Upgrading a School HVAC System: Benefits and Considerations

By Thomas Kim, AEPA Oversight Committee Chair

School heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have moved from a behind-the-scenes role to a front-of-house star now that students have returned to in-person learning. Accordingly, many school leaders and maintenance personnel have begun to wonder whether their HVAC systems are up to the challenge of keeping spaces clean, comfortable, and safe.

Unsurprisingly, a thorough examination by a professional is the fastest way to tell whether HVAC systems used in schools are ready for retirement. For instance, a visit by an expert can give quite a bit of information on indoor air quality assessment, ventilation and filtration rates, and relative humidity levels. Additionally, an inspection can also show whether an HVAC unit simply has seen better days.

HVAC systems ready for replacement are commonplace in many districts. Some schools haven’t seen an HVAC upgrade in generations. Consider an almost 100-year-old HVAC system in Rhode Island or a potentially dangerous 1920s-era boiler in Michigan. These may be extreme cases, but they indicate just how much of an opportunity it is for schools to use this historic moment to give their heating and cooling systems a complete overhaul.

Looking at the Benefits of a New HVAC System

Without a doubt, having a new or significantly improved HVAC system carries plenty of advantages for schools and their occupants. Foremost is peace of mind in regard to the health and well-being of their students, teachers, administrators, staff, and visitors, as a good ventilation system is considered the first line of defense against airborne illness.

That’s one of the reasons that a Southern California school worked with Carrier, an AEPA-recommended vendor, to purchase and install OptiClean Negative Air Machines in all classrooms. Paid for by government Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, the portable room air cleaners that turn over indoor air more quickly than standards require are supporting the school’s initiative toward promoting a healthier atmosphere.

Another of the many benefits of HVAC system improvements in schools is that equipment like air purifiers and filtration solutions that use HEPA filters don’t just scrub the air of viruses, germs, and allergens, but they can also remove fine pollutants like smoke and dust particles known to cause physical irritation in some children and adults.

Making an immediate, all-inclusive HVAC switch to an energy-efficient system also reduces the harms associated with deferred maintenance. Annually, many schools defer the maintenance on some or all their equipment, including the HVAC system. Though this may seem like a budget-appropriate move in the short run, maintenance deferment can cost a school 15 times more in the future in terms of dollars spent to fix preventable problems.

Choosing a Replacement HVAC System

Picking the right replacement HVAC system or portable indoor space air filtering devices can seem overwhelming, especially to school leaders new to the process. In addition to seeking ESSER funds to help offset the cost of HVAC upgrades in public, private, and charter institutions, decision makers should work with maintenance professionals to find the right systems to serve their buildings, taking into account environmental factors such as building size and regional climate.

Below are a couple of the top considerations every school will want to keep in mind to guide an upcoming HVAC purchase:

  1. Ensure that HVAC and filtration systems meet or exceed standards.

It’s not difficult to find the filtration standards for clean indoor spaces, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ acceptable indoor air quality circulation expectations. These standards can be used as a baseline, but there’s nothing wrong with considering equipment that goes above and beyond. Carrier, a vendor awarded purchasing contracts by the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies, recommends that all portable room air cleaners offer a HEPA rating of 99.97. However, a filter with a rating of MERV-13 or higher  can be an excellent alternative for improving air recirculation while keeping maintenance and energy costs reasonable.

  1. Select devices that will keep relative indoor humidity at appropriate levels.

Relative humidity plays a factor in how much moisture is in each space, from a large auditorium to an administrator’s office. Not all equipment is designed to meet all climate zones’ needs, though. If a school district is situated in a community that experiences regular high wet-bulb temperatures, the HVAC system must be able to maintain humidity between 40% and 60% without working overtime. A lot of older equipment simply can’t handle this job effectively or efficiently, which is why replacement models can be a huge relief, both financially and physically.

With ESSER funding available and school districts focused on the health of their buildings, school officials are in a good position to revitalize their HVAC systems. When it comes to protecting student and staff well-being, there’s no time like the present.

Buyers looking for a piggybackable contract to upgrade their HVAC systems or to improve ventilation may want to consider AEPA’s HVAC and Mechanical Products contracts with Carrier and Flaghouse.

Thomas Kim is the purchasing director at the King County Director’s Association, which operates a Washington-state school district purchasing cooperative. In that role, he sits as a Washington state board member to AEPA and serves as the Oversight Committee Chair for bids and contracts related to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). At his state co-op based in Seattle, he manages more than 90 contract categories for school product and professional services that generate more than $200 million in statewide annual expenditures. He brings more than 17 years of experience to the job with procurement roles at Catholic Health Initiatives, Amazon.com, and HNI Corporation.


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