The New White House Clean Air in Buildings Initiative: What You Need to Know

Read about the Biden Administration's new initiative and guidelines to improve indoor air quality and reduce COVID-19 airborne transmission.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, an initiative prepared as part of the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, meant to improve ventilation and reduce the spread of COVID-19 within buildings. 

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge initiative encourages all building owners and operators, schools, colleges and universities, and organizations to adopt crucial strategies to improve indoor air quality in their buildings and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Here's what you need to know about the plan and its corresponding guidelines:

An Overview of the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is part of the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. The plan lays out a roadmap to help fight against COVID-19 in the future as the country starts to move towards more normal routines.  

Released early in 2022, the COVID Preparedness Plan focuses on four key goals:

  1. Protection against and the treatment of COVID-19
  2. Preparing for new variants
  3. Preventing economic and educational shutdowns
  4. Continuing to vaccinate the world 

In collaboration with Congress and other government agencies, the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and Clean Air in Buildings Challenge represent a multi-layered prevention strategy to fight against COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 plan highlights the importance of providing the appropriate resources and guidance to schools, workers, and workplaces to help prevent further shutdowns. One key initiative highlights the importance of indoor air quality and providing schools and businesses with guidelines and resources to improve ventilation and air filtration in their buildings.

Click here to download the full transcript of the OSTP Discussion

What is the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge?

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is a call to action for building owners, operators, and leaders to assess their indoor air quality (IAQ) and, where necessary, improve the ventilation and air filtration to keep occupants safe from COVID-19. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge Fact Sheet, which provides a baseline of guidelines for indoor air quality and actionable steps buildings owners can take to improve their air quality.  

Below are the high-level principles and general actions recommended in the document to help improve indoor air quality (IAQ) and help reduce the risk of airborne spread of viruses and other contaminants: 

  1. Create a clean indoor air action plan that involves assessing indoor air quality, planning air quality upgrades and improvements, and scheduling things like HVAC inspection and maintenance.
  2. Optimize fresh air ventilation by circulating clean outdoor air indoors.
  3. Enhance air cleaning and air filtration through HVAC systems and in-room air-cleaning devices.
  4. Engage community members to increase awareness, commitment, and participation.
Open Concept Office With Air Purifiers For Clean Air In Buildings Challenge

EPA's Guidelines for Improving Indoor Air Quality in Buildings 

The following guidelines are taken directly from the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge guidelines document.

1 - Create an Indoor Action Plan

Determine how clean outdoor air is brought into the building and distributed to all occupied spaces. Understand and document how HVAC systems work for your building. 

  • Work with an HVAC expert to assess and inspect systems for ventilation, filtration, and air cleaning. Through commissioning, testing, and balancing, verify that building systems are functioning as designed. 
  • Implement other IAQ assessment approaches such as carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors as needed. 
  • Determine how much clean air (outdoor air + filtered HVAC recirculation air) is needed and verify or measure air delivery for each room or space. 
  • Assess if you need to manage the direction of air flows in higher-risk areas of your building (e.g., in a school nurse's office). 
  • Create an IAQ action plan that includes regular inspections and maintenance, including filter replacements and HVAC system upgrades or improvements, as needed. 
  • Support the people who operate or help with building and air distribution systems by providing continuing education and training.
Creating Action Plan For White House Clean Air In Buildings Challenge

2 - Optimize Fresh Air Ventilation in Your HVAC System

Optimize fresh air ventilation by bringing in and circulating clean outdoor air indoors.

  • Ensure outdoor air is acceptably clean or is adequately filtered as it is brought into the building. 
  • Properly use economizers, which are devices that supplement mechanical cooling with fresh air, to efficiently and cost-effectively increase fresh air ventilation. 
  • Run HVAC systems during all occupied hours to ensure clean air enters and is distributed throughout the building. 
  • Ensure that exhaust fans in bathrooms are functioning and set fans to run during occupied hours. 
  • Increase volume of clean, outdoor air at times of higher risk (e.g., at times of elevated risk of COVID-19): 
  • Adjust HVAC settings while considering thermal comfort, humidity, outdoor air quality, and energy use. 
  • Consider running the HVAC system to refresh air before arrival and/or remove remaining particles at the end of the day (e.g., 1-2 hours before/after the building is occupied), as needed. 
  • Check with an HVAC expert to understand the maximum outdoor air your system can support. 
  • Open operable windows, as weather, outdoor air quality, occupant safety, and HVAC systems permit. To the extent possible, enable cross-ventilation by opening windows and doors at opposite sides of the room or building. (Note: Opening windows while running HVAC systems may increase energy costs or introduce other air contaminants).
Employee Opening Office Window For Clean Outdoor Air

3 - Enhance Air Cleaning and Air Filtration

Enhance filtration and cleaning using the central HVAC system and in-room air cleaning devices.

  • Install properly sized MERV-13 air filters or the highest rated MERV filters that the HVAC system can accommodate. 
  • Close off any gaps around air filters to minimize air moving around them instead of through them. 
  • Use portable air cleaners to increase air cleaning rates in areas where air flow and central filtration are insufficient: 
  • Select devices that are appropriately sized for the space in which they will be used. Consider ENERGY STAR certified products. If noise is a consideration, look for a product with lowest perceived sound levels. 
  • As a temporary measure, do-it-yourself air cleaners can also be built from HVAC filters and box fans. 
  • Increase ventilation and/or filtration in areas with higher emission of airborne particles and aerosols (e.g., gyms, cafeterias, or choir/music rooms at schools). You can make adjustments for these areas by: 
  • Increasing the volume of clean, outdoor air delivery. 
  • Using portable air cleaners. 
  • Setting up extra exhaust ventilation to move air directly to the outside. 
  • Consider an upper-room Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) system to clean the air. (UVGI systems require professional design and installation in consultation with experts).
Particulate Matter Captured By HEPA Filter Activated Carbon

4 - Engage Community Members

Get your community engaged in your action plan by communicating with building occupants to increase awareness, commitment, and participation in improving indoor air quality and health outcomes

  • Communicate to affected people (e.g., building occupants, workers, students, teachers, and parents) about how the action steps you are taking will improve indoor air quality and reduce disease transmission in your building. 
  • Show your work by hosting building walkthroughs, posting descriptive signage, or communicating on social media. Demonstrate the importance of individual actions to ensure facility operations are optimal (e.g., keeping ventilation systems clear of clutter). 
  • Provide feedback mechanisms such as maintenance requests to identify repair issues and surveys to gather perspectives from your community. 
  • Remember, individual actions and layered prevention strategies remain important measures for reducing the spread of viruses like COVID-19.

Funding Your Upgrades 

Along with the guidance provided, building operators can obtain funds through the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds to supplement investments in ventilation and indoor air quality improvements in public settings.

"The American Rescue Plan provided $350 billion for state and local governments and $122 billion for schools that can be used to support making ventilation and filtration upgrades. These American Rescue Plan dollars are being put to work in communities around the country in improving Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. Funding within the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund program and the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief program can be spent on inspection, testing, and maintenance of current ventilation systems; purchasing portable air filtration units, with HEPA air filters; purchasing MERV-13 (or higher) filters for HVAC system and air conditioners; purchasing fans; repairing windows and/or doors; servicing, upgrading, or replacing HVAC systems consistent with industry standards; and more." As per the White House Release.

Air Purifier That Meets White House Clean Air In Buidlings Challenge

Rising to the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge with Indoor Air Quality Improvements

Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 continues to pose operational challenges for building managers and owners all over the country. The White House Clean Air in Buildings Challenge highlights the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ). While many building managers understand the importance of indoor air quality in the fight against COVID-19, many still don't know what actionable steps to take or how to get started to improve the air quality within their buildings.  

The White House's Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, along with the EPA's checklist, provides proven air cleaning strategies to make COVID air cleaning easier. According to industry expert Joseph Allen, "Inspect your existing systems and give your building a "tune up" like you do for your car, bring in more outdoor air, upgrade air filters to MERV13 or higher, and supplement air filtration with portable air cleaners. This is good guidance because it's clear, easy to do, and grounded in sound science."

If you would like to learn more about improving your indoor air quality, reach out to the experts at Sanalife. We can help you navigate through choosing the right solution for your organization.

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