Evaluating IAQ Solutions for Higher Education (and Beyond)

Feb. 14, 2022

Efficacy, efficiency and application-specific solutions must all be balanced in the final safety equation. 

As we continue to manage life alongside COVID-19, there comes a time to brave crowded indoor spaces again. For designers and facility executives in higher education, this societal re-entry to the great indoors requires careful attention to air quality

With aging HVAC, inefficient ventilation and even some well-meaning but ill-performing short-term fixes widely marketed to address indoor air quality (IAQ), it seems hurdles are everywhere in the face of an airborne pathogen. Infection rates soar in closed indoor areas with insufficient ventilation, and as the virus mutates and becomes more infectious, design and facility professionals are clamoring for better solutions.   

One extreme—if common—solution deployed in higher education settings is the replacement of HVAC systems for more modern infrastructure with better air filtration. This wholesale approach to improving IAQ can be time- and resource-intensive, driving some specifiers to seek smaller scale, portable air filters to save time, resources and space. However, not all portable filtration systems are created equal, and significant variability in IAQ can be a huge safety challenge in the age of COVID-19. 

According to a survey of 500 higher education workers in the U.S., no less than 78% of schools upgraded their HVAC systems to improve filtration. However, only 40% deployed portable HEPA filters, despite these being vastly less expensive and significantly more efficient air purifiers. Perhaps most regrettably, 14% of respondents implemented ionization solutions that are under increased scrutiny from researchers for not being effective. 

Though we now have accurate knowledge of how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted—and the tools to defend against it—many universities are still struggling to determine the best course of action regarding IAQ. What is most effective, what makes the most sense for a specific space and what can be deployed efficiently must all be balanced in the final safety equation. 

Identifying Relevant Specifications 

Effectiveness can be difficult to ascertain if you focus too much on marketing terms commonly deployed within the air quality product sphere. It is all too commonplace to see terms like CFM, HEPA and 99.99% in isolation, but understanding what these specifications mean in context is the key to selecting the right product for the job.  

The air purification industry on the whole does not make this calculation easy. Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, estimates these products to be 50 to 75% illegitimate. “You’re dealing with an industry that doesn’t want consumers to understand these devices and how they work,” Siegel warned.   

Take HEPA specifications, for example. It’s tempting to base a buying decision on the efficiency of the filter. However, the efficiency of the entire system will determine how well the equipment performs. To evaluate efficiency, pay attention to Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR), which reflects the airflow measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM) multiplied by the efficiency of the entire system.   

What use is there to have an efficient HEPA filter specification and high CFM if a significant percentage of the airflow is not running through the filter? If the CADR is not within 1% of the CFM on a product’s specification, take caution. The solution will not deliver the expected air changes per hour (ACH).   

[Related: Breaking Down IEQ and How to Improve It]

Approaching IAQ in a space-specific manner also requires savvy design and facility professionals to be wary of new technology that makes bold claims about safety yet has very little real-world evidence to back these claims up. Always prioritize solutions that have been proven to be efficient in operational conditions that mimic the exact environments in which they will be used (an office floor, a classroom, a training center, etc.).  

Another key consideration is the efficiency of the solution for your bottom line: the cost of ownership of these devices, which includes filter costs. The annual consumable replacement costs can be 50% of the upfront machine cost. Many consumer-grade filters get clogged every few months and need to be replaced multiple times per year. This is not only costly, but a significant maintenance headache.  

Driven by COVID-19, industrial specification HEPA solutions that are designed for professional workplaces are now available. These systems are 99.99% efficient and require filter changes only every one to two years.    

Buyer beware: without considering effectiveness, your space needs and cost efficiency together—it’s easy to make a high-profile mistake. The disappointing recent purchase of HEPA units by NYC Schools cost at least $43 million, yielding devices that ultimately were “definitely underpowered,” in the words of Dr. Siegel. According to a Chalkbeat article, the purifiers purchased were inefficient, ranking ninth out of a dozen units independently tested by the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

Bottom Line 

Universities that have been sitting stagnant for over a year due to COVID-19 are starting to bustle again with activity. It’s more important than ever to keep students, staff and the larger community healthy by improving IAQ in the buildings they use every day.  

Portable, professional-grade air cleaning systems are a powerful tool to help us achieve this, but we need to educate ourselves and better understand whether or not these devices are truly working. Cutting through the misinformation will deliver cleaner and safer air, helping everyone breathe more easily. 

About the author: Paul de la Port, CEO of Omni CleanAir, has been delivering commercial-grade air purification systems to eliminate airborne illnesses in office buildings, schools, hospitals and nuclear power plants for over 35 years. More info at

Read next: Keeping in Mind IAQ Design and Build Fundamentals in a COVID-centric World

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