The importance of keeping indoor air fresh and flowing during the pandemic

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Air conditioning has become a weapon in the war against COVID-19 transmission. Workplaces and schools now have a challenge of making sure they’re circulating clean and fresh air. 

KCRW’s Frances Anderton says that super-spreader events, where one person manages to infect many people, come from a convergence of the three Vs: venue, ventilation and vocalization. 

Architects are now rethinking how to make fresh air available in buildings. 

Hraztan Zeitlian recently completed a new office building in Santa Monica, in which he made sure to include openable windows and access to the outside for fresh air. He told Anderton, “At any meetings in renovation or brand new buildings, the central question is how can we create the healthiest building possible, and how can we combat this pandemic or future aberrations of this pandemic or other pandemics?”

To keep people inside safe, air conditioning systems are being upgraded to have High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and higher Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) ratings. Eleven and above is best for MERV.

What does this mean for open floor plans? Or will people prefer being in their own isolated cubicles? Anderton says even if people have personal cubicles, it’s unlikely they’ll have personalized air conditioning, which is usually centralized.  

Carey Upton, Chief Operations Officer for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), says his campuses were installing an AC system before COVID-19 struck, and now they’re amending it. 

“We anticipate in many places to both have the fans on, so that we're constantly turning over and exchanging the air. But in those spaces where we can, we'll also have the windows and the doors open, which is completely inefficient, but it will increase the amount of air exchange which is necessary during this pandemic,” he tells Anderton.

SMMUSD is also considering a UV lighting system, or an ionization system that kills bacteria, mold and viruses. Upton says this will increase their energy bills, but until they get the air quality up, they won’t have students return to school.

What does the increased energy use mean for the battle against climate change? 

Carey Upton says, “The argument runs into different factions very quickly. The sustainability folks who are trying to reduce our carbon footprint run into the folks who want to make sure that we are creating more air systems that allow for greater air exchange. And what would we do differently because of the virus? These things start to smash into each other. And there's no great answer.”