School Reopening and Indoor Air Quality in North America September 2021

The pandemic continues to place Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) at the forefront in commercial and public buildings. In this post-Labor Day period for the US and Canada, nowhere is this more evident than in schools. Indeed, for many districts and individual schools, the new year coincides with a return to full or nearly full physical attendance. In New York City’s public school district alone, the largest in the US, September 13th marked the return to the classroom for one million students. While most likely enjoy the moment, parents and children alike are left wondering about the sense of normality in the next few months, as we move towards winter; and the threat of a surge in COVID cases.

The HVAC industry is doing its fair share for a safe return to the classroom by providing abatement technologies, monitoring and engineering controls to optimize air quality against Covid-19, most often as part of a layered strategy. It is also well documented that the benefits of IAQ are broad-ranging and will be long-lasting beyond this pandemic, from preventing other microbial infections, VOC-linked irritations as well as asthma, and even leading to better academic achievements. 

BSRIA released new detailed insight on IAQ markets in May 2021 in its “Opportunities in the Commercial Indoor Air Quality Market” report with original research into this changing environment. The research was piloted in North America and BSRIA is looking to extend the scope to Europe and include key residential applications. The report cross-references key commercial verticals like schools with the main IAQ technology segments (ventilation, filtering, air purification and controls). It also includes market forecasts to 2025 with drivers and hurdles, as well as insight on regulations & standards and the state of adoption of relevant technologies. 

The market’s strong dynamics is quantified, and we do see the largest increases in demand for IAQ in the education sector (K-12 + higher education in our figure), though growth rates differ significantly across the IAQ technology segments. 

The need and appetite for improved IAQ come in the middle of a recognized, more general gap in HVAC capital upgrades and maintenance in K-12 schools. This was surveyed pre-Covid by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) June 2020 report highlighting that “an estimated 41 per cent of public school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide”, while the assessment of needs and priorities is often left to overburdened school districts.

However, things have been moving immensely on the public funding side with the urgency recognized in the pandemic;(essentially the 3-tier ESSER fund for K-12 public and some charter schools. State initiatives are starting to cascade to targeted funding on HVAC / ventilation / IAQ for schools. Virginia was a case in point in August with an approved bill to appropriate $250M in FY2022 to qualifying ventilation improvement projects in public schools, with funds to be allocated to local school divisions (with a local match required). Other State initiatives in CA, VT, etc already incentivize ventilation projects specifically through grants. It is to be expected that schools and districts will need guidance as to how best to use these funds before the 2025 sunset clause. 

As noted in the BSRIA report on the emphasis on legislation and standards, the effort on specifications will continue as is evident with ASHRAE’s efforts with its Epidemic Task Force (ETF) and its joint work with CDC and will feed into the various building codes for each sector. Regulations will thus continue to evolve over the next 5 years, supporting market growth, especially in education. 

IAQ efforts often start with monitoring and simple remediation measures when possible, for instance with portable appliances or simple add-ons, it then can lead to control and command tools that will deliver and perhaps guarantee IAQ levels. While this trend is nascent, at least for smaller buildings, it is expected to continue and will be key to strike in each case the right balance between IAQ and energy efficiency. Integration, connectivity, analytics: some large players have their solutions, others partner with innovative start-ups in the IAQ controls space. However, there is no doubt that sensors and controls will play an increasing role in commercial and public buildings to monitor and control the IAQ and ensure it is safe for the occupants, whilst also maximizing the energy efficiency of a building.

If you are interested to learn more about BSRIA’s report on IAQ in the US or Europe, pls contact for further details of BSRIA’s portfolio of publications, including IAQ, IoT and BACS, please contact BSRIA Worldwide Market Intelligence using the details below, or view information on recently published reports here. 

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