This is part two in a series recognizing faculty and staff who are supporting UBC’s transition back to campus. In this update, we showcase the efforts of our colleagues who are working on HVAC systems to ensure safe building ventilation on campus.
Over the past 18 months, learning, research, and work at UBC have been taking place remotely, wherever possible. But one group of people has diligently stayed on campus to keep its infrastructure humming through all this time: the teams responsible for ensuring that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are functioning properly across the university.
Now, as UBC prepares for a return to on-campus learning and instruction, these essential workers are doubling their efforts to ensure university spaces meet or exceed guidelines set out by WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Centres for Disease Control (BC CDC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standards. Their efforts are being guided by a university COVID-19 HVAC working group, which brought together professional engineers and building mechanical systems experts from UBC Facilities and Safety & Risk Services in UBC Vancouver, Health, Safety and Environment from UBC Okanagan, and faculty members from the School of Population and Public Health’s Occupation and Environmental Health Division to support the health and safety of the UBC community.
A new safety baseline
“That committee, which was well represented by both campuses, came up with some specific recommendations from three or four buckets to get ready,” explains Adrian Hingston, Associate Director of Health, Safety and Environment at UBC Okanagan. “One recommendation, consistent with the BC CDC recommendations, was to bring in outdoor air where possible, and to make sure systems are operating as designed. ASHRAE also recommended after-hour building flushes to get fresh air through the buildings, and they also recommended moving to a minimum MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) 13 filter.”
What this means, in practice, is that every air filter in the university is being audited and replaced as necessary over the summer months. “Historically, we would just follow the same guidelines as we always would, and change things out according to each unit’s maintenance schedule. Now, we have to do everything within two months, to make sure it's all at a base starting point,” says Shaun Macdonald, Head Millwright with UBC Facilities’ Building Operations, UBC Vancouver.
“We want to be in the best possible shape for September 7,” adds Martin Gibb, Manager of Engineering & Utility Services, Facilities Management, at UBC Okanagan. “Typically, we don't go in and blitz all the buildings as we are doing this year, because if we do them all around the same time, they all come due at the same time,” he says. “We usually have a three- or a four-month schedule and stagger them. We may look at replacing some filters sooner to try to create some staggering effect in the maintenance.”
"One recommendation, consistent with the BC CDC recommendations, was to bring in outdoor air where possible, and to make sure systems are operating as designed. ASHRAE also recommended after-hour building flushes to get fresh air through the buildings, and they also recommended moving to a minimum MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) 13 filter."Adrian Hingston, Associate Director of Health, Safety and Environment at UBC Okanagan
A juggling act
On the Vancouver campus, there is the additional challenge of ventilating older buildings that do not have HVAC systems. “We're looking at purchasing portable air filters and fans for spaces that don’t have mechanical ventilation,” says Stephen Li, Mechanical Engineer in Building Operations, UBC Vancouver, who is busy working through a list of hundreds of spaces that UBC Safety & Risk Services has flagged for review in the run-up to September. The work is a bit of “a juggling act,” he admits. “Do we put in electric heat, or would that overload the electrical supply? How much electrical supply do we need that will allow us to install those portable fans and filters? How many fans do we need to bring in the right amount of outdoor air to be code compliant? Those are all questions that I have to answer.”
All of this is occurring on top of the regular daily task of responding to calls. “We still have work orders coming in from spaces that are being occupied right now,” notes Stephen. “Most of the time it's temperature issues where a room's too hot or too cold, or sometimes we’ll be walking through a space and we’ll notice things. We also have operational engineers who walk through the mechanical rooms and check on items, and they’ll identify issues for us to address.”
With about 900 spaces being assessed for upgrades at UBC Vancouver, and 24 buildings at UBC Okanagan being outfitted with minimum MERV 13 filters, it’s a large task by any measure. But it’s one that the operations teams are pleased to be taking on.
A community welcome
“The campus after March 2020 felt so strange,” recalls Shaun. “On my bike ride to work, there were no people walking to the campus. Buses were driving by, but they were empty. Going into buildings where all the lights were off, the doors were locked and all the classrooms were empty was kind of eerie.”
Now, he says, there’s a growing sense of anticipation in the air, as he and his colleagues look forward to welcoming the community into the spaces they have devoted so much care and preparation to making safe. “It's actually quite exciting. It's not just about having everything populated again, it’s that feeling that you’re here helping maintain and build this school environment for all these people that are going to be the next generation, and they're here to learn,” he observes. “Whatever they need, and whatever the researchers need is our main focus. We all take pride in our work, and working on this campus is probably the best reward.”
Written by Jessica Werb, on behalf of UBC Internal Communications
"It's actually quite exciting. It's not just about having everything populated again, it’s that feeling that you’re here helping maintain and build this school environment for all these people that are going to be the next generation, and they're here to learn."Shaun Macdonald, Head Millwright with UBC Facilities’ Building Operations, UBC Vancouver