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Expert Advice: Creating Healthier Buildings with Existing Budgets

Contributed by :

Joe Cinalli is a regional manager for Schneider Electric and has spent his career helping clients to envision, enable and execute plans and projects that are driven to improve the physical, mental and financial health of their employees and buildings.

Craig Mesenbrink is a Professional Engineer, Certified Indoor Air Quality Professional (CIAQP) and Engineering Project Development Manager for Schneider Electric. He holds 6 professional accreditations and has over 35 years of experience helping schools and universities improve facilities with engineered solutions.

Many public entities, like cities, counties, school districts and universities, are searching for solutions to open buildings in compliance with local and federal recommendations in the midst of a budget crisis. Protecting the health and safety of facility occupants is the top priority, but funding is not unlimited. Our experts recently shared the five pillars for healthier buildings and strategies for comparing building improvements against cost of implementation.

While the webinar covers these topics in depth, here are several common questions our experts think will be helpful for all public entities:

  1. Much of the technology I’m hearing about is so expensive, how do we decide what to implement?

There are two things to consider before adopting any technology: the impact and the cost. This is especially true for cities, counties, schools and universities where funding is limited. This balancing act between investment and impact must be discussed so that leaders can make smart choices and install solutions that offer the biggest rewards.

We think of this decision-making spectrum as a pyramid.  First, you must build a strong base with a foundational plan and optimize your existing systems. Next, you can begin to explore building renovations that will dramatically improve how major systems in each facility protect occupant health. After major renovations are made that will positively impact the majority of your facilities, it might be time to consider specialty solutions for unique spaces. Finally, you can reach the leading edge of available technology with best-in-class materials and applications.

It’s good to think of this is as a journey – you can always improve your position, but it doesn’t make sense to jump too far ahead. For example, it is not ideal to purchase expensive UV robots if simple steps (such as retrocomissioning) have not been addressed. As a bonus, many low-cost items deliver a high impact that will help build a strong technological foundation and deliver increased efficiency as well.

  1. What should we be measuring and/or addressing to improve indoor air quality?

Indoor air quality is a phrase we’ve seen a lot in the news lately, and rightly so. Taking steps to improve your indoor air quality will have a significant impact on how well a building performs the critical task of protecting occupant health.  Here’s three main areas to address:

  • Ventilation: Consider running systems (including exhaust) 2 hours before and after occupancy.  Typical outdoor air exchange is 3x per hour. 
  • Outdoor Air Exchange: Verify outdoor air fractions (ie 15-20 cfm/person) for your usage.  For example, if you open at half occupancy try to double your outdoor air fraction with the same settings. If you have CO2 sensors, trend this data during occupied times to verify adequate outdoor air ventilation.
  • Humidity: Indiscriminately ‘opening’ outdoor air dampers may not be the answer. Many times, more outdoor air means more humidity. Try to maintain indoor relative humidity levels between 40%-60% during occupied times.
  1. What will have the biggest impact as schools get ready for the fall?

Our first recommendation to school districts interested in creating healthier buildings would be to fully understand the status of every single system in your facilities.  Major systems need to be in good working order and be designed to work together to optimize your facilities.

To help our clients prepare, we offer a Building Readiness Assessment that aligns with ASHRAE guidelines. Our team of engineers will act as an extension of your existing maintenance staff to help you quickly and thoroughly assess your facilities. The Building Health Assessment includes a visual and auditory inspection of water and plumbing systems, indoor air quality, roof condition, mechanical room condition, building envelope, general site condition and other potential hazards. This is an essential step in reopening your buildings and it is critical to avoid causing costly damage to your major systems. Restarting your equipment following a long-term shutdown poses unique challenges and should be carefully managed.

  1. Energy Performance Contracting can reduce operations and maintenance costs by 25%, how does that work?

At Schneider Electric, we've been doing Energy Performance Contracting for nearly 30 years and saved our clients almost $2.5B altogether. This solution works by making significant upgrades and improvements to buildings that also increase energy efficiency. Those utility and operational savings are captured to help pay for all the improvements.

Many public entities have a list a mile long of things they need to fix, but don’t have budget to address. You might not realize that list, left unaddressed, is also costing millions in wasted energy and wasted time. Which means paying the utility company more than you should and overlooking operational improvements, such as automation and energy efficient technology, that can quickly reduce costs.

The great news: tackling that list of deferred maintenance can also create healthier buildings and reduce costs.

  1. What can you do if there isn’t adequate ventilation, like in office cubicles that have no windows?

Most modern systems bring in outside air equivalent to three total air volumes every hour.  In spaces where the HVAC system doesn’t allow for recommended increased filtering and exchange rates, the quick-fix solution might be to use a spot HEPA filter in that area. However, improperly ventilated areas should be evaluated for ventilation upgrades.

  1. Our courthouse was built in the 1890s. Can historic buildings be healthy buildings?

Yes, absolutely. Even the oldest buildings can be upgraded and retrofitted with modern HVAC systems that exchange and filter the air properly.  We’ve worked with lots of clients whose buildings are historic landmarks and listed on the national register of historic places.  You can protect the beauty and history of your facilities while still bringing them up to code and into the 21st century.

  1. Are there solutions that would work in 24-hour buildings, like our jail?

Facilities with constant occupancy and a higher density of people, such as jails and dormitories, are undoubtably even more reliant on a HVAC system that functions well and filters the air appropriately.  A great place to start is examining the baseline by performing inspections and constantly monitoring temperature, relative humidity, and CO2 levels.

The challenges facing America’s schools, cities and counties today are unique. Administrators are working hard to understand how best to design their buildings to protect the health of occupants – the students, teachers, employees and residents that make up our communities – while also protecting the budget.

Download this guide to discover how to create and fund Healthy Buildings.