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

Over the past 18 months, learning, researching and working at UBC has taken place remotely where possible.

But one group of people has remained diligently on campus to keep the infrastructure running: the team responsible for the proper functioning of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

As UBC prepares for a return to on-campus learning and instruction, these essential workers are redoubled their efforts to ensure university spaces meet guidelines from WorkSafeBC, the BC Center for Disease Control (BC CDC), and the American Society. of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Their efforts are also led by the university 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 and the department of environmental health.

Shawn Kenney (left) and Willian Guest (right) of UBC Vancouver turn the MERV 13 air filters into an air handling unit in the Pharmaceutical Sciences building. Photo: UBC

A new security base

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

“One recommendation, in line with the BC CDC recommendations, was to bring in outside air where possible and ensure the systems are working as designed,” Hingston says. “ASHRAE also recommended flushing buildings after hours to get fresh air through the buildings and they also recommended going to a minimum MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) filter.

What this means in practice is that every air filter in the university is checked during the summer months and replaced if necessary.

“Historically, we would just follow the same guidelines as we always do, adjusting things to each unit’s maintenance schedule. Now we have to do everything within two months to make sure it’s all on a basic starting point,” said Shaun Macdonald, lead mill maker at UBC Facilities’ Building Operations in Vancouver.

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

“Normally we don’t go in and blow up all the buildings like we’re doing this year because if we do them all around the same time, they all come in at the same time,” Gibb says.

A juggling act

On the Vancouver campus, there is the added challenge of ventilating older buildings without HVAC systems.

“We’re considering purchasing portable air filters and fans for areas that don’t have mechanical ventilation,” said Stephen Li, a mechanical engineer at Building Operations, UBC Vancouver, who is busy reviewing a list of hundreds of spaces that UBC Safety & Risk offers. Services has been flagged for review leading up to September.

The job is a bit of juggling, he says.

“Are we going to turn on electrical heating, or would that overload the electrical supply? How much electrical power do we need to install those portable fans and filters? How many fans do we need to supply the right amount of outside air to meet the code?” says Li. “Those are all questions I have to answer.”

All this takes place in addition to the normal daily task of responding to calls

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

Either way, with about 900 rooms under review for upgrades at UBC Vancouver and 24 buildings at UBC Okanagan equipped with at least MERV 13 filters, it’s a big task.

But it’s one that the operations teams are happy to take on.

A community welcome

“The campus after March 2020 felt so strange,” Macdonald recalls. “During my bike ride to work, no people walked to campus. Buses passed by, but they were empty. It was a little creepy going into buildings where all the lights were off, the doors were locked, and all the classrooms were empty.”

Now, he says, there is 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 getting things populated again, it’s that feeling that you’re here helping to maintain and build this school environment for all these people who will be the next generation, and they’re here to learn,” says Macdonald . “We are all proud of our work and working on this campus is probably the best reward.”

More information

Learn more about UBC Vancouver’s Building ventilation and safety efforts and UBC Okanagan’s Building Readiness Guidelines.

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