“Addressing the challenges of COVID-19 in Building Services” – Michael Curran (NUI Galway)

By Conor Deane, ASHRAE Ireland YEA Chair

Thursday the 2nd of July 2020 marked the second edition of ASHRAE Ireland\’s technical mini series on COVID-19. The main objective of this series is to bring together a range of expert panellists from both industry and academia covering topics related to reducing the spread of airborne infections in the built environment with specific reference to COVID-19.

The main panelist for this webinar series was Michael Curran who is the is the head of Bbuilding Sservices, Eenergy and Utilities in the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and current CIBSE Ireland Chairman. Michael is a graduate of the University of Liverpool and has served over 18 years as a building service consultant in industry before taking up his current role in NUIG. Michael is a core part of the day to day building operations in NUIG and in recent years has specifically focused on the university sustainability strategy leading the team in winning SEAI team of the year in 2019.  However, as with most organisations, the current agenda of Michael’s team veers distant to the climate orientated objectives (such that of becoming a carbon neutral campus by 2030) and focuses on the new normal of COVID-19. Over the past three months, the team has worked tirelessly in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 as they prepare to welcome back students, staff, and researchers to campus.

Michael’s webinar gave an excellent insight to the work being done by the NUIG Building & Estates team over the past three months. Not only this, the webinar highlighted the importance of the role of building service engineers at this time. As Michael states “Building services now are being brought into the spotlight , before we designed and installed the service and often were in the background as opposed to architects and structural engineers, however now due to COVID the role of building service engineers are at the forefront to ensure our indoor environment reduces the risk of infectious disease spreading”. If anything, Michael’s webinar demonstrated the diligent work and strategic planning involved in planning for a safe return to work and school.

After a brief introduction and overview of the NUI Galway university campus, Michael gave an insight of how COVID-19 impacted the day to day life of the university. On March 12th 2020, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that schools, colleges and childcare facilities are due to close temporarily. This meant that all staff, student, and researchers moved out of campus with immediate effect. As with most organisations, all work continued remotely with students’ exams online. From a building services, energy and utilities perspective the announcement and sudden campus vacancy led Michael and the team to make immediate changes to day to day operations as well as planning ahead for the phased return of staff and students. As the famous author Charles R Swindoll states “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it” and since this pandemic, the building and estates team at NUIG have adapted and reacted swiftly to prevent the likelihood of the spread of COVID-19. Michael discussed two key areas in response to the COVID outbreak:

  1. Immediate changes to operations
  2. Planning to return

Immediate Changes to operations

Immediate action from Michael and his team involved a detailed analysis of the campus building management system data. Mechanical and electrical services were interrogated and isolated through this initial review. For those labs and rooms that were still in operation, a review process was conducted to ensure temperatures were maintained. Immediate changes also involved close communication with the maintenance team in order to alter mechanical and electrical services schedules. A key change was made to the schedule for plant and HVAC maintenance, and the annual August maintenance was brought forward to June, this included maintenance for the mechanical and electrical plant, water services, lifts, BMS, and AHU’s. The maintenance teams checked both mechanical and electrical services and changes were made to parts adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.

Planning to return

As well as immediate action, a large part of the NUIG team’s work was to plan and organise the phased return of staff and students on campus which is expected in several months’ time. A task force was set up in NUIG which led the planning and preparation on campus for the phased return of student and staff groups. In preparing for the return of a certain building or group, Michael mentioned the 4-week plan that the building and estates team developed which included week 1: capacity planning, week 2: building services restoration, week 3: mobilisation and set – up and week 4: operations restart. Each group nominated a COVID-19 liaison to overview each week and ensure guidelines are followed.

With specific reference to building services, mechanical and electrical requirements in each of the rooms, the team developed a core document preparing schedules for operation and following guidelines published by CIBSE, ASHRAE, NSAI and REIVA. Michael highlighted the importance of guidelines and standards when assessing building services for the phased return. The ever-changing environment has led to ever-changing guidance and information. Many of which are from non-technical standards, articles and opinions “As engineers, all of us should keep up to date with guidelines published by ASHRAE, CIBSE, REIVA and NSAI as well as keeping up to date with professional institutions and research papers”. Michael and his team looked at three main areas in preparing the campus for a return, mainly mechanical services, electrical services and lift installation.

Mechanical Services

In preparation for the phased return, each AHU was cleaned and inspected, filters were changed, and dampers were checked. According to the CIBSE documents aforementioned, the program schedule was changed to 2 hours before and 2 hours after normal operation hours. All controls changed to 100% fresh air and extract. Systems were checked in operation to ensure adequate airflow. Thermal wheels were also checked by specialist for leakage. Changes to the BMS control system included changes to the C02 sensors changing the required opening at 400ppm as per COVID requirements. Extract fans are left on continuously for 24 hours in confined spaces such as toilets. Due to the importance of hand washing, Michael outlined that the focus turned to the hot water system to ensure consistence temperatures on campus and replacement of all handle taps to automatic taps. For the campus air conditioning units, as large portions of cooling is through localised DX indoor units, wall or ceiling mounted, the team made contact with the supplier and each unit was serviced with all filters being replaced.  Similarly, all filters in FCUs were replaced with each unit providing 100% fresh air. For water systems, one of the biggest risks is legionella. Therefore, Michael and the team focused on controlling and reducing the chance of legionella bacteria during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Systems such as water fountains and showers were isolated.

Electrical Plant

Although COVID-19 does not directly affect the electrical plant, Michael and the team ensured lighting, fire alarm, emergency lighting, generators and UPS was all checked and overviewed. A PAT test was conducted for all electrical applications. One important point made by Michael was the use of hand dryers in bathrooms. He raised the point that there is a level of ambiguity with recent guidelines regarding their use. Michael mentioned that government’s guidelines state that hand dryers are an acceptable alternative, however, must be maintained in order to maintain efficient operation. The latest guidelines state there is no evidence that hand dryers are associated with increased transmission of COVID-19.

Lift Installations

The last point Michael focused on was the use of lifts. With over 120 lifts on campus, this was a core focus of the team. Michael mentioned the CIBSE COVID-19 lift use and occupancy to ensure standards are met regarding the use of lifts. In preventing the transmission of the disease, focus was turned to lift occupancy levels and NUIG made the decision that maximum capacity is 1 person, and in some capacity larger lifts maximum capacity is 2 people.


The webinar concluded with a 15-minute Q&A session where attendees had the opportunity to ask specific questions to Michael. One specific topic of discussion was the use of hand dryers in public buildings such that of a university campus. The initial guidelines were vague in the sense in not detailing the mechanism in which hands should be dried. Concerns were made from one attendee on the increased likelihood bacterial infection transmission. However, most recent guidelines from the department state that there is no evidence that hand dryers is associated with increased transmission of COVID-19. Michael detailed how NUIG has limited hand dryer use to “1 per bathroom” and that the extract fan has an important role to play in mitigating any danger. However fundamentally (as with all COVID advice) everyone must take responsibility for themselves and ensure that hands are washed and dried cautiously and diligently whether that’s with a paper towel or dryer.

Many thanks again to Michael for his presentation. The next ASHRAE Ireland technical series webinar will be held on Thursday 16th July at 1pm-2pm, when we will welcome Professor Bill Bahnfleth who is a lecturer of architecture engineering at Penn State University and current chair of the ASHRAE epidemic taskforce. His presentation will give an overview of guidance published by ASHRAE and other organisations and will provide an expert insight on mitigating risks of infectious disease transmission and what practices to avoid.  You can register for this event here at: https://bit.ly/2ZHFysz.

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