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April 13, 2023

The Importance of Air Quality in Education: Insights from Raj Setty

Sustainable IAQ: Expert Insights - Episode 2
Raj Setty
Setty & Associates

Guest Bio

Raj Setty is President and Owner of Setty and Associates, a full service MEP engineering and commissioning firm based in Washington DC. They have successfully developed and implemented IAQ programs for K-12 school districts nationally. The firm has completed projects in over 30 states and 15 countries with active jobs in India, Indonesia, and Burma, focusing on K-12, higher ed, mission critical and base building MEP engineering.


Steps to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools

Establishing top-notch air quality in schools involves attention to granular details. It's essential to understand the current state of the air quality systems, including knowing filter sizes, system ages, and the extent of fresh air generated. An environment conducive to learning isn't a luxury but a necessity. Putting the primary focus on the students' health and academic thriving is paramount. Bringing these elements together and progressing with incremental changes can make a big difference, similar to small steps taken to eliminate lead from drinking water. Raj was clear that the focus should be on what's best for the students. Put in perspective, similar efforts were made to introduce heating and air conditioning in schools. He sees it fit that the same attention goes to enhancing air quality in the learning environment.

Establishing a Program for Indoor Air Quality 

The quality of air within schools is not a stand-alone issue. It's a collective concern involving multiple stakeholders, including maintenance staff, teachers, parents, and administrators. To successfully navigate this, Raj suggests a comprehensive approach. Begin by identifying the existing situation, map out a stepwise plan, and get all hands on deck. Remember, not all schools will need the same adjustments. Some might need ventilation installations, others might benefit from air cleaners or possibly upgrading with sensors. In the conversation, Raj shares from his working experience with various school districts about the diverse stages each institution is. For example, some schools are active in installing sensors, others are in the data aggregation stage, trying to transform the information into actionable insights. This illustrates that there is no one-size-fits-all in the quest for quality indoor air.

The Importance of Air Quality for Learning

Good air quality has been linked to optimum cognitive outcomes. Within this premise, it then becomes an urgent need for schools to prioritize this aspect of the learning setting. It’s not just about physical comfort, good ventilation and environmental conditions have a significant impact on learning outcomes. That's why it is so crucial to put the students first when thinking about air quality improvements. Raj highlighted that improving air quality is part and parcel of our civic responsibility. By seeing air quality improvements akin to energy efficiency programs, he envisions these initiatives should become ingrained in the school environment. It's not a passing conversation but a continuous pursuit to make learning a thriving experience for every student.

The Role of Engineers and Stakeholders

The engineers have a significant part to play, but it certainly isn't a one-man show. It's essential for the school maintenance team to understand the existing air systems in depth, and liaise with design professionals to put together an effective enhancement program. Including everyone on this journey, considering different viewpoints and suggestions, will enrich the overall journey to improved air quality. Parents, teachers, administrators, and the maintenance staff all have a crucial role in the realisation of this goal. Collaboratively working in this direction will certainly move things from just ideas to a reality that everyone would love to be a part of.

Planning and Budgeting for Equity in Addressing Air Quality Concerns

Long-term planning is imperative to ensure the work towards better air quality doesn't lose steam. Stakeholders need to be realistic and strategic about how they allocate resources and attention. The decision-making should consider factors such as square footage, student population, building age, and air quality assessment results. The goal is to make a meaningful impact where it’s most needed. Raj envisioned an equitable way of addressing air quality concerns. He believes that attention shouldn't just be on what should be done but also consider how and where to best deploy the resources. Like a well-drawn map, this method will guide schools in the journey to better indoor air quality. It models a pattern to deploy resources to achieve the most significant impact in the schools that need it the most.



Why should schools take on the IAQ challenge?  How and where should they start?

If we want to go ahead and move to a point of no lead in the water in your school then what are those incremental steps to get there? We know that the piping out on the street might be full of lead. So we have to start to replace that. That's a multi year, multimillion dollar projects. But in the interim we will not allow kids to drink from the water fountains and we'll bring in bottled water.

It's the same kind of concept to get to a place where kids are no longer drinking lead out of the faucets in their school. It took a long time of education, political will, air quality is going to become comparable and the political will I believe at this point is there funding is also coming down. And I also look at what is the downside of improving your air quality. It is some energy penalties and then they will cost more. But ultimately schools are there to educate those children and it is our civic responsibility to make sure that environment is as conducive as possible to that learning environment.

So yes, it is difficult, but at the same time there was a time when schools didn't have any air conditioning, any heat. And that is just one of the decisions societally that we've made. Air quality is not just about more fresh air. If you're in the California area, we don't want to be bringing in fire laden air. So we have to start to migrate to having the levers and the capabilities to turn the air off or to filter it.

And so I kind of see it as baby steps. Figure out what you have and then start to go system by system and improve their delivery of ventilation.

The Guidance has sections including Prerequisite Tasks and Priority Tasks.  How did the committee prioritize and sequence these tasks?

Prerequisite is just figure out what you have and what condition it is. Just know what your filter sizes are. You have to know if there's a Merv nine or a Merv eleven installed. Know the age of these systems and what level of fresh air that they can actually produce. Once you have a good sense of what your systems are capable of then you can start working with your design professional to come up with the right priorities.

If you have a school with zero ventilation then the project is going to be put in ventilation. If you have a school with great ventilation because it's modernized filtrations everything's there, then it might be for air cleaners or sensors. So that's why everything is broken out into stages and step by step the entire point of the guide is just start, just begin. It's not there for doing everything. It is going to be a program that school systems and owners are creating a program for indoor air quality.

It will take time to establish, new construction should follow it. But there are also plenty of legacy buildings that can be retrofit in certain classrooms, certain HVAC systems.

Why does IAQ matter now and in the future?

Everything has to go back to what's best for the student, what's best for the learner. And so when you make the argument of what type of books to buy, what type of WiFi to put in, it's all based on what's occurring in the marketplace. And there's plenty of research showing that good ventilation, good environmental conditions help with the learning environment, and it's pretty cut and dry. From that standpoint, I would move away from any kind of pandemic or viral mitigation to what's best for the students. And you have to work within that funding stream to make that happen.

We already know that they're not going to in the northern climates, they're not going to learn if there's no heating. And that decision's been made. The stretch from having HVAC to having HVAC code, mandated ventilation, all that's, there, there's not much now that we need to do that's extra, except for monitoring, measuring, and then constantly rebalancing and testing. And I don't think that is that much of a lift in today's marketplace. So we do need to keep our buildings tuned up and just like a car, and they do slowly go out of balance.

And all these modernized buildings are great. They have plenty of ventilation based on code, and it's just about operational and educational time. So I think it is not that big of a lift. If you were talking to folks and go back to, well, what's best for the student, we expect tempered climate classrooms. Now anywhere in this country, it should be within a certain environmental zone.

And that same goes with the air.

How important is partner selection and support for school districts in implementing a successful IAQ program?

Scientists and researchers have done a great job of bringing all the data to the forefront, but now it is the purview of engineers to execute on it. And it is important to have an engineer who can work with the existing systems to bring them up to the highest possible indoor air quality. So that's step one. Before you put in all new equipment, how do we get the most out of what we have? So I do believe a HVAC professional is vital to the team, but it has to be the team.

It's got to be other stakeholders such as the maintenance folks, who are going to be doing the filters. If they don't have a program to change filters every quarter or every six months, then they need to have a seat at the table. And then finally you've got to have the customer, the parents, the teachers, administrators, and so they're educated on what all these numbers mean. We have a project where they put the CO2 values on the wall and everyone panics when they see it spike up and then down. 5000 parts per million for 8 hours is the OSHA standard.

And it went from the ambient 455 to 1200. Nothing crazy. As an HVAC engineer, I'm looking for it to go up and then start to come back down. That means my systems are working, but as soon as everyone sees it spike, it is panic. And that's why all the stakeholders have to begin the education.

We all know at some level, good and bad, we don't get into the numbers. If I asked you what is a safe parts per billion of lead and water, you would just default to zero. Nothing. I want nothing. But there is some trace amounts that are acceptable and that's in air quality.

It's the same thing.

Where do you think IAQ should sit for the purposes of budget, decision-making, and ownership?

It should be on the same level as energy efficiency programs and figuring out how your systems are operating. I'm not going to put it on the same level as life safety, but over time just define it as what is right for the school. And any project that we do that we think about, any program putting in wireless infrastructure into a school, it's right for the learner. And so there are plenty of studies out there where cognitive abilities go up when CO2 levels drop and that's well documented. We do know good ventilation helps with the learning environment.

So from that simple perspective, it's right for the learner. So then it must become part of the environment. When I walk into some school districts and you've got pipes leaking, it's a travesty. And it doesn't matter what type of curriculum there is, how good the teachers are, if the heat doesn't work in the school in the middle of winter, it's irrelevant. So it's all part of the whole package.

We're a small piece of the puzzle, but we do need to make sure that air quality starts to help the learning environment and it needs to be done that way from that perspective.

What extent did the work in your consulting engineering firm inform your input into the ASHRAE Guidance?

So we've worked with just on the ASHRAE guidance, probably around 70 or so different schools, districts around the country, all ranging from one offs to 200 schools. And so part of the guidance, it's seeing it sometimes go out of order. One district is just putting in sensors. One district, okay, well what are you going to do with all the sensor readings? You're collecting billions of points of data a day and then who is going to now aggregate that data and convert it into an action?

So that's kind of where we are with them. Other districts are what is my baseline? I just don't even know what I have and what tools I have. So my day job as a mechanical engineer is everything. I mean, that's the whole reason I'm able to understand what some of these systems are.

And if you've got an RTU with 18% capacity of ventilation, then we know what that translates. If we don't know the distribution, then we bring in companies like SafeTraces to start to figure out what that distribution path is and then you have a scope of work to improve it. And that's where it is very important for the engineers at some point to give the building owners the game plan, the solution. All of this right now is still in a testing phase, giving the owner overloads of information. They just need to get it solved.

And so that's what our day job, that's what plenty of ASHRAE engineers, that's what we have been doing for years and we will continue to do.

How would you advise a school district to act despite funding, capacity, and liability concerns?

I think the concerns are totally valid. So as soon as you put in whole bunch of sensors, as soon as you test and balance the systems, you're going to have a list of work to do. There's no way around that. You'll find all different types of sensors that are broken that control your HVAC, or you might not even know the filter sizes. I think from a school's perspective, it is a multi year program.

Figure out where you stand, figure out how it's operating, what works, and then before you start going public with your sensor readings or having a public dashboard, have the protocols in place to rectify it. So that is where I see the same game plan that testing for lead in schools came down. They started testing, they had test regularly, then they figure out where the leaded pipes are, then they start replacing them and in the interim, you bring in bottled water. So I think in the same way, you have to start because it is something that is going to be important for the learning environment. I don't fall on the path of we're going to mitigate every viral introduction and it's a COVID byproduct, but there is at this point, based on all of the sensor readings and testing across millions of square feet, that we've done, you can tell that there's some really poor air quality in some of these classrooms and that education is going to be a multi year process.

Now, why is it poor? Sometimes the teachers are just burning incense and air fresheners and cleaners with clorox bleach, wiping down everything, every classroom. So that does degrade what that air is. So we got to at least ventilate it and flush it out. When you walk into a classroom and it smells like a hospital just in your gut, you know, that probably isn't good for those tiny lungs.

What should school districts consider with regard to the assessment, planning, and funding of implementing the ASHRAE Design Guidance for Education Facilities?

The next version of the guidance we're currently going through, technical Committee Review and also ASHRAE Publications review. We had a meeting with several stakeholders and what they wanted to see is on the risk assessment section, more of it altered towards a planning and budgeting for equity. Now, equity is going to be defined for the people who are sending out the funding is do you split your pot of money by square footage? Do you split it based on student population? Do you do it based on age of the building?

Or do you do it by the assessment who has the worst air quality? So those are considerations in that next tranche, because the funding is not limited. But if you have $500,000, how do you best deploy that across a school district? It might not be logical to give each school $10,000 because that won't do as much. It might be more logical to give the whole half a million to the school that has no ventilation.

So those are on the planning and the assessment side. It's important to work with your design professionals to figure out the best use of that's close.