field maintenance

Keep Facilities Fit

July 1, 2021
As students return to campuses, schools must make sure that their athletic facilities are safe and healthful venues.

By Dan Dowell and Joel Lowery

Bringing students back together safely during the Covid-19 pandemic continues to take a lot of teamwork and strategic thinking. For the athletic facilities where student trials and triumphs will soon return, there’s another important sports lesson to keep in mind: fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.

Good fundamentals prepare us for the unexpected; they prepare teams to adapt and apply their strengths to new challenges. That’s also true of the infrastructure educators, students, coaches, and communities rely on. Athletic facility maintenance must be a priority if schools are going to keep those shared spaces safe and healthful. 

The funding effects of Covid-19 aren’t making any decisions easier. When schools were forced to close in spring 2020, many districts also needed to cut costs. To help districts avoid further costs as operations resume, facility administrators to take steps so that school assets and infrastructure do not create more problems down the line. Protecting the health of students is a priority. Facilities maintenance should be at the forefront. Otherwise, schools risk incurring higher repair costs and more lost time on the field or the court, where students have already missed so much.

Field conditions

Many districts chose to delay or cancel sports because of the pandemic. Without a normal schedule of practices and game days, it’s easy to lose sight of all the steps routinely taken to maintain outdoor playing surfaces throughout that schedule. Whether a school has natural grass or synthetic fields, routine care is needed over time to make sure surfaces are safe and ready for play, even if use is reduced. 

Synthetic turf must be groomed to keep the infill even and the fibers upright. Even if there is absolutely no play or practice on the turf, environmental conditions such as rain and wind will still affect the fibers. 

When it comes to natural grass, think of it like an athlete. It’s alive, and without the proper training regimen, nourishment, and proper hygiene, it’s going to be in less than great shape. One of the most important regimens for turfgrass is proper cutting. According to the “1/3 rule,” mowers should never cut off more than 1/3 of the existing leaf tissue. It’s not like letting a beard grow for a month, and then shaving clean for that zoom meeting. Letting turfgrass grow too long and then cutting it back too much can cause serious damage. At the very least, the grass will take a month to recover from the stress, and in some cases, the damage can be beyond repair. 

Let’s not play that game

Remember sick building syndrome? Poorly ventilated buildings are one cause of unhealthful interior conditions. They have excess carbon dioxide, dust, pollutants, and germs—all the things that schools don’t want hard-working student athletes and cheering fans exposed to. In the past, cutting off the supply of outside air to save energy has contributed to waves of sick building syndrome. The cost savings facilities that schools might realize when they reduce the energy consumed by HVAC systems are not worth the health risks that come with cutting airflow.

In the era of Covid-19, ensuring healthful ventilation is more important than ever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ASHRAE have updated considerations for schools and recommends increasing the supply of outdoor air introduced into indoor spaces. Indoor athletic spaces will need their HVAC systems in fighting form to answer those needs. HVAC systems for gyms, locker rooms, and exercise and practice rooms will need careful attention to keep them operating effectively. In fact, like a coach getting a team ready for game one, ASHRAE suggests having the systems ready to go and operating in full occupied mode, with outside air dampers open, for at least one week before a space is occupied.

That requires HVAC systems for indoor athletic facilities to have a proper once-over with proactive maintenance. Special attention should be given to any equipment that has sat idle for long periods, and places where particles, dust, or mold may have had a chance to build up, such as coils and vents. Even if schools are not going to use gyms for sports in the near future, administrators will find a use for large spaces where distancing is easier to accomplish. Staying ahead of those needs, and making sure spaces are ready will help ease logistics and scheduling issues.

Maintenance is important for health and efficiency. The CDC suggests maximizing outside airflow for two hours before and after a school is occupied every day. An inefficient system is going to drive the cost of increased ventilation higher. Running an inadequately maintained system at maximum capacity every day will increase wear and tear faster and reduce the useful lifespan of a district’s capital investment. 

Schools may want to go further and consider testing and rebalancing to increase airflow for their school district’s Covid-19 response plan. However, increasing airflow may be a burden for many schools. Some schools operate in areas with higher pollutant and allergen counts present in outside air. Other parts of the country may face larger costs for temperature and humidity control.

Update the playbook

The CDC has recommended that schools increase filtration as much as possible, without diminishing airflow. HVAC maintenance plans should be updated to ensure filter changes happen on schedule and keep systems operating as designed. 

Another way to increase air exchange without maximizing the cost of outside air exchange is to install technology that removes pollutants and particles from indoor air as it circulates. Cold plasma ionization, also called bipolar ionization, has been shown to reduce particle counts, including VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in indoor air. It also has microbicidal effects, killing bacteria and viruses. One study demonstrated 99.4% of SARS-CoV-2 viral particles became inactive after 30 minutes of bipolar ionization.

Before Covid-19, cold plasma or bipolar ionization technology helped schools reduce energy costs by helping them hold down the cost of proper ventilation. Those schools now enjoy increased particle control. For athletic facilities, particle and VOC reduction also eliminate odors. 

UV light disinfection, often recommended for locker rooms, also has demonstrated the ability to reduce pathogen count in shared spaces. 

Preventive maintenance is as important to operating a high-performance facility as drills and skill building are to an athlete’s accomplishments. A well-maintained athletic facility isn’t a cost, it’s a strength, especially if energy savings or capital cost avoidance can help schools invest in more needs.

Dan Dowell ([email protected]) is Senior Vice President of Education Sales and Strategy at ABM Industries where he has helped clients for nearly 20 years in structuring financial solutions to their infrastructure needs.

Joel Lowery ([email protected]) is Vice President of Sales with ABM Industries. He has 30 years of experience helping local governments carry out innovative solutions through ABM’s energy performance contracting program.

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