To ensure the safest possible learning environment when students return to a hybrid schedule on Sept. 10, St. Louis U. High decided to upgrade the current HVAC system with state of the art equipment to provide both students and faculty with the best air quality the school has ever seen. The installation timeline for these upgrades is the reason the start of the hybrid in-person learning schedule was delayed.

The new upgrades add the same Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization (NPBI) filtration technology that is used to clean air in hospitals around the country, top universities, Boeing Jets, and even the White House.

“A lot of medical facilities have this type of technology for a reason,” said Director of Facilities Joe Rankin ’83. “It works, and they know it works.”

The NPBI technology is manufactured by Global Plasma Solutions (GPS). According to their website, “This patented technology (NPBI) uses an electronic charge to create a plasma field filled with a high concentration of + and – ions. As these ions travel with the air stream they attach to particles, pathogens and gases. The ions help to agglomerate fine sub-micron particles, making them filterable. The ions kill pathogens by robbing them of life-sustaining hydrogen. The ions breakdown harmful VOCs into harmless compounds like Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen, and Water.” 

Essentially, the technology kills pathogens like viruses, mold, and bacteria and clumps together particles like dust, smoke and pollen to make them big enough to filter out. The system also works to neutralize odors.  

This system is one significant part of the school’s safety measures.

“Under research lab conditions it can destroy up to 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria,” said President Alan Carruthers. “The challenge with that is that we are a school and these are not lab conditions. . .This is an extra insurance policy on top of those other CDC recommended pieces like social distancing of six feet and mask wearing.”

In addition to cleaning the air, the system also makes the building’s HVAC units more sustainable and saves the school money by reducing the amount of outside air that is taken in and in turn reducing the amount of electricity it uses.

  Rankin and Director of Maintenance Rick Figge first discussed the idea of these upgrades  around late April. 

“Well I had conversations with Rick Figge about what kind of changes and what kind of improvements we could make here at Saint Louis University High School to improve our HVAC, knowing that aerosolized pathogens are what are getting people sick,” said Rankin. 

Both men have a background in the hospital setting working with similar technology and were considering ways to upgrade the system with either the NPBI technology or an older ultraviolet technology. After finding a few red flags with the UV technology, both men got in contact with distributors of the NPBI technology.

“Years past I have installed UV devices in different systems that did a fair job, so I started digging deeper into that and did not like what I read about what it did to the equipment after time,” said Figge.

After a meeting with representatives from Global Plasma Solutions where they learned about the system,  Rankin and Figge decided the NPBI was right for SLUH. They also discovered that Figge and his maintenance team could install this system themselves, reducing costs. 

“No one has all the answers but in any type of situation, pandemic or not, you have to look and see what you can do to make better,” said Rankin. “We’re working with people around here who are very positive about the things we can do and the things we can take on like this particular project.” 

The federal CARES Act, intended to help schools adapt to the threat of COVID transmission, will pay for the system. After submitting an application to the St. Louis Public Schools—who were distributing the money— the school was approved for funding. 

“CARES Act money is for purchasing of PPE and pandemic related technology,” said Carruthers. “In our case we applied for dollars for this particular system which is exactly what the Act is for.”

After finding the funding, Figge and Rankin worked tirelessly to ensure the system was delivered as soon as possible. 

“Number one, we had to get it purchased and number two, get it here as soon as possible,” said Rankin. “We also knew the supply chain is just something that is just going to be inundated with everyone else asking for the same type of equipment. We aren’t the only type of people that are jumping for this type of equipment.” 

The unit was set to be delivered this past week and is projected to be finished by Sept. 8. The systems themselves are  going to be  installed in between the blower and the evaporator coil (which cools the air). 

“The installation is not too bad , just a little time consuming,” said Figge. “Worst part is pulling new wire from the electric compartment to the blower compartment. After we have landed the wires in correct spots the job is done, cleaning and purifying the air 24/7.” 

“There are 130 units that we have to retro fit across campus and that is what is taking us time,” said Carruthers. “With the delay in the supply of equipment, that is why the first three cycles of classes went fully online.”

In addition to adding this new high-tech filtration system, the maintenance team has also shortened time in between the basic physical filtration changes. These steps have been taken to ensure the highest possible safety for students. 

“Many schools that are back don’t have these systems, but we are making this investment to have an extra level of confidence along with an extra level of protection,” said Carruthers. “We could still be back without it, but we wanted to make sure we were doing all we could do for the safety of our students.”

“I am very proud of the amount of work that has been done and to see where we’re at now,” said Rankin. “It is different than the way we were going to school years ago,  but we are all gonna be able to make it through this stuff. There is light at the end of the tunnel.” 

art | Jack Janson

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