The University of Nebraska–Lincoln has finished a series of upgrades to its heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to better prevent the spread of COVID-19 this winter.
The upgrades, which began in the summer as part of Nebraska’s Forward to Fall preparations, have been made to roughly 260 air handling systems in more than 60 academic buildings.
“We feel very confident that the indoor spaces of our buildings on campus are safe for students, staff and faculty to use,” said Lalit Agarwal, director of maintenance and utility services.
Agarwal and his team followed guidance from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as they made the changes this fall. Both organizations have issued shifting recommendations for air handling systems throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the pandemic, our focus has really been on two major components — ventilation and filtration,” said Jacob Olson, senior manager of automation and energy management in building systems maintenance. “Ventilation being the amount of fresh outside air brought in to replace air from inside the building, and then filtration being any recirculated air that gets passed through a filter.”
According to Olson, each air handling system on campus now brings in at least double the amount of outside air recommended by international standards. Filters in each building have also been updated to catch much smaller particles, including those that could carry COVID-19.
One small challenge the team faced was updating Westbrook Music Hall, which the Glenn Korff School of Music uses as an instruction and rehearsal space. The older building doesn’t have the same digital controls as others on campus, meaning adjustments had to be made one by one. Facilities workers made additional changes, like replacing a large fan in a practice room, due to concern about the type of activities taking place putting students, faculty and staff at higher risk.
“We did a lot more work there than most other locations because of the nature of program activity there, where people are vocalizing and forcing air out of their mouths, as well as using instruments,” Agarwal said.
Filters capable of catching smaller particles have been in high demand since the start of the pandemic, making them difficult to procure. Because of this, the university had to order the materials in smaller batches throughout the semester.
“We changed our workload over the past few months so that the filter installation took priority. We designated some staff who would take the filters right when they arrived on campus and get them installed as soon as possible,” Agarwal said.
After three months of in-person instruction, Agarwal says things have gotten much easier to predict and plan for, and he’s optimistic that his team’s changes will help keep campus safe for all involved.
“We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last, so we’ve already ordered additional replacement filters for one more round of replacement in case some of them get clogged. That way, we are not looking at procurement challenges come next spring,” Agarwal said.
“We’re continuing to monitor any further guidance and recommendations that are coming out of these agencies. We are constantly on the lookout for making sure we stay abreast of their recommendations.”