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Boston University goes to 24-hour ventilation, finer filters and lots of fans to reduce coronavirus inside its buildings

Boston University advised faculty and staff today it's taking a number of steps to reduce the odds of any airborne Covid-19 infecting people who have to spend time in its buildings - including dorms - as the school re-opens.

In a letter to university staffers today, Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations, writes:

There have been several news stories in recent weeks about the possibility that airborne particles of COVID-19 could be spread through air-conditioning and heating (HVAC) systems. While the science behind those theories is incomplete, we understand that concern about the possibility of HVAC spread is very real, and we share that concern. Consequently, in recent weeks, Boston University has taken several steps to mitigate the likelihood that droplets carrying COVID-19 will travel though our heating and cooling systems and hang in the air in indoor spaces. We have installed new filters capable of capturing airborne viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), in the systems that recirculate air in offices, classrooms, and residence halls. We have also expanded the hours that our HVAC systems operate, from 12 to 16 hours a day to around the clock, which brings more and cleaner air into our buildings. Because those actions coincide with the University’s reduced occupancy in all buildings, every space in HVAC-controlled buildings will have significantly more outside air per person than previously, a strategy that health experts recommend to reduce the possibility of airborne transmission of the virus.

Nicksa acknowledges that not all BU buildings have modern HVAC systems, but that the school isn't just letting potentially contaminated air sit in them, either:

In buildings whose airflow depends on opening and closing windows, fans can increase airflow quickly and easily. Those buildings, like all BU buildings, will have reduced populations of people, and the people who are in the buildings will practice social distancing and be regularly tested for COVID-19.

More BU ventilation details.




Electricity is produced from a diverse set of sources in the market; nuclear, oil (Sandwich and others), natural gas, wind, biomass, and solar.

BU going full on HVAC 24-7 means greater demands on the existing electrical grid, and therefore more fossil fuel burning, thus more lives are endangered by pollution, especially in those places that have powers plants burning natural gas like Everett and Weymouth.

The charge against the Weymouth natural gas compression station, outside of the Hingham Mommy Tank Brigade, who paid attention to Weymouth for something else other than fast food options that they would never let into Hingham, was led by a bunch of mostly BU students and a BU professor who went on hunger strike back in February.

I am all for BU taking this step to help defeat Covid-19, just as long as those who from BU protested against more fossil fuel burning stick to their convictions and turn their HVAC units off. Therefore, their true righteousness to their cause will be justified. They will be heroes.

Am I an advocate for fossil fuel burning? No. Do I want more wind and solar use in the state? Absolutely. Do I think that advocates for something that go to extremes should be held accountable for their hypocrisy when it doesn't suit their needs? You bet.

Environmental justice can be a two way street.

Voting closed 35

What are the chances the protesters and people at BU making HVAC decisions aren't the same people?

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Why are you assuming that the BU students and professors are the ones making this decision, or that they would even have the ability to control the building HVAC units if they wanted to? Frankly, I'd bet lots of BU professors and students would prefer to not have the buildings open at all, but they may not have that choice if they want to continue with their careers or studies.

As for the whole "hypocrisy" argument - yes, yes, if you're not literally in rags on the street trying to consume as few resources as possible, you're in no position to be advocating for any kind of change. Thanks, Mr. Gotcha.

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You are right, Fungwah. I can't speak for students but faculty and staff would prefer to go remove this fall.

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Smithie here. I wish all colleges and universities would go remote this fall. If things continue to not go well, I hope that they will consider it for the following semester. Smith College, out in Northampton, just announced they would be strictly online this fall, and spelled out why. It was a difficult decision for them to make, but ultimately, the most ethical one.

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This kind of stuff was ended in the 1970s.
The same people might be in charge but they were shown the errors of their ways.

In Cambridge anyway.

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Then you can go on a hunger strike to demand that the HVAC to your office and your teaching space be turned off. There are electrical disconnects to each and every unit, or do you not know how compressors and building ventilation works?

Like I said, if you are truly, truly convinced of the power of your convictions, don't let it stop you when it is inconvenient to you.

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People who accept there are shades of gray can deal with calls for environmental justice (reduced energy use, elimination of plastic bags) in normal times and loosening of those calls in emergency situations (e.g. a deadly pandemic).

Besides, if we're talking in such absolutist terms, wouldn't any increased emissions from BU running its ventilators around the clock be matched by reduced energy use from people staying home? Not every student or professor is returning to physical classrooms this fall.

Voting closed 54

Since a BUer said I was a jerk (her words) for pointing out that BU people advocating against fossil fuel burning when BU leaves empty buildings lit up like Christmas trees at night is a bit of hypocrisy.

Also, very few cared about the Weymouth compressor station until the wording was changed to No Compressor Station - South Shore MA. Then the people with 5,500 SF houses fully Ac'd houses and 2 SUVs started whining that if Weymouth blew up it would make yesterday's explosion in Beirut look like a two alarm fire.

I've got a 170 year old house with no central AC and a car that gets 34 MPG on the highway that is 11 years old.

Look to yourself if you are going to complain about electricity consumption and environmental justice.

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But, eh, I don't have time for a long debate right now. Have to go give my daughter another driving lesson in our 50+ mpg Prius (which replaced our 10-year-old 45 mpg Prius three years ago). You have us beat on house age - ours is only 91 years old with no central AC.

Man, I feel like I'm in a Roslindale community meeting now - which always start with the ceremonial recitation of how long one has lived there, so that others can determine how much weight to give their comments.

Voting closed 53

your argument is moronic. To say that someone who fought for the environment and energy efficiency under normal circumstances must then risk their health under a PANDEMIC to prove it is strawman times 12. None of us like the temporary measures that are required to limit the spread of this deadly virus like single use plastics, plastic grocery bags, increased ventilation, increased operating hours of HVAC systems, increased filtration (makes the static pressure the fans have to operate against higher, increasing fan energy mr smarty pants), etc are necessary evils to keep people alive in the short term. Fighting environmental pollution and fighting for energy efficiency is keep people alive long term. nice try though

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That's nice...

What happens when the same potentially plague bearing students pack the B line or decide to attend an off campus party?

No one is talking about all the off campus students that can't manage to vacuum and mop a leased apartment in a year.

Do you really think all the student slumlords in buildings where the original passive natural ventilation systems in stairwell and elevator penthouses have long been blocked up due to changes in fire code are going to provide portable air filters?

The landlords that can't be bothered to put in a toilet or kitchen exhaust vent and routinely are too cheap to fix or replace windows that were broken since the LBJ administration are going to handle a virus responsibly? HA HA HA!

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A similar analogy can be drawn with plastic single use bags, one use straws, etc. In a world where public health concerns and disposable items are a more prudent approach, it isn't that surprising that progress in things like the environment aren't going to be a priority. Case in point - my son will be remote from BU in the fall, but for when he has to go in, he'll be driving because of the crowding on the T, and to limit his exposure, and ours. We have one car so the wife will walk to work till it is too cold, and I will be remote. We live in an area we paid a premium for to be close to the city and public transit and an array of restaurants and activities but that has all fallen to the wayside.

Hopefully it passes by end of year, but who knows.

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Yes, modern buildings are often overly sealed, and I'm used to the occasional office building workplace that's normally 9-5 and is stale air if you come in at other times, but - how many buildings does this really affect on a university campus? So many buildings are 7-days and any/all hours.
It is a bit weird to read a story about it being responsive, on-your-feet thinking to have fresh clean air circulated in a building. Fresh air should be a given!

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The problem is that you open up a window in a building, you throw off the balancing and the engineering that keeps the air circulating to the engineer's perspective.

Therefore a lot of new buildings have nearly complete sealed systems.

There are many academic environments from day cares to universities that have teaching spaces with no windows and little air circulation.

It is nice that places are going to press three buttons and keep air circulating 24-7, but as anyone who used to use the bathroom at the Copley Place could tell, even buildings with good HVAC systems have their limits on air circulation.

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....at least the air got better once people weren't making pitstops in their after a big meal at Chile's.

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Ah, it's the old damned if you do, damned if you don't.

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