An Interview with Eveline Killian of Cx Associates
In July 2020, Efficiency Vermont launched the School Indoor Air Quality Grant Program to help improve heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in Vermont’s K-12 schools. The program was created by the Legislature and uses Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to help improve school indoor air quality, following COVID-19-specific guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Efficiency Vermont administers the grant program. Per Federal funding requirements, projects must be completed by the end of the year.
Efficiency Vermont spoke with Eveline Killian, CEM, associate principal at Cx Associates of Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, Maine, who has been instrumental in the program.
Efficiency Vermont: You were involved in advocating for this grant program at the Legislature. How did you get involved?
Eveline Killian: I was recommended as a technical advisor to the Vermont Senate Committee on Education due to my long-standing connection with Norm Etkind, formerly of Vermont Superintendents Association School Energy Management Program (VSA-SEMP). Cx Associates is an engineering consulting firm that specializes in building commissioning, retrocommissioning, and energy analysis. I have completed a lot of school commissioning and retrocommissioning projects, so I understand the current conditions and areas of concern with regard to the HVAC systems, ventilation, and indoor air quality in these buildings.
Along with Norm Etkind, and Rebecca Foster and Rich Donnelly from VEIC, we advised on the need for this funding, how the grant implementation could be structured, and what could be accomplished for the money and within the time limit of the funding.
How does what you’re doing now differ from your usual work with schools?
EK: It’s a different twist on similar work. This program is focused on ensuring there is the proper amount of ventilation, filtration, and exhaust in our schools. It also ensures the HVAC systems are operating as they should—providing the right temperature in the spaces. But we are giving up some of the efficiency gains we would have previously recommended in order to prioritize ventilation. We also check filtration. Are there good filters in the air handling units? We don’t want to pass contaminated air back into the system.
Another difference is that we are building isolation rooms—rooms that are at a lower pressure than the rest of the building and that have no return air going back to the main air handling unit. These rooms will ensure we do not spread any germs to the rest of the building.
Why does HVAC matter so much for schools in the era of COVID-19?
EK: People in the classroom are together for such a long period of time. COVID-19 gets passed on by the amount of the virus that’s present in the air, but also the exposure time. These people are going to be together 6+ hours a day and, when the weather gets colder, won’t be outside or working with open windows anymore. We need to keep refreshing the air.
Many schools have HVAC systems that are designed to provide sufficient fresh air. For those schools, our assessments focus on checking that all these things are working properly and modifying the controls so that fans operate for hours before, during, and after occupation. We want to ensure the air has been circulated for a few hours before people arrive, that fans don’t turn off during the occupied hours, and that they “purge” the building at the end of the day. This grant is instrumental in getting attention focused on these details so that we can ensure there is sufficient air movement to keep purging the spaces and diluting any contaminants.
So are you recommending retrocommissioning and maintenance on existing equipment in most schools?
EK: For the schools we’ve been in, we haven’t recommended scrapping anything. We are finding that a lot of the older systems are actually designed to provide more ventilation than ASHRAE recommends; it’s just that they need to be repaired.
However, for those older buildings that have only baseboard heat and no ventilation systems at all, we recommend installing a new system—typically an ERV, an energy recovery ventilation system, to be as efficient as possible.
Do you recommend companies to do that work?
EK: We don’t personally recommend specific contractors.
Most schools have a mechanical contractor who knows the building, and whom they trust. Schools typically go with that familiar one. Some buildings need new controls and schools will need to get a controls expert
How is the grant money being prioritized?
EK: Right now, we are focused on getting as much of the most important work done as possible, as quickly as possible. There are more than 200 schools in the state, and there’s not enough money to do everything we want for all schools. For the sake of the schools, I hope that the State resurrects a maintenance fund. The State once contributed about 30% toward school construction projects, but it suspended that program in 2007. Schools are doing the best they can, but more regular funding is necessary to keep these vintage buildings comfortable, healthy, and safe.
What advice would you give other trade partners about working with schools on these types of projects right now?
EK: In Vermont, we care about each other and we care about opening schools safely, for everybody’s sake. I’m finding contractors are jumping in, are working hard and fast and well, to do as much as they can as quickly and efficiently as possible. That attitude is what keeps Vermont strong. I guess my advice would be to keep that up. Reach out and see where you can help. The schools are overwhelmed with all the new guidelines they need to follow—and they were already tapped out with their academic responsibilities. We need to work fast but responsibly and efficiently, clearing hurdles wherever we can, so that Vermont can get back to school and work.
In the beginning, people were rightfully wondering how to accomplish getting schools ready for opening in the short time we had available. I want to give a shout-out to Efficiency Vermont, which just jumped in and implemented the program. Their engineers and program manager busted out everything they had to get the funding appropriated as quickly and efficiently as they could, with as few administrative obstacles as possible.
The other thing I want to say is that with all of us focused on making this happen, it is succeeding! We are finding many HVAC systems are adequately sized and, with maintenance and setpoint adjustments, we can make it work in the short time we have before cold weather hits.