Healthy air and learning in schools: When is low building energy consumption meaningful?

Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, November 2021, Volume 4, #124

[Cite as: Fadeyi MO (2021). Healthy air and learning in schools: When is low building energy consumption meaningful? Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, November 2021, Volume 4, #124.]

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Wolong local government area was once considered to have the finest students’ academic records in the state for three years consecutively. However, the records declined over the years. The state governor only saw the need to intervene through the local government area chairman when the continuous decline in academic performance became a scandal carried by several cable news channels in the country and threatened his re-election bid. The challenges faced by a woman, Dr. Brianna Abraham, in bringing back the lost glory of the Wolong local government area, which she once helped to achieve as head of the local government area school board, is the subject of this short fiction story.

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In her 4th year as the head of the school board for the Wolong local government area, Dr. Brianna Abraham, popularly called Dr. Abraham, was in a town hall meeting with several principals of elementary and high schools in the local government area, congratulating them for their contributions to their students’ performance. Wolong local government area had a 100% pass rate in elementary and high school final exams. The top 3 best students in the country for the final elementary and high school exams also came from the local government area.

These finest academic records had occurred for three consecutive years since Dr. Abraham became the head of the school board for Wolong local government area. A 60% pass rate was the highest the local government had ever achieved and never had the best students in either of the final level exams before Dr. Abraham became the head.

Upon assuming her role as the school board head, Dr. Abraham emphasised the importance of healthy indoor learning environments in all the schools in the local government area. Her mantra to the principals was learning, and its application and demonstration can only occur if the environment is conducive for learning.

Dr. Abraham had a B.Sc. degree in environmental engineering. Her passion for education and making an impact on human life led her to pursue an MSc degree in education and Ed.D. degree in education administration. Her background in environmental engineering made her appreciate the importance a healthy indoor air and classroom environment could have on students’ academic excellence.

All the schools had air-conditioning systems because of the highly polluted outdoor air condition in the hot and humid country. The air-conditioning systems were designed to control the amount of and filter the outdoor air before being supplied to the classrooms.

At the start of the 5th year of Dr. Abraham’s tenure, there was a huge drive from the state government for all the elementary and high schools to lower their energy consumption as much as possible. Each head of the local government area school board was tasked with the responsibility.

This directive by the state government came in response to the promise made by the country’s president to significantly reduce the country’s energy consumptions at the just-concluded climate change convention. The state government created an annual energy award for the local government area school board with the lowest energy consumption as an incentive.

Dr. Abraham’s tenure as head of the school board for the Wolong local government area started to become untenable when she refused to implement the state government’s low energy consumption plan. Her major concern was the requirement to significantly lower ventilation usage in classrooms to significantly lower energy consumption.

She tried to convince the state government that one of the major reasons the Wolong local government area had had the finest academic records in the state and country was the healthy indoor air in the classrooms. She provided an argument with facts that low ventilation will compromise indoor air quality.

She provided scientific evidence to the state government of how a low ventilation rate or no ventilation can increase the resident time of pollutants in the indoor air, thus increasing the rate at which indoor air aged. She also argued with scientific evidence of how aged air, i.e., poor indoor air quality, can compromise students’ health, and the stress caused by the compromised health would compromise their learning and academic performance through inhibition of their concentration and motivation to learn and attendance rate.

Dr. Abraham resigned after all the evidence she provided was ignored, and she was threatened to be fired if she did not comply with the regulation. The newly recruited school board head, Mr. Wilson, complied with the state government’s regulation to lower schools’ energy consumption for the Wolong local government area.

With Mr. Wilson’s adherence to the state government’s regulation of lowering energy consumption, there was a significant reduction in the electricity price in all the Wolong local government area schools. These outcomes further motivated Mr. Wilson not to use ventilation at all. Lower electricity price was not the only benefit gained; the Wolong local government area school board also won the energy award for four consecutive years.

True to Dr. Abraham’s concern, students’ academic records in the Wolong local government area declined during Mr. Wilson’s tenure. It declined to the extent that the Wolong local government area had one of the worst academic records in the state. By the end of the 5th year of Mr. Wilson’s tenure as head of the school board, Wolong local government area had a 15% pass rate in the elementary final exam and a 20% pass rate in the high school final exam. The state and local government authorities were aware of the significant decline in academic performance but ignored it as energy consumption and the associated price tag decreased.

The state government decided to act only after the fast-paced decline in academic performance became a scandal and carried by several cable news channels in the country. The state governor stepped in to rescue the situation as his re-election bid was threatened.

The state governor ordered the chairman of Wolong local government area to fire Mr. Wilson. The governor also cancelled the energy award that was based on the lowest energy consumption. The chairman hired an interim head, while the search for a permanent head continues, to identify the cause of the fast-paced decline in academic performance. The interim head focused his attention on teaching practice, curriculum plans, and quality of teachings in all the schools, and all were found to be adequate.

The local government area chairman decided to re-appoint Dr. Abraham as the school board’s head for the Wolong local government area. Dr. Abraham decided that she would find a way to balance the achievement of healthy indoor air and low energy consumption in her new tenure.

Her decision emanated from her experience as a senior lecturer in education administration at a university in the state after she resigned from her previous tenure as head of the school board for Wolong local government area. She had the opportunity to interact with several climate change science professors at the university and listened to their lunchtime presentations. The experience made her appreciate the importance of lowering energy consumption and making the lowering meaningful.

She started her intervention effort by asking herself how to achieve healthy indoor air in air-conditioned classrooms with the least possible energy consumption. One of the first tasks Dr. Abraham took was to form an investigation team to conduct comprehensive IAQ audits across all the elementary and high schools.

Professor Melendez, a renowned indoor air scientist in the country, regionally, and internationally was tasked to lead the investigation team. The investigation team includes indoor air scientists, building mechanical engineers, building energy managers, environmental engineers, public health professionals, students’ researchers, facility managers, and educators. The investigators came from academia and industry.

The investigators conducted spot and continuous measurements of indoor air pollutants in the schools. The investigators conducted walkthrough investigations of schools’ facilities and survey administration and interviewed occupants in schools. The investigators also examined the impact of the exposure duration to indoor air pollutants on students’ and teachers’ health, comfort, and learning productivity.

Additionally, the investigators went through energy consumption records and records of reported poor health and comfort and academic performance of students over the years during Dr. Abraham’s previous tenure as head of the school board and that of Mr. Wilson.

The investigators found high concentrations of air pollutants for an extended period in the studied classrooms and increased exposure duration of classrooms occupants. One of the major highlights from their walkthrough investigations was that many of the studied classrooms did not use ventilation to save as much energy as possible. Even in schools where ventilation was used, albeit for a short time, ventilation rates were significantly lower than the recommended standard for healthy indoor environments, especially classroom environments.

Measured indoor air pollutants concentrations were dangerously higher than the recommended healthy indoor air concentrations. This was a stack difference from the measured indoor air pollutants concentrations during Dr. Abraham’s tenure when the concentrations were well with the recommended standard. As Dr. Abraham took healthy IAQ seriously, many people in each school in the local government area reported good perception of and satisfaction with indoor air in their classrooms in her previous tenure.

This was not the case in the current IAQ audit ordered by Dr. Abraham after she was reappointed. Many people reported poor perception of and dissatisfaction with their classroom’s indoor air. The investigator noted in their reports that it was as if the schools were competing for a trophy for the school with the most negative effects on students’ concentration and motivation to learn and low attendance rate.

In addition to eliminating or reducing the sources of air pollutants found in the classrooms’ indoor air, the investigators recommended the use of ventilation, according to or higher than the recommended standards in the classrooms. The investigators noted that the non-usage of ventilation contributed to the low academic performance in all the schools after Dr. Abraham resigned. They noted that adopting an appropriate ventilation rate was a major contributor to the finest academic performance during Dr. Abraham’s previous tenure.

The investigators observed that before Dr. Abraham resigned, more emphasis was placed on the benefits inherent in ventilation adoption at the expense of high energy consumption. They noted that low energy consumption during Mr. Wilson’s tenure is not that meaningful as there was little or no usefulness in terms of academic performance provided. They noted that low energy consumption is only meaningful if usefulness is provided.

The investigators also noted in their report that a measure of achieving the benefits inherent in the adoption of ventilation with low energy consumption should be explored and adopted. “Achieving more usefulness with fewer resources saves the resources but achieving little, or no usefulness with fewer resources is a waste of resources. Thus, low energy consumption with no healthy indoor air is a waste of energy.” The investigators wrote in their report.

Specifically, the investigators recommended decoupling the air volume used for removing sensible heat from the volume of air used for ventilation and removing latent heat. They argued that using the same volume of air for ventilation as recommended by the standard and removing sensible and latent heat from the classrooms as it was prevalent in all the schools was responsible for high energy consumption during Dr. Abraham’s previous tenure.

“If decoupling is not done, a very high volume of air will need to be dehumidified and cooled the warm and humid outdoor air, leading to more energy being consumed. A higher volume of air in the air conditioning system with no decoupling benefits also means more energy will be consumed by the fan that needs to overwork to move the high volume of supply air. The volume of supply air containing outdoor and recirculated air in the non-decoupling air conditioning system that passes across the filter meant to clean the air will also contribute to more energy consumption.” The investigators noted.

The investigators wrote in their report that in the current air conditioning system adopted in the schools, energy, technically known as parasite energy, required to move returned air from the conditioned room to the cooling equipment also contributed significantly to energy consumption in the schools.

The investigators noted that the limitations of the non-decoupling air-conditioned systems, leading to high energy consumption, in the school motivated the unhealthy practices of using little or no ventilation that caused the unhealthy classrooms’ indoor air. The investigators recommended innovative ways of doing the decoupling to save energy. An example of the recommendation was the dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) with an active chilled beam system.

“The outdoor air provided by the DOAS is only for ventilation and removal of latent heat in the outdoor and room air. A smaller duct size than the traditional variable air volume (VAV) system is required to supply a relatively smaller volume of air. The lesser energy consumption of supplying 100% outdoor air into the indoor environment makes it attractive to use.

A lesser amount of energy will be consumed than in the traditional VAV system because, in a DOAS, a significantly smaller amount of air will need to be cooled below the dew point to remove latent heat. The continuous supply of 100% of outdoor air provides the benefit of reducing the resident time of air pollutants in the indoor air, thereby improving indoor air quality.

Improved IAQ will improve perceived air quality, human comfort, and learning performance and productivity in the classrooms. A relatively lesser amount of energy will also be consumed because only the sensible heat in the large volume of room air sucked into the active chilled beam system is designed to be removed by chilled water supplied to the cooling coil in the system.

The outdoor air from the DOAS passes through the active chilled beam, mixes with the thermally conditioned indoor air by the cooling coil in the active chilled beam, and the mixed air is supplied to the room. An active chilled beam system is more appropriate when the calculated quantity of sensible heat is greater than latent heat, a situation that is common in classrooms.” The investigation team led by Professor Melendez explained in their report.

Dr. Abraham decided to invest in the refurbishment of all the schools’ air-conditioning systems. She decided to adopt the DOAS with an active chilled beam system. There were several oppositions to her decision from the politicians in the local government area because of the capital costs involved. She tried her best to convince them that they should focus more on the return over investment (ROI).

One year after the refurbishment, the benefits of the investment started to surface. Students’ academic performance in the Wolong local government area began to increase because of increased students’ motivation and concentration for learning and significantly lesser students’ attendance rate in all the schools in the local government area due to improved air quality. The chosen air-conditioning systems also provided good thermal and acoustic (low background noise) conditions benefits.

It was the good news the governor needed to support his re-election bid. Dr. Abraham was celebrated as a leader and hero. Students and parents were very grateful to her. In addition to that, she also learnt how to achieve improved air quality and its benefit with lesser energy consumption instead of the higher energy consumption she used to pay for the same benefits in her previous tenure. The state governor was also re-elected.

Dr. Abraham was invited locally, regionally, and internationally to share her experience. Her career also received a boost. Her celebrated performance also came to the attention of the political powers in the country. She was appointed as the Minister of Education by the newly appointed president of the country.

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