UBC’s HVAC teams are making sure we can breathe easy

Part two in a series recognizing faculty and staff who are supporting UBC’s transition back to campus. In this update, we showcase the efforts of our colleagues who are working on HVAC systems to ensure safe building ventilation on campus.

Dale Abbey (left) and Dylan Anderson (right) from UBC Okanagan changing the air filters in an air handler to Merv 13, on the roof of the Commons building. Photo: UBC

Over the past 18 months, learning, research, and work at UBC has been taking place remotely wherever possible.

But one group of people has diligently stayed on campus to keep infrastructure humming: the team responsible for ensuring that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems function properly.

Now, as UBC prepares for a return to on-campus learning and instruction, these essential workers are doubling their efforts to ensure university spaces meet or exceed guidelines set out by WorkSafeBC, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Their efforts are also being guided by the university’s COVID-19 HVAC working group to support the health and safety of the UBC community, which brought together professional engineers and building mechanical systems experts from UBC Facilities and Safety & Risk Services in UBC Vancouver, as well as Health, Safety and Environment from UBC Okanagan, and faculty members from the school of population and public health’s occupation and environmental health division.

Shawn Kenney (left) and William Guest (right) from UBC Vancouver changing the MERV 13 air filters in an air handler unit located in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Building. Photo: UBC

A new safety baseline

“That committee, which was well represented by both campuses, came up with some specific recommendations to get UBC campuses ready,” explains Adrian Hingston, associate director of health, safety and environment at UBC Okanagan.

“One recommendation, consistent with the BC CDC recommendations, was to bring in outdoor air where possible, and to make sure systems are operating as designed,” says Hingston. “ASHRAE also recommended after-hour building flushes to get fresh air through the buildings and they also recommended moving to a minimum MERV—minimum efficiency reporting value—13 filter.”

What this means, in practice, is that every air filter in the university is being audited and replaced as necessary over the summer months.

“Historically, we would just follow the same guidelines as we always would, and change things out according to each unit’s maintenance schedule. Now, we have to do everything within two months, to make sure it’s all at a base starting point,” says Shaun Macdonald, head millwright with UBC Facilities’ Building Operations in Vancouver.

“We want to be in the best possible shape for September 7,” adds Martin Gibb, manager of engineering and utility services, Facilities Management, at UBC Okanagan.

“Typically, we don’t go in and blitz all the buildings as we are doing this year, because if we do them all around the same time they all come due at once,” Gibb says.

A juggling act

On the Vancouver campus, there is the additional challenge of ventilating older buildings that do not have HVAC systems.

“We’re looking at purchasing portable air filters and fans for spaces that don’t have mechanical ventilation,” says Stephen Li, mechanical engineer in Building Operations, UBC Vancouver, who is busy working through a list of hundreds of spaces that UBC Safety & Risk Services has flagged for review in the run-up to September.

The work is a bit of a juggling act, he says.

“Do we put in electric heat, or would that overload the electrical supply? How much electrical supply do we need that will allow us to install those portable fans and filters? How many fans do we need to bring in the right amount of outdoor air to be code compliant?” says Li. “Those are all questions that I have to answer.”

All of this is occurring on top of the regular daily task of responding to calls

“We still have work orders coming in from spaces that are being occupied right now,” notes Li.

With about 900 spaces being assessed for upgrades at UBC Vancouver, and 24 buildings at UBC Okanagan being outfitted with minimum MERV 13 filters, it’s a large task by any measure.

But it’s one that the operations teams are pleased to be taking on.

A community welcome

“The campus after March 2020 felt so strange,” recalls Macdonald. “On my bike ride to work, there were no people walking to the campus. Buses were driving by, but they were empty. Going into buildings where all the lights were off, the doors were locked and all the classrooms were empty was kind of eerie.”

Now, he says, there’s a growing sense of anticipation in the air, as he and his colleagues look forward to welcoming the community back to campus.

“It’s actually quite exciting. It’s not just about having everything populated again, it’s that feeling that you’re here helping maintain and build this school environment for all these people that are going to be the next generation, and they’re here to learn,” Macdonald  says. “We all take pride in our work, and working on this campus is probably the best reward.”

More information

Learn more about UBC Vancouver’s Building Ventilation & Safety Efforts and UBC Okanagan’s Building Readiness guidelines.