HVAC Systems & Indoor Air Quality

Taylor Bardin (Natural Resource Conservation)

Alec Stephens (Building, Construction & Technology)

Ethan Finkel (Environmental Science)


Between attending classes, working a part-time job, going to the gym, finding time to socialize, and remembering about that weekly quiz an hour before lecture, the inevitable exhaustive and delusional feelings students often experience begin to set in before there is time for an afternoon nap. But that sluggish, unfocused feeling does not always reflect their sleep, dietary or even exercise patterns. Rather, it could be the result of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) found in many buildings on campus, places where students, in addition to faculty and staff, spend much of their day. For each breath humans take, between 1 and 2 million particles are deposited on the inside of the lungs (R. Peltier, personal communication, January 20, 2015), and while the majority of those particles are relatively harmless, poor IAQ increases exposure to and likelihood of sicknesses. Coupled with the chronic health effects of exposure to poor IAQ – asthma, respiratory illness, immune system deficiencies, DNA damage and cancer (Radakovic et al., 2014) – the air that we breathe is cause for serious concern.

In fact, many buildings on college campuses have poor IAQ with questionable concentration levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carcinogens that can directly affect the way students learn, comprehend and process information (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2012). These compounds, such as formaldehyde, acetone, benzene, asbestos, perchloroethylene (PCE) and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) are found in many of the products used to construct campus buildings, including paints, sealing caulks, flooring mastics, and composite wood products. This poses the question of whether buildings in the University of Massachusetts Amherst are suitable for students, faculty and staff, in which to regularly work and perform. As of 2007, there were 14 buildings on campus designated for retrofitting with new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in order to provide a safer and cleaner environment for its inhabitants (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2007b).

So what does an HVAC system do exactly and how is it important for human health? More than just the respiratory system of a building, an HVAC system is responsible for providing thermal comfort and satisfactory IAQ for its inhabitants. In brief, the heating component is responsible for providing additional heat when outside air temperature falls below the balance point temperature of a building – the temperature at which a building is able to support thermal comfort without the need for a heating or cooling system. Conversely, the cooling (or air conditioning) system of a building removes any excess heat produced when the outside air temperature exceeds the balance point temperature (ASHRAE, 2009). Ventilation is the process that aids in the replacement of air which, in addition to temperature control, can involve oxygen replenishment, moisture regulation and the control of numerous air-dependent factors (Grondzik & Furst, 1996). In short, the ventilation system is the lungs of a building, and it is crucial for that system to be highly efficient in removing particulate matter from the environment.

For an HVAC system to function properly, however, it must have appropriately programmed and working thermostats, well-sealed ductwork, sufficient insulation, and most importantly, modern heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment. If a building’s HVAC system does not meet these criteria, both acute and chronic illnesses begin to surface. The 14 buildings in question are exemplary examples of ineffective HVAC systems, meeting one or more of the above criteria. Using Holdsworth Hall, one of the listed buildings, as a case study for the other 13 buildings on campus, as much as 50% of the ventilation systems in an older building are non-operational (Fiocchi, McCusker, & Weil, 2012). Twelve of the 14 buildings’ HVAC renovation suggestions involve the replacement and/or addition of essential components including, but not limited to, air compressors and handlers, exhaust fans and vents, and fume hoods (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2007b). These components largely help eliminate stale, potentially harmful air while introducing and recycling clean, healthy air.

Although not a primary component of HVAC systems, window infrastructure, a huge oversight in older buildings, plays a key role in ventilation. When faced with thermal discomfort, it was found that Holdsworth Hall occupants were most likely to adjust a room’s windows and least likely to adjust the thermostat, if any (Fiocchi et al., 2012). This demonstrates the importance of a window’s ability to function properly within the context of an HVAC system, as people are more likely to rely on this secondary form of ventilation as means of instantaneous results, rather than to adjust the heating or cooling system which may elicit a delayed response. While this typifies human behavior of quick-fixes , this method of thermal regulation is inefficient and does not work in tandem with an HVAC system. Though it is not always feasible or practical to install newer, more efficient windows, alternatives that combine natural and mechanical ventilations, also known as hybrid ventilation systems, do exist (Fracastoro, Mutani, & Perino, 2002).

Because many, if not all, of the 14 buildings were constructed without central air conditioning, the University compensated by installing individual AC units, and with a price tag of $3,000 per unit, hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted in initial unit costs and subsequent electrical bills due to energy inefficiency (B. Weil, personal communication, April 16, 2015). Worse than the electrical costs, however, a building with an insufficient, or otherwise nonexistent, cooling system decreases overall thermal comfort and increases the likelihood of fungal and bacterial growth.  Taking into consideration all of these factors that affect people’s health, renovating the older, existing buildings at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in a timely manner with modern HVAC systems is a critical step toward improving the IAQ environment to optimize working conditions and minimize negative health impacts, all while reducing long-term financial expenditures.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) can be described as when building occupants experience health-related symptoms including “irritation of [the] eyes, nose, skin, headache, fatigue, and difficulty breathing” (Fisk, 2000, p. 28). Although there is no definitive link between certain particulates in an indoor environment causing SBS, it can be suggested that various levels of compounds play a role in an occupants’ likelihood to experience such associated symptoms. In particular, carbon dioxide (CO2), a compound mostly thought of in the context of climate change, should be given more focus in our local environments, particularly in classrooms. Although a critical gas necessary in human life, higher concentrations can have adverse effects on one’s capability to perform in a classroom setting. Even the simplest decision-making tasks – those that students, faculty and staff perform – and focusing can be inhibited when exposed to CO2 concentrations anywhere from 600-2500 parts per million (ppm) (Rosbach et al., 2013, pp. 2-3). To put those numbers into context, the normal background concentration of indoor ambient air is typically 300 ppm, with slight variances in accordance with the current air exchange (NIOSH, 2007, p. 53). While these concentrations are not immediately dangerous to life or health, a person’s ability to focus and chances of experiencing SBS symptoms will increase as CO2 levels increase. As such, the already stressful environment in which a student works becomes exacerbated by feelings of sluggishness.

Other issues associated with poor ventilation are observed in a study on biological pollutants found in enclosed environments. Since many of the buildings at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are well into their lifespan, the probability of higher concentrations of biological pollutants increases. Microorganisms can carry harmful endotoxins found in bacteria and fungus. However, immunity to these microorganisms can occur if exposed to them in early stages of life (Radakovic et al., 2014). These biological toxins can cause acute and chronic allergic reactions. Potentially harmful fungi are present in almost every building, particularly in those that are older. These issues are directed related to improper structure and functionality of HVAC systems (Radakovic et al., 2014). Exposure to such pollutants is worsened when outdated thermostats cause improper thermal regulation by means of ventilation, leading to SBS symptoms (B. Weil, personal communication, April 16, 2015). Such issues may be a catalyst to health impairments and disease.

Perhaps even more concerning than the acute effects of improper ventilation are the chronic effects, in which compounds that enter our bodies within the time frame of a student’s, faculty’s or staff’s tenure at the University have latency periods for decades. Asbestos is of particular concern. Widely used in flooring mastics, ceiling tiles, siding, insulation, and as a flame retardant, asbestos has long been a cause for concern within older buildings. Because this material takes a long time to effect the body, quantitative estimates are used to determine health risk. Times of exposure and dose concentration of asbestos are the determining factors that can potentially cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1987). Virtually every building on campus has been tested for asbestos, and while the majority of it has been abated, there is reason to suspect that more is lurking in the 14 conventional buildings (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2012). Only this past year did the University find asbestos in the ceiling tiles of a popular campus eatery, The Hatch, located in the campus center. This compelling fact suggests further testing is necessary. While this would address the underlying cause of asbestos exposure in campus inhabitants, in addition to various other compounds potentially hiding in our buildings, it is an arduous and expensive process to search for carcinogenic substances. A more realistic and tangible solution to reduce asbestos exposure is to improve the ventilation systems, which have the biggest influence in mitigating chronic exposures to such diseases and health issues.

While asbestos exposure is a major concern in older buildings due to its carcinogenic and ubiquitous properties, there is, in fact, greater concern for the lesser-known compounds. PCBs are primarily located in the caulking used to fill gaps around windows and door frames (B. Weil, personal communication, April 16, 2015) . Although PCBs were banned from this use in 1979, “…it was shown that low concentrations of PCBs could volatilize out of building materials and into indoor air” (Okun, 2011, pp. 55-56). Because many of the 14 buildings were constructed prior to this date (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2009), there is significant potential for PCB presence throughout the buildings. This is a huge concern, as there have been no significant tests to monitor for this compound, creating the potential for building inhabitants to breathe these carcinogenic particles. Because many of the VOCs and cancer-causing compounds are associated with cumulative doses, it is extremely important to retrofit existing HVAC systems in order to reduce continual exposure to these harmful substances.

The specific buildings on campus under scrutiny – Bowditch Hall, W.E.B. Dubois Library, Engineering Shops Building (Elab), Fine Arts Center, Holdsworth Hall, Lederle Graduate Research Center (Lo-rise and Tower A), Lederle Graduate Research Center Addition (Towers B & C), Machmer Hall, Marcus Hall, Morrill Science Center Section III, Morrill Science Center Section IV, Thompson Hall and Auditorium, Totman Physical Education Building, and Whitmore Administration Building – are further broken down into categories of maintenance deferment (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2007a). Thirteen of the fourteen buildings have statuses of either catch up and keep up or keep and renew, with the other building, Elab, designated as defer and do not reinvest. The former two statuses signify that a building’s maintenance plans have been deferred and the systems are in need of significant or potential renewal. The Elab is not fit for suitable financial investment, and thus, is being phased out over the next ten years. While still a significant period of time to particulate exposure, the building is not as critical to update when compared to other 13 buildings. The University, however, has made well-aware the improvements needed of the remaining buildings, as demonstrated in the Minimum Building Investment document (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2007). As such, the University’s top priority in building planning needs to focus on making the necessary system updates.

The first logical step in order to achieve a desired change is with the formation of an organized student and community advocacy group. To further promote this awareness, it is crucial to receive help from the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC is credited with creating the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) rating system,  and as world renowned green building leaders, their involvement vastly helps promote our advocacy group’s cause. By engaging with and gaining the support of a variety of students and community members across multiple disciplines on campus, we can approach the University of Massachusetts Amherst administration with the urgency to expedite the renovation process of the old, outdated buildings on campus. As a result, this will put increasing pressure on Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy to make these vital changes to the listed buildings. Rather than further exposing occupants to potential for HVAC-related illnesses, major benefits such as improved occupant health and significant increases in building energy efficiency will arise.

Forming an advocacy group will help educate the exposed community and reduce potential lash back from the student body, as most are not aware of role HVAC systems play into their health. Simply switching from a conventional building’s, like the 14 on campus, to a new LEED certified building’s HVAC system “could result in an additional 38.98 work hours per year for each occupant of a green building” (Singh, Syal, Grady, & Korkmaz, 2010, p. 1665). The HVAC parts the University scheduled to retrofit, while not designated as LEED certified, greatly increase the overall thermal comfort and efficiency of a building. As such, the more presence the USGBC has regarding energy efficiency and LEED certified buildings, the greater the cause to promote these crucial renovations to the outdated campus buildings. By establishing a committee on campus to push the University’s slow-paced agenda toward retrofitting the older buildings, the indoor air quality of the facilities that students, faculty and staff regularly use will improve.

Perhaps the biggest setback and potential resistance to retrofitting buildings with new HVAC systems is the associated cost. Of the 14 buildings on campus scheduled for HVAC renovations, the total minimum investment cost is nearly $45 million, an average of $3.2 million per building – that is a mix primarily of parts and less so installation costs. While a seemingly large investment for the University to make, these costs are in truth minimal to the overall building disposition assessment cost-analysis. It is estimated that $750 million will be invested toward building maintenance, which includes costs of entire system replacements and infrastructure renovations. The HVAC system overhauls for the 14 buildings on campus only accounts for 6% of that total cost, a minimal investment that can yield such positive improvements. The University also accounts for an additional $720 million needed after the initial expenditures, further lowering overall financial burdening of HVAC renovations (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2007a).

While only a small fraction of the capital costs, it is important to consider where the money is coming from in order to finance and justify retrofitting a building’s HVAC system. While discussing the funding for retrofitting Holdsworth Hall, Weil mentioned how Steve Goodwin, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, funds the project and manages the capital budget. From there, the physical plant covers the cost of building renovations through this budget that they manage. When asked if tuition with proposed renovations like Holdsworth Hall will increase , Weil replied that building renovations are only a small fraction of the building maintenance budget and would not inflate tuition. Using Holdsworth Hall as an example, tuition in proportion to building maintenance can decrease. If the other 13 buildings undergo similar renovation plans like Holdsworth Hall, the buildings become more energy efficient and lower operation costs (B. Weil, personal communication, April 16, 2015).

In addition to the construction and eye-sore created from building renovations, there is potential concern for destroying the historic integrity of certain buildings on campus that are viewed as landmarks. In other words, the bequest value of a building might outweigh any potential technological improvements that may otherwise scar a notably significant building. As demonstrated in the case study of Holdsworth Hall, which serves as a vital center of environmental conservation on campus, it is possible for buildings with “great historical, aesthetic, and emotional value [that has] stood the test of time as the site of the academic, scientific, and cultural work… [to] be updated to dramatically reduce their energy consumption and allow them to continue to function as valuable assets for the long term” (Fiocchi et al., 2012 p. 1). With this case study serving as a template for similar buildings with historical value, new construction standards will permit existing buildings to maintain integrity without sacrificing reliable function.

Finally, there is a cost associated with student outrage. For as long as this campus has been a leader in academics and research, construction has been along for the journey. Constantly building, improving and renovating campus buildings and facilities, the amount of construction over the recent years has caused a great deal of distress from the community. The fact remains, however, that a University striving to push its students and faculty to achieve greatness can be better justified with state-of-the-art facilities. The Recreation Center, for example, was a $50 million project completed in 2009 (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2014). The University invested in this beautiful facility to recognize that, through exercise, healthier communities are capable of performing more efficiently, knowing that the costs of temporary inconvenient is far inferior to the overall benefits to be gained. Like the new recreation center directly benefiting human health, updating a building’s HVAC system can directly reduce the risk of acute and chronic illnesses. These system overhauls are especially justifiable when considering the minimum investment cost previously stated is less than that of the recreation center cost. The precedent of the University investing in its campus inhabitants by providing exemplary health facilities suggests they are capable of investing in campus health once more via modernized HVAC systems.  Such an investment by the University needs to be viewed with a sense of urgency as a vital component toward ensuring community health.

So can installing newer HVAC systems reasonably mitigate the health hazards to which people are exposed? And will these newer systems remain functioning in the coming decades and not just become obsolete like their predecessors, reintroducing illnesses again? Evidence certainly suggests that more advanced systems reduce health risks and potentially increase work efficiency. While there are no extensive studies to support these claims, it is clear that continuous exposure to known hazardous substances raises the chances of acute and chronic illnesses. Additionally, the current technology of HVAC systems allows for components to remain in functioning use for during of a building’s lifespan, especially those that are LEED certified (U.S. Green Building Council, 2015). The health and safety of University occupants is paramount to the success of an institution, both on an academic and research level. It is the responsibility of the University to ensure its inhabitants are occupying buildings conducive to productivity, and where there is a lack of ambition on the University’s behalf, it becomes the responsibility of the community to call for action. When there is slow progress on the administration’s part, it is crucial for a community to demand a safer learning environment and begin an initiative to eliminate the harmful carcinogens found throughout campus buildings. For each breath occupants take in one of these conventional buildings, their chances of illness increases. How long are they willing to wait before serious health issues arise?



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  1. Wow, I never thought about student health from this angle. Can’t help but wonder just how many other students across the country deal with this at their colleges or universities.

  2. An interesting dialogue is price comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it won’t be a taboo subject but generally individuals are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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