CU Boulder pumping more outside air into classrooms, buildings in bid to thwart COVID-19’s spread

The University of Colorado Boulder is working to bring more outside air into classrooms and other buildings with ventilation adjustments that campus leaders say represent the most comprehensive, science-based response to COVID-19 of any Pac-12 university.

On Thursday, the university gave a virtual platform to those credited with the new ventilation strategies that campus officials believe will more safely position CU Boulder for re-opening later this month: faculty scientists and facilities management employees.

Improving a building’s ventilation during a pandemic is important, said CU chemistry professor Jose-Luis Jimenez, because mounting evidence suggests COVID-19 spreads through aerosol particles.

“When we breathe out, there are little pieces of our saliva in our respiratory fluid that comes out,” Jimenez said. “This happens all the time, but when you’re sick and there are viruses, these contain viruses and when someone breathes them in, that’s how they get sick. The evidence is accumulating that this is the majority of what’s driving the pandemic.”

Shelly Miller, a mechanical engineering professor with indoor air-quality expertise, said the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommended ventilating buildings with 100% outside air due to COVID-19, which is a strategy CU Boulder aimed for when possible.

Jimenez said in commercial buildings with ventilation systems, air can be taken from the outside, heated or cooled as needed and then introduced into the inside environment — or inside air can be recirculated, heated or cooled, filtered and put back in a room.

Most systems, Jimenez said, used a mix of both in pre-pandemic times because heating and cooling entirely outside air can become expensive when it’s hot or cold outside.

“So what we’re saying now at CU is, ‘Spend a little more money to use as much outside air as possible,’ ” Jimenez said.

CU officials did not elaborate on how much money they’re spending to update older ventilation systems and add new equipment on the Boulder campus, and also did not respond to a request from The Denver Post for additional information on those plans.

When 100% outside air isn’t possible within CU buildings, Miller said the air will now be run through an efficient filter called a MERV 13.

For larger spaces that may require more filtering, Miller said the university put in place appropriately sized air cleaners as well.

Every space on campus — from classrooms to buildings to dormitories — was assessed by the facilities team, Miller said.

Miller said the intensified spotlight on an issue she’s been studying for decades felt surreal, but she was heartened to know CU Boulder was listening to its scientists to help guide public health policies during this historic time.

Shannon Horn, a mechanical engineer on the facilities management team who helps implement the ventilation strategies, said having aerosol experts on hand to consult as they forged onward toward the fall was a blessing.

“I feel like we won the lottery,” Horn said.

During Thursday’s webinar, Miller and Jimenez also stressed the importance of wearing masks and engaging in social distancing to reduce spreading of the contagious respiratory illness.

As part of CU Boulder’s fall reopening plans, everyone on campus will be required to wear a mask and in-person classes will be spaced out with fewer students — on average 20% to 30% capacity of a normal class, officials said — or held in larger venues to accommodate the physical distancing of seats.

CU Boulder’s fall semester begins Aug. 24.

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