By Dorothy Wigmore
Efficiency done correctly
Energy efficiency and net-zero energy are great ideas. So too are “sustainability” and “indoor air quality” (IAQ). They all matter with a climate crisis.
Good IAQ affects how school staff members do their jobs and how students perform. It also affects comfort, health and well-being. The four key factors of good IAQ are:
• Bringing in, filtering/cleaning, and distributing adequate unpolluted outdoor air.
• Maintaining acceptable temperatures and relative humidity.
• Getting rid of airborne toxins.
• Preventing mold.
IAQ is important enough that New Jersey has a standard about how to prevent problems in schools.
Saving money with energy efficiency includes short-term practices such as better lights that are turned off when people aren’t around, and longer-term pay-offs such as solar panels or geothermal heating. Good sealing or insulation in design or retrofitting also helps.
But too often, energy efficiency leads to lousy indoor air, causing “building-related nonspecific symptoms,” sometimes called “sick building syndrome.” People start complaining about headaches, fatigue, nausea and/or eye, nose, throat, and skin problems that disappear when they are away from the building.
“To conserve energy, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) reduced its standard for how much air is needed to come from outside, and, all of a sudden, these IAQ problems started popping up,” says John Oudyk, a Canadian occupational hygienist who has dealt with the hazard for many years.
Windows that wouldn’t open replaced ones that did. Teachers lost control of fresh air in their classrooms. The goal was to reduce the costs of bringing air into the building.
But less fresh air led to people getting sick, partly thanks to recirculating air with hazardous chemicals. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from new flooring, building materials, or cleaning products, added to the unhealthy mix. Recently, there have been concerns about semi-volatile organics (SVOCs), which emit hazardous vapors slowly for longer times that also lead to asthma and long-term health problems, such as endocrine disruption. (See bit.ly/iaqsvocs.)
Money-saving efforts continue today. The Sustainable Jersey for Schools PowerSave program is designed to help schools save money and energy and educate students about energy efficiency. Participating school districts can accomplish these goals, provided they don’t turn off their ventilation systems after school hours, or during the summer. Otherwise, they may face a variety of problems, including high humidity levels that lead to mold.
“It’s still happening,” Oudyk says. “People shut down the ventilation system too early at the end of the day and don’t flush it out. Then nighttime custodians working with fairly toxic chemicals are not getting any ventilation. If you’re cleaning a bathroom with no ventilation, you could argue it’s almost a confined space.”
Sometimes the IAQ problem is in one school area. For example, north-facing classrooms won’t get solar heat, so they don’t need extra cooling and won’t get outdoor air on hot days in the new energy-saving variable air volume systems.
“But the other classrooms likely are still getting cooling and the exhausts get combined, so the problem of no fresh air in that classroom is diluted,” Oudyk explains. “It looks like the CO2 levels for the whole building are OK, but they aren’t.”
Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels can indicate how well fresh air circulates. The cut-off—often 700 parts per million—is not about making someone sick, but about how much fresh outdoor air enters a space.
“Monitor the CO2 or other things to make sure you don’t have these energy efficiency casualties, such as pockets of unique IAQ problems,” Oudyk advises.
Ventilators under classroom windows aren’t affected by what happens in other spaces, but they need to be inspected, maintained and cleaned regularly. Poor IAQ may occur if a ventilator’s outdoor air intakes have been turned off for “energy efficiency,” ventilation has been blocked by leaves or litter, or idling bus exhaust draws fumes inside.
Occupants’ experience is the gold standard to determine IAQ, Oudyk says. The ASHRAE Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality standard (62.1‐2016) says “acceptable indoor air quality” has no “known contaminants at harmful concentrations” and “a substantial majority (80% or more) of the people exposed do not express dissatisfaction.” The key is to properly survey school staff and teachers and accommodate particularly sensitive people. (See the “Tools and Resources” sidebar.)
Some schools are moving to variable air volume or other sensor or demand control systems. They often use the CO2 concentration to determine when fresh air is required. However, the sensors need to be in the right place, including meeting rooms and north-facing rooms.
“As buildings become tighter by design, it’s even more critical to pay attention to what you’re putting into buildings and to ventilate them properly,” says the Healthy Building Network (HBN) Collective Impact Director Billy Weber.
The HBN and Living Building Challenge are examples of organizations paying attention to those materials, indoor air quality and energy efficiency. HBN guides about less toxic upgrades and insulation/air-sealing materials provide options to toxic materials such as spray foam insulation products and help cost out the options. The Living Building Challenge certification program incorporates long-term net-zero energy goals, healthy air, and occupant health and productivity.
Organize a meeting to talk about IAQ issues and related concerns. Beforehand, get a copy of the district’s IAQ program. Discuss how to get a policy that ventilation systems operate whenever someone is in the building or room. Inspect the building with the health and safety committee. Use body and workplace maps to gather symptom information and pinpoint trouble spots.
Learn about less toxic building material and cleaning options and provide information to members. See “Cleaning Schools Without Making People Sick” in the September 2019 NJEA Review. You can also find the article at njea.org by searching the article’s title.
Support members with IAQ concerns. Notify the school nurse and district IAQ program “designated person” about the complaint, asking for their help and co-operation.
Join Jersey Renews, which works on state-based policy solutions to climate change. You’ll learn more about the organization at jerseyrenews.org.
The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) warns:
While turning the system off may save energy, depending on outdoor conditions, it often increases demand on the HVAC system when it is turned back on. Essentially, the equipment has to operate longer and harder to reach desired indoor temperature and humidity set-points. It can also create issues with condensation if humidity levels indoors become elevated during the “off” periods. This is particularly true in areas with warmer climates. (cdc.gov/niosh/topics/indoorenv/hvac.html)
Tools and resources
Healthy Building Network:
• “A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials,” bit.ly/eeupgradehealthy
• “Guidance for Specifying Healthier Insulation and Air-Sealing Materials,” bit.ly/eeinsulatehealthy
International Living Life Institute. “Living Building Challenge 4.0. A Visionary Path to a Regenerative Future,” 2019,
New Jersey Department of Health, New Jersey Indoor Air Quality Standard (N.J.A.C. 12:100-13), bit.ly/peoshiaq
NJEA: Organizing for better indoor air quality. An NJEA guide for local association action. njea.org/download/1787/
Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers/Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: AirAssess app, at ohcow.on.ca/airassess.html
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A Canadian, she has also worked in the U.S. and Mozambique, and been involved in efforts to prevent and deal with job-related hazards for many years.