RENO, Nev. – A discussion at STN EXPO Reno moderated by a student transportation professional included representatives of various school bus ventilation technologies who discussed the questions industry leaders should be asking when deciding on purchasing a system.
Facilitator Chris Ellison, director of transportation for David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon, first reviewed different types of air purification with the panel.
Matthew Montgomery, market leader for Jackson Control Company, explained that air purification is the process of cleaning the air of unwanted particulate matter while ionization uses charged particles to capture the debris and drag it to the floor.
United Safety & Survivability Corp. does something similar to ionization through the use of hydrogen peroxide molecules, which also disinfect bus surfaces. “We’re after a clean school bus interior, and we have a few different ways to do that,” said National Sales Manager Ken Hedgecock.
Webasto Thermo & Comfort developed a medical-grade air filtration technology that it brought to school buses, explained National Account Manager Paul Baczewski.
Montgomery and Al Chami, vice president of sales for Airlabs, agreed that UV rays, which have been used on airplanes, are better suited to clean surfaces than air inside a bus. UV rays should also never shine directly on passengers and should only be used when no one is on board or in a protected casing.
As for installation, Montgomery said Jackson’s air ionization technology is not hard to install. Baczewski said an ideal location for a system is close to the front of the bus near the loading door, which introduces new contaminants every time it opens, and to the bus driver, who is on the bus all day. Chami explained that the individual Airlab AirBubbl units can be mounted throughout the bus to create pockets of clean air.
With onboard mask mandates in place in many states, and rules in states like Oregon that state all windows must remain cracked 1 to 2 inches, Ellison questioned the effect on air purification efforts. Baczewski and Montgomery said it did not create any new issues with onboard air filtration or ionization systems, but Chami noted that in cities, leaving windows open may actually pose practical problems since it allows the entrance of smog and pollutants rather than fresh air.
Attendees questioned whether these products work in extremely cold climates or on hot days with no air conditioning. Hedgecock confirmed that open windows and either cool or hot air would not interfere with the air cleaning systems.
All panelists agreed that with new technology, there is a need for education and training, as well as attention to state requirements and what is allowed or not allowed.
When deciding on a new system, the panelists said to consider testing standards of the new equipment, district budgets, the installation process and any ongoing maintenance. Ellison advised getting the product that is uniquely suited to each district, its climate and its needs.
“Understand what you’re getting. Not all technology is created equal,” Chami cautioned.
Districts can currently use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, or ESSER, to purchase air purification and ionization systems, but what happens after that, asked Ellison. Most panelists quoted a price of $1,500 to $2,500 to outfit one bus, but stressed that these products carry long-term benefits and often last the life of the bus. Like DERA grants help clean the air outside the bus, Baczewski noted that districts are now considering these products so the inside of the bus is clean as well.
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Installation takes about an hour for most products represented by the panelists, and maintenance is neither complicated nor costly. Webasto’s product is somewhat more detailed since it is medical grade. None of the units are loud or distracting.
“Do you feel like this is pandemic excitement, or that air purification and ionization is here to stay?” Ellison queried of the panel.
The panelists agreed that COVID-19 created a heightened sense of awareness that turned into a more concentrated focus on student health and safety year-round. Chami and Baczewski noted that the technology can also help with driver retention.
The panelists also discussed integration of such technology into a bus HVAC system or the possibility that it may be federally or state mandated.
Baczewski and Montgomery noted that air purification is a tried-and-true option that is new to buses. Hedgecock cautioned to be on the lookout for sensationalization, or systems that claim to cure COVID-19. Rather, legitimate systems target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
All four companies showcased their systems during the STN EXPO Extravaganza on the Trade Show floor on Monday evening and will again when the event resumes on Tuesday.