Impacts of COVID-19 on Building Energy Usage and Energy Performance Contracts

February 1, 2021


Scott Janssen, PE, CEM, LEED AP Energy Engineering Manager, John W. Danforth Company
T:  518.400.1600

School Districts have been pressed to make many adjustments to the ways they use and operate their facilities over the past year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance provided by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) for reducing airborne infectious aerosol exposure have included improved air filtration (MERV 13 or better), increased ventilation rates, running HVAC systems longer to “flush” spaces between occupied periods and incorporating disinfection technology such as Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI).

All of the above strategies can have an impact on building energy usage. Better filtration can cause fans to work harder to move the same airflow. Extending HVAC schedules to complete air purges will also increase energy use. Higher ventilation rates may present the largest potential energy impact, particularly during cold winter months, as systems are challenged to heat the additional cold air to room temperature.

Recent studies have suggested that the degree of those impacts may vary widely from building to building. Key considerations include building type, condition and capabilities of existing equipment as well as the heating fuel source. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is currently funding studies in a variety of facilities across the State to evaluate the effectiveness and energy impacts of indoor air quality (IAQ) improvement strategies and other optimization measures.

In guidance released in January, ASHRAE proposed that building owners “select control options that provide desired exposure reduction while minimizing associated energy penalties”. A combination of ventilation air, filtration and air cleaning or disinfection devices can be used to achieve the equivalent desired air change rates. Adding air cleaning devices or improving filtration can help mitigate the amount of fresh air required, thus reducing the energy impact compared to increasing air changes using ventilation alone. This impact can be further offset by implementing energy conservation measures, such as LED lighting, high efficiency equipment, building weatherization and HVAC controls upgrades.

The dynamic conditions of our new environment require robust, reliable HVAC controls that respond quickly and accurately to provide proper IAQ while maintaining comfort. Older systems that have not been re-commissioned in recent years may have “hidden” issues, such as non-functional dampers or other components. This may cause issues providing proper ventilation, and also increases the potential for energy waste under larger loads and longer run hours.

Appropriately sized high efficiency heating equipment can help alleviate the energy impacts of increased heating loads and LED lighting can provide better illumination while reducing energy use by 60% or more.

Although the pandemic has forced Districts to re-think how they use and operate their buildings, they rely on their HVAC systems more than ever to provide safe, comfortable conditions for students and staff. With a comprehensive approach to building energy efficiency and improving IAQ, an EPC provides a viable financial avenue for using energy and operational savings to fund critical infrastructure improvements.An Energy Performance Contract (EPC) is a viable, budget-neutral solution for addressing these infrastructure needs.  Energy professionals can help Districts determine the effectiveness of their existing systems, evaluate the difference in upfront and on-going costs for various strategies and design a project around the desired solutions.

For more information from ASHRAE and NYSERDA: