Schools and universities tend to have a mix of flooring types in their facilities; the most commonly used are carpeting and resilient flooring. Whether facility managers choose one or the other, or both, they should take into account how the flooring will affect indoor air quality.
If school and university administrators weren’t convinced of the importance of good air quality in classrooms and other education spaces, three years of Covid-19 have provided persuasive evidence of what can happen in learning spaces without proper ventilation.
Carpeting often is installed in classrooms, libraries and administrative areas for comfort and acoustical benefits. Resilient flooring is likely to be installed in high-traffic areas such as hallways, kitchens, cafeterias, art rooms, bathrooms or “anywhere else that liquid spills are likely,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools
Indoor air quality is of particular importance in education spaces because students spend many hours in proximity to other students—schools have about four times as many occupants as an office building with the same amount of space, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says, and many schools are saddled with aging and inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment. In addition, poor indoor air quality may affect children more than adults because their respiratory systems are still developing.
Both carpet and resilient flooring may affect indoor air quality by emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the learning environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that school planners seek out products that
- require the use of the least toxic, low-VOC, water-based adhesives and coatings
- emit little or no odor
- are easy to clean and maintain
- are not susceptible to moisture damage that can foster mold growth.
Schools also should identify and prioritize spaces where material selection issues are of particular concern based on intended occupancy, such as the nurses' office, and special education classrooms, the EPA says.
Resilient flooring materials will off-gas VOCs for a period of time after being installed. Adhesives used to install and materials used to maintain resilient flooring also may be a source of VOC emissions.
Carpets, as well as the adhesives used to install them, also will off-gas VOCs after installation. “These emissions can be significantly reduced, although not completely eliminated, in the first 72 hours through the use of proper ventilation techniques,” the EPA says.
Among those techniques are air out, flush out and exhaust or spot ventilation.
Air out occurs when flooring materials that produce objectionable emissions are removed from packaging and unrolled or spaced apart in a well-ventilated warehouse so that fresh air can easily flow in and around the products.
“Because the products are being aired out in a well-ventilated warehouse, the pollutants are not emitted within the school building, thus reducing the chances that the pollutants will be adsorbed onto other building materials or finishes, or that occupants will be affected,” the EPA says.
Flush out is when large amounts of outdoor air are forced through a recently completed building for a period of three to 90 days so that the majority of pollutant emissions from building materials, finishes, and furnishings are removed from the building before occupancy.
Exhaust or spot ventilation uses fans to mechanically pull polluted air from the building and exhaust it to the outside during construction or renovation activities. It is important that fans pull polluted air out of a building, not to push outdoor air into it.
“Simply opening windows or doors is not enough to effectively exhaust contaminants in most cases,” the EPA says.
After installation, both carpet and resilient flooring require regular cleaning to maintain acceptable indoor air quality. Carpet may collect dust, dirt, pollen, mold spores, pesticides and other materials that originate indoors or be brought into the indoor environment from outside.
“It cannot be over-emphasized that proper cleaning and maintenance is a critical component of any flooring system,” the EPA says. “To help ensure longer life, maintain appearance, and help protect indoor air quality, carpet requires regular vacuuming with a well-functioning vacuum cleaner equipped with strong suction and a high-performance filtration bag and periodic wet extraction cleaning.”