Campus Life

Penn State committed to cleaning and ventilating indoor spaces

Office of Physical Plant employees Ryan Aughenbaugh, left, and Kevin Behers inspect and replace air filters in Steidle Building at University Park. Thousands of indoor air filters have been replaced with higher-rated versions in buildings across the University as part of Penn State's COVID-19 response.  Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the fall semester arrives, Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP) has implemented an operational strategy to focus on cleaning and ventilation that will promote health and safety, while allowing the University to return to pre-COVID-19 classroom capacities for the fall semester.

Over the course of the last year, OPP conducted a comprehensive inventory of all University facilities and upgraded air filtration in thousands of indoor spaces by introducing higher-rated filters.

In addition, among the many measures taken, the University will continue providing hand-sanitizing stations in public areas and disinfecting wipes in classrooms for the upcoming semesters, with the anticipation of greater use as more students return to campus, according to Erik Cagle, manager of custodial operations at Penn State, who oversees the University’s cleaning operations.

“Understanding the transmission of COVID-19 is crucial to understanding the University’s response,” said Cagle. “Last year, we were very focused on disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and anything that we could identify as a heavily trafficked area, along with making sure we were using the right disinfectant products that fought against the virus. This semester, more is known about the virus and CDC guidance has changed.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surface transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is not the main route of how the virus spreads and the risk is considered low, yet Penn State’s operations have continued to undertake an abundance of cleaning precautions. The current custodial services can be found on OPP’s website.

Additionally, wherever feasible, OPP will continue to provide increased building ventilation that exceeds code minimums to follow the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerators and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidance.

The CDC reports there is “no definitive evidence to date that viable virus has been transmitted through an HVAC system to result in disease transmission to people in other spaces served by the same system,” but the University is taking precautions nonetheless.

Andrew Gutberlet, manager of engineering services at Penn State, worked diligently through a six-month process with other OPP professionals to make certain that building ventilation and HVAC systems are operating properly. Gutberlet said this work was more challenging than it may sound, given that every Penn State building has a unique mechanical system associated with it, and no two buildings are the same. Each Penn State building was examined individually to determine how ventilation could be increased.

“Fresh air in buildings is important in minimizing the risk of transferring COVID,” Gutberlet said. “In order to get that fresh air into the building, we needed to increase ventilation rates wherever possible.”

As noted above, OPP upgraded air filtration in indoor facilities using higher MERV-rated filters. MERV, which stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, measures how efficiently air filters remove particles from the air. MERV ratings range from 1-20; the higher the number, the greater percentage of pollutants the filter blocks. Prior to the pandemic, most Penn State facilities used MERV 8 filtration, a common, effective and cost-efficient approach; yet due to the circumstances, OPP upgraded the systems where possible to MERV 13 filtration, based on ASHRAE’s recommendations. ASHRAE sets the recognized standards for ventilation system design and acceptable indoor air quality.

“For the past 20 years, engineers have been working to reduce building ventilation in order to reduce energy consumption and to emit lesser amounts of greenhouse gases,” Gutberlet said. “In response to the pandemic, we have worked hard to reverse that trend to bring in more fresh air, and it requires the University to use more energy, but this is a tradeoff for the health of the occupants inside the building.”

Gutberlet said another solution in some buildings was to encourage occupants to open more windows to increase air flow whenever outdoor weather conditions were suitable. Penn State will continue to increase outdoor air flow until the Pennsylvania Department of Health provides new direction.

Jim Crandall, director of Environmental Health and Safety at Penn State, explained that the University historically has had advanced disinfection in its cleaning operations, and during the pandemic, OPP worked to modify programs as CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance evolved.

“When it comes to elements of the University’s COVID-19 response, our office has been involved with helping to review guidance from the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Health, the extensive network of task groups in the University’s Coronavirus Management Team, and the COVID Operations Control Center to help identify the right strategies needed to support University operations,” Crandall said.

As the fall semester approaches, the University will continue to follow ASHRAE guidance for building ventilation and CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfection standards, according to Crandall.

“Penn State has made a herculean effort to increase building ventilation and cleaning for the return to full campus capacity,” Crandall said. “As we welcome back students, staff and faculty, they should know that we will not waver in our commitment to providing safe facilities.”

Last Updated August 24, 2021