10 Factors to Consider when Planning a School HVAC Retrofit

By Tim Fehr

10 Factors to Consider when Planning a School HVAC Retrofit

Beyond updating and modernizing heating and cooling systems, installing new HVAC systems often result in changes to:

  • The learning environment
  • Appearance of your building
  • Usable space within your building
  • Cost to heat, cool, and maintain the school
There are many factors to consider that will determine whether these changes will have a positive or negative impact. Careful planning is the key to the selecting new HVAC systems that best fit the school within your project budget. Here are 10 factors to think about before you start your school HVAC retrofit:

  1.   Age, condition, and expected service life of existing HVAC components – Determine which components are on their “last legs” and which have substantial remaining useful life to help you steer selection and configuration of new systems.
  2.  Is adding air conditioning a priority? – Ask yourself this question during the planning stage of any heating replacement project. The answer will factor into the system selection and design.
  3.  Maintenance – Consider the ease of servicing equipment. The location of equipment (above ceiling, rooftop, floor mounted) and the configuration of the system (centralized equipment vs room units) have a lasting impact on maintenance costs.
  4.  Impact on (and condition of) existing ceilings, lighting, flooring, casework – The replacement of HVAC components often requires modifications to existing components such as ceilings, lighting, flooring and casework. Consider replacing components that are aged or in poor condition, which has the added bonus of improving the aesthetics.
  5.  Visual impact– Exposed HVAC components (i.e. rooftop and on-grade equipment, ducts, wall louvers, piping, floor mounted classroom units) can be visually unappealing if improperly located or specified.
  6.  Acoustical impact– Certain types or styles of HVAC equipment produce more noise than others. This is an important factor, particularly within teaching spaces.
  7.  Impact on (and condition of) windows – Often, schools with HVAC needs also have old inefficient and leaky windows. Does it make sense to replace the windows at the same time as the HVAC? This helps you avoid oversizing the new equipment and has additional benefits of reducing energy costs and improving aesthetics.
  8.  Impact on energy costs – Assess energy efficiency of the HVAC system options preferably via a life cycle cost comparison. Retrofitting high efficiency heating/cooling systems such as geothermal have proven to significantly reduce energy costs, even in schools that were previously un-air conditioned.
  9.  Fire code implications – Replacing HVAC systems often triggers compliance with current codes. Your design team should work with the code officials early in the design phase to determine what needs to brought up to code versus being “grandfathered in.” Discuss potential tradeoffs such as upgrading fire alarm systems or adding fire sprinkler systems in lieu of other more costly fire code upgrades.
  10.  Impact on program space – Floor mounted HVAC units and/or new mechanical rooms provide the benefit of easy serviceability. The units should be carefully located to minimize reduction of space used for classroom activities or storage.
Tim Fehr, PE, LEED AP Tim Fehr, PE, LEED AP
  I have a wide breadth of experience with HVAC design, and my approach to design solutions always starts the same. First, I step into the shoes of the end users, or occupants of the space. What activities fill their day? Whether they are connecting with students, treating patients, or executing a manufacturing process, I am charged with considering how the space environment supports the success of their endeavors. This influences almost every design decision.

I enjoy working closely with my clients to establish their project goals and priorities such as energy efficiency, serviceability, comfort control. I find personal satisfaction in balancing all of these factors to help produce an outcome that meets the needs of both the facilities staff and the men, women, and children who inhabit the building.

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