How Maintenance Reductions Can Put Student Health at Risk

Every parent knows from experience that classrooms are swarming petri dishes of runny noses, coughs, and pink eye. Between wiping their noses, putting fingers in mouths, or just close contact, germs and infections spread very quickly among school kids. There’s little school employees can do about the inevitable transmission of colds between students, but school maintenance staff can make sure the building itself isn’t the source of additional infections. As such, less maintenance staff can mean higher risk of illness for students.

Maintenance technicians are at a school not just to fix things. A large part of their job is to perform routine preventative maintenance (PM) to keep equipment from breaking in the first place. For heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, PM includes changing air filters, wiping out drain pans, and cleaning cooling coils. These PM tasks not only keep HVAC equipment operating efficiently, but keep the equipment clean reducing the likelihood that mold or bacteria will grow inside.

A school’s HVAC system works by circulating and cooling indoor air. That circulating air includes all the dust, viruses, and contaminants entrained in the airstream. To dilute the buildup of indoor pollutants, fresh outside air is mixed with the stale inside air, then cooled, and sent down the ductwork to condition the classrooms. The process of mechanical cooling results in a lot of moisture in the HVAC equipment. When the air passes across the cooling coil, moisture comes out of the air, drips down the coil, and collects in the drain pan before being piped away from the unit.

Classroom air passing across the cooling coil will always have some small dust and organic particles mixed in the airstream even with excellent filters installed. These contaminants collect on the cooling coil and form a thin layer of slime called a biofilm.  If maintenance is neglected and the biofilm is never cleaned away, bacteria and mold begin to grow on the coil or even in the ductwork.  Each time the air conditioning unit is turned on, mold spores are blown down the ductwork and into the classes. Students and teachers breathe in the mold spores and, for those with easily-irritated respiratory systems, the sicknesses begin. People sensitive to mold may develop headaches, chest tightness, sinusitis, or in severe cases over prolonged exposure times, pneumonia may set-in. Mold spores from the HVAC system can settle not only in student’s respiratory systems, but can lay dormant on surfaces like walls, carpets, or in food preparation areas. When the dormant mold spores are exposed to water and reactivated, mold outbreaks can occur even hundreds of feet away from where the mold originated.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s online guide “Creating Healthy Indoor Air Quality in Schools” warns that “[t]he presence of dampness and mold increase the risk of asthma and related adverse respiratory health effects…by 30-50 percent.” The EPA’s research suggests that “[t]here is substantial evidence that indoor environmental exposure to allergens, such as dust mites, pests and molds, plays a role in triggering asthma symptoms. These allergens are common in schools.” The presence of dust, mold, and mildew in schools is a very real risk to visitors, students, and teachers, however the problem is solvable.

Changing HVAC filters is important, but not enough. Coils, drain pans, and ductwork must be cleaned regularly to prevent mold growth. If mold is found growing, those components must be properly sanitized. Facilitiesnet.com has guidance on its website regarding mold discovery and prevention in HVAC systems. The guide advises that “technicians using proper work methods should remove or clean the colonized materials and settled dust that might contain previously dispersed mold spores. Disinfectants and cleaners for the HVAC system include EPA-registered formulas for equipment disinfection and cleaning.”

Even the operation and maintenance manuals of major manufacturers recognize the risk of mold growth within HVAC equipment. Trane Air Conditioning’s manual for their custom air handling equipment warns that “wet surfaces inside the equipment can become an amplification site for microbial growth (mold), which could cause odors and damage to the equipment and building materials.” If mold is discovered in the equipment, Trane advises to “thoroughly clean the contaminated area(s) with an EPA-approved sanitizer specifically designed for HVAC use.”

Maintenance staff need to have the man power and the proper cleaning chemicals and tools at their disposal to remove biofilms and mold from HVAC equipment before students and teachers are harmed. Products like Goodway’s CoilShine® give HVAC service technicians different options depending on the component being treated. Cleaners come in liquid and tablet forms and can be used with Goodway’s line of cleaning tools. The company offers everything technicians needs to properly clean and sanitize heating and air conditioning equipment. But Goodway does not stop there—in terms of surface sanitation, Goodway also offers the BIOSPRAY® Surface Sanitation System. Not only does it use up to 50% less sanitizer and 50% savings in application time than traditional manual sprayer or wipes, but the EPA registered sanitizer/disinfectant kills 99.999% of bacteria and viruses, is safe for water sensitive equipment and is approved for “food contact surfaces without a rinse”.

As summer ends and students return to school to begin a new year, many will return to classrooms filled with mold spores and bacteria from the HVAC equipment. The resulting respiratory irritation and illnesses inhibit students ability to learn and, in some cases, can affect their health for the long term. Armed with a proper PM program that includes cleaning and disinfecting coils and ductwork, as well as surfaces, maintenance technicians can do their part to keep their schools clean and germ free.

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