.bala.com/sites/default/files/2020-07/HVAC%20Strategies%20for%20Re-Opening%20K-12%20Schools.pdf

Authors

Edward G. Dolan, PE
Senior Vice President