Do HVAC systems increase the spread of COVID-19? Farrokh Jazizdeh Karimi seeks to find out.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that physical distancing is a critical step to reduce the probability of airborne exposures and physical transmissions. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that with emergence of highly contagious novel viruses, the medical remedies for their containment, such as vaccine development, require time intensive processes.

However, the trade-off between reducing exposure and resuming economic activities is of critical importance in the resilience of a society to pandemics with such a high impact. Therefore, it is important to understand how economic activities can be resumed while reducing the risk of exposure. An important factor in this direction is to understand the role of buildings and building systems in affecting the risk of exposure.

There have been questions on how building systems (specifically HVAC systems) can potentially increase the risk of exposure. As occupants interact with the indoor environment, they can pose exposure risk through human-human or human-surface interactions in addition to airborne exposure. Depending on the occupancy density and their level of activities, the risk of contamination and exposure can vary. Recent studies have reported that certain ranges of indoor conditions, provided by building systems, can mitigate COVID-19 exposures.

“Reaching an in-depth understanding of exposure risk due to indoor dynamics is a critical step,” said Farrokh Jazizadeh “This research will help us gain a better understanding on how building systems operations and human indoor dynamics can affect the spread of airborne particles.” Eventually, this can be used to create exposure maps and models which can influence how smart building systems are equipped and used in buildings. Both facility operators and occupants can use this information to create the safest environment for human interaction indoors.

“We want to create a foundation to provide information for actuation of buildng systems to reduce occupants’ exposure to different surface and aerosol contaminants within indoor environments,” Jazizadeh said. The research group is working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Virginia to provide an investigation on how indoor dynamics affect the risk of exposure and how building systems can work to reduce that risk.

Prior to this study, Jazizadeh focused his research on leveraging the dynamics of the built environment and human-building interactions toward improved and flexible performance at difference scales. While, he hasn’t previously studied viral exposure, this research of exposure assessment and mitigation broadly fits into his research expertise.