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From left, SFU AC mechanic Nassor Da-Silva and energy specialist Jaelim Jeon check the ventilation in a classroom in the 4000 level of the Academic Quadrangle with HVAC balancing contractor Ken Mah on June 3, 2021.

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Campus ventilation breezes into spotlight as SFU readies for fall return

June 28, 2021
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By Jeff Hodson

Having students, staff and faculty on campus this fall will be a breath of fresh air as classrooms and offices at SFU have largely sat vacant for the past 15 months.

With SFU readying for its return to campus, special attention is being paid to the university’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. By ensuring an adequate supply of fresh air in classrooms and across other areas of the university, SFU can be prepared for the safe return of staff, faculty and students.

“Ventilation alone is not a panacea for tackling COVID-19,” says Dan Cooper, associate director, buildings and grounds for SFU Facilities Services, VPFA. “It’s one tool to help mitigate spread, and doesn’t work without some other interventions in place. Vaccination, frequent hand washing and staying home if you’re sick are also pretty crucial.“

In May 2020, SFU Facilities Services began an audit of the ventilation on campuses, going into spaces, measuring airflow and verifying that the systems meet the best-practice air quality standards for indoor environments established by Health Canada, WorksafeBC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (ASHRAE).

Cooper notes SFU buildings are built and maintained to meet those standards. The audit, which will continue throughout the summer, is to confirm that the standards are indeed achieved.

In addition, ASHRAE has made a number of recommendations that SFU has adopted on how to operate ventilation systems amid the pandemic, including using outdoor air where possible, flushing spaces by running HVAC units at full capacity before and after people are in a space and upgrading air filters. Filter upgrades are complete in all but three buildings (with slated completion for all by September).

SFU has done a number of ventilation upgrades over the past several years, including the seven sisters and a computer lab in the Academic Quadrangle.

Bernard Chan, SFU’s energy manager, says the audit, which includes about 1,000 rooms on Burnaby campus, involves checking plans and diagrams that are then verified onsite by energy specialists, AC mechanics and HVAC balancing contractors. Similar work is also taking place at Surrey and Vancouver campuses in cooperation with the building partners, with prioritization of high occupancy shared spaces such as classrooms and learning spaces.

Cooper says that there’s a misconception that indoor spaces without outside windows or doors lack fresh air.

“The ventilation system provides fresh, outdoor air,” Cooper says. “Some of the initial rooms we’ve looked at were identified as interior spaces with no opportunity to open a door or window, but for the most part they’ve performed well.”

While the work was initiated due to  COVID-19, upgrades (like new filters) will have longer term impacts and benefits by making the campus environment better and when future cold and flu seasons come around. To find out if a particular area on campus has been evaluated, please see the indoor air quality page.