It’s safety first when reopening campus buildings

When Governor Pritzker issued his Stay at Home Executive Order in March, UIC campus buildings were closed to all but essential workers. The reduction in occupancy resulted in the implementation of building setbacks, which are put in place when buildings are unoccupied. When a setback occurs, the temperature set point of the building can be reduced or increased closer to the temperature outside, conserving energy normally spent on heating and cooling the building interior. As a result, air handling units can run less often.

With fewer people occupying campus spaces, building water systems have also been underused and must be readied for the reopening of campus buildings and the return to campus by students, faculty, and staff. The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services (OVCAS) assembled a team from its Planning, Sustainability, and Project Management (PSPM), Environmental Health and Safety Office (EHSO), and Facilities Management (FM) departments to create a plan to address these systems that ensures both the safety and comfort of the UIC community while continuing to minimize the spread of COVID-19.  The team is made up of experts in public health, operations and maintenance, safety, engineering, and building code compliance.

The processes that the team has established follow guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control, Illinois Department of Public Health, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and the Food and Drug Administration. The guidance addresses ventilation, HVAC unit economizer operations, air filtration,  system operations, and temperature and humidity maintenance best practices.

Fortunately, UIC central HVAC systems have ventilation rates that are typically higher than required codes and recommended standards. The OVCAS team of experts does advise using caution when considering opening windows, which bring in unfiltered air. The systems also have controls that have been set to meet, and in most cases, exceed current standards for indoor air quality. HVAC systems are continuously monitored by OVCAS staff and routinely checked to ensure proper operation and air quality. In addition, central HVAC units have dampers that use economizer operations to introduce as much outdoor air possible without negatively affecting temperatures or humidity.

Air filtration is included in UIC central ventilation systems, and standard building environments are supplied with air that has passed through at least two filtration stages. Higher-efficiency filtration is provided for applications like special laboratories and clean rooms. OVCAS building maintenance staff changes filters on a scheduled, routine basis to ensure they are within service life and appropriately installed. Checking filters across campus will be a priority as the university returns to on-campus operations.

To enhance air exchanges in building spaces and accommodate staggered work schedules, university HVAC systems may be kept running for longer hours than is typical. The systems are also configured to maintain temperature set points and humidity levels. The use of portable humidifiers and air cleaning devices is not recommended due to the unknown quality of water used in these devices, the potential for producing ozone, and possibly causing excess humidity.

When properly managed and maintained, the ventilation and filtration provided by HVAC systems can reduce the airborne concentration of COVID-19 and thus the risk of transmission through the air. As a reminder, the primary means to prevent the spread of infection are social distancing, wearing of cloth facial coverings or masks, and maintaining proper hygiene.

The CDC has prepared updated guidance for the reopening of buildings after prolonged shutdown or reduced operations that includes guidance for water systems as well as HVAC. FM staff began flushing all building water systems over eight weeks ago to prepare for the fall campus reopening. This includes daily flushing of sinks, toilets, showers, water fountains, mop basins and every plumbing fixture imaginable in each building. Over the last five weeks, water quality testing has been performed in buildings to determine the efficacy of the flushing process. All UIC buildings have been flushed and tested, as even occupied buildings experienced reduced water flow. Research buildings were the first to be tested since research labs were the first facilities that were reopened.  Testing is ongoing and FM continues to flush all building water systems to ensure safety. Four different testing companies have been engaged to assist with this process throughout the campus.

In addition to flushing and testing the water systems, FM staff are making sure plumbing traps are primed to prevent the entry of sewer gas and pests. They are also testing lights, electrical switchgear, and all building mechanical and electrical systems to assure that students, faculty and staff return to safe, high-quality learning and office environments.

If you have questions or need more information about the operating systems in your building, please email

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