As we plan to repopulate the campus, it is important to address the effectiveness of the ventilation systems that support our buildings and steps taken to enhance air quality. The following is a list of frequently asked questions and facts to keep you informed. Additionally, with 85% to90% of the people on campus vaccinated, this alone significantly reduces the amount of potential virus particles in any building. (Updated May 5, 2021)

What role does HVAC play in the transmission of COVID-19?

The primary means of Covid-19 transmission is through face-to-face contact within six feet for more than 15 minutes. Small respiratory particles suspended in the air are removed by the ventilation system, while larger respiratory particles drop to solid surfaces. To date, there have been no documented cases of this virus traveling through the HVAC system to infect a person in a different room and there is very low risk of surface transmission. Likewise, there has been little evidence of viral transmission from surface transmission.

We have adjusted ventilation systems to optimize fresh air and exhaust to further dilute the smaller particles for reduced risk of transmission. Experts across all industries recommend vaccination and the wearing of face coverings to be the most effective mitigation strategies for reducing the spread of Covid-19.

How do you know the ventilation system in my building is operating efficiently?

All mechanical systems have been tested and balanced to meet ASHRAE code requirements for effective ventilation by a certified mechanical engineer. In addition to this occurring at the of time of installation, testing and balancing of ventilation systems is also a code requirement prior to occupancy for all major renovation and construction affecting the system. The facilities department continuously monitors over 26,000 control points on our mechanical systems across the campus to ensure they are operating efficiently. This visibility allows for quick response by our in-house licensed MEP professionals to resolve any issues that arise.

Can ventilation eliminate the transmission of COVID-19?

All industry leaders have agreed that ventilation alone will not eliminate the transmission of COVID-19. Ventilation should be viewed as an additional layer to the multiple layers of campus mitigation strategies listed below. 

  • vaccination requirement
  • face coverings
  • cleaning protocols
  • unvaccinated individuals are recommended for surveillance testing
  • daily symptom checking - if symptoms are present, stay home and contact your healthcare provider
Is my building ventilated well enough?

Most of the academic and administrative buildings have HVAC systems that either use 100% outside air with no recirculation or are able to be adjusted to a desired mix of outside/return air. We have maximized the outside air with only a small portion of return air used to avoid freezing or overheating of equipment. We have also upgraded air handler filters to the highest level possible. Instructional spaces without mechanical systems have been equipped with HEPA (High efficiency particulate air) filters for enhanced ventilation.

What steps have been taken to enhance the efficiency of ventilation on campus?

To maximize ventilation effectiveness in all spaces, our mechanical department has continuously monitored and followed the guidance from state/local public health agencies including Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ventilation industry experts (ASHRAE) and infectious disease control industry experts (AHIA and ACGIH). Guidelines are based upon current information and will be updated as advisories are adjusted and information changes. We have implemented the following best practices as recommended by leaders across all industries:

  • maximized the supply of outside air when the temperature is between 25-80 degrees
  • maintained minimum outdoor air flow rates by code
  • upgraded HVAC filters to the highest levels possible
  • flushed buildings 2 hours before and after occupancy to exchange all air with fresh air
  • installed portable HEPA filters in classrooms where recommended by industry guidance
Can UMass Lowell (UML) increase the air-exchange rate in offices and other rooms?

Air exchange rates are governed by ASHRAE standards and have been set to the maximum allowable rate per equipment specifications. Increasing airflow beyond system designs can damage equipment.

UML has evaluated and adjusted the settings for ventilation systems to ensure that the maximum amount of fresh air is introduced into all spaces in compliance with Massachusetts Building code and the ASHRAE Standard 62.1 (Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality) to optimize our building systems. This will improve general indoor air quality by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other internal air pollutants in supply air.

What type of ventilation do I have in my building?

UMass Lowell has six different types of mechanical systems used to provide ventilation in our buildings. Many of our buildings use multiple systems in different sections of the building, which makes it difficult to categorize each building into a single ventilation type. The Facilities department has used automated controls, when available, and the most efficient filtration available to optimize ventilation in each building. The six types of ventilation used on our campus are:

  1. 100% Outside Air: Ventilation is supplied by a mechanical air handling unit using only outside air. This system is not designed to recirculate return air within a space.
  2. Outside Air/Return Air Mix: The air source for ventilation can be controlled and balanced between outside air and return air. The system is set to draw 100% outside air when air temperatures are between 25 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with modest return air added outside this range to prevent freezing or overheating
  3. Cabinet Unit Ventilation: This ventilation equipment is located inside each room and cannot transfer air between rooms. The ventilation unit balances a combination of outside air and return air in a manner similar to the Outside Air/Return Air Mix in centralized systems.
  4. AHU split systems: These are air handlers that use a fixed Outside Air percentage and use return air to balance the ventilation in given space.
  5. PTAC units: This ventilation equipment is located inside each room and cannot transfer air between rooms. Windows and a small damper provide the ventilation source for these rooms.
  6. Window Ventilation: The only source of ventilation in these spaces is from outside air coming in from windows. This system does not transfer air between rooms and is not supplemented by any mechanical ventilation.
Is the University planning to install enhanced ventilation in buildings?

The University has upgraded the filters in all centrally controlled ventilation systems to the highest level possible. In addition, we have installed portable HEPA filters for enhanced ventilation in classrooms with PTAC units and/or window ventilation as recommended by industry guidance. The University prohibits personal HEPA air purifiers as a COVID risk mitigation strategy unless reviewed and approved by Environmental Health & safety (EHS) / Equal Opportunity and Outreach (EOO). If you wish to request a reasonable accommodation for your health-related conditions, please contact EOO by phone at 978-934-3565.

Was the HVAC system shut down in unoccupied areas?

Despite low occupancy in some areas across campus, all ventilation systems remained operable and well maintained. In those areas of low occupancy, the ventilation systems continued to operate in an “unoccupied” mode which reduces airflow and temperature settings without shutting down the system. As UML resumes normal operations, the ventilation systems will be adjusted to normal occupancy. All systems will be flushed two hours before and after occupancy to purge potential contaminants suspended in the air. Laboratories that require constant ventilation may continue to operate at a reduced air flow during unoccupied modes (4 ACH).

What temperature and humidity set points are needed to reduce the risks of COVID-19?

It remains unproven that changing the temperature and relative humidity of a space will have a measured reduction of risk for the transmission of COVID-19. To maximize the outside air and minimize recirculated air in buildings temperature set points in the summer are set at 77 degrees and during the winter at 68 degrees. During power savings curtailments the temperature settings are adjusted to achieve the desired results.

Is the University going to install enhanced ventilation in classrooms?

The university currently maintains the highest rated filters available in each building system. To support an anticipated increase in density during the fall semester, we currently reviewing options to install enhanced filtration in some areas and classrooms.

Can I request a HEPA filter for my office or workspace?

If you wish to request a reasonable accommodation for your health-related conditions, please contact Equal Opportunity and Outreach (EOO) by phone at: 978-934-3565. If an individual does not qualify for a workplace accommodation they may request a work space review for a HEPA filter by emailing EHS@uml.edu. Office spaces with mechanical ventilation systems or single occupancy offices do not qualify for HEPA air purifiers. All requests must be submitted/forwarded to the Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) office for initial review and response.

Faculty and staff are encouraged to work with their supervisors to consider available administrative and operational measures (scheduling adjustments or use of departmental meeting spaces) prior to requesting a space review by EHS. Departments have been asked to identify department managed meeting spaces that could be used for these purposes. The EHS assessment will include the following considerations:

  1. Only spaces with unit ventilators and/or window ventilation will be considered.
  2. EHS will review the list of administrative and operational solutions that have been previously considered in advance of the space review.
  3. EHS will review space configuration, ceiling height, and distance between simultaneously occupied work stations.
  4. KN95 masks may be suggested as an alternative to enhanced ventilation.

Assessment details will be reviewed by the Operations and Logistics committee for a final determination.