Are Canadian Colleges & Universities Getting Good Air Quality, Energy Savings in Air Filtration?

School administrators and maintenance staff are under pressure to cut capital costs because they are perpetually subject to underfunding of their facilities in Canada. But cutting corners in air filtration can not only be detrimental to health, it can also actually be more expensive to do so over the long term. Installing high-quality air filtration and air circulation infrastructure can be expensive at first but will result in more energy savings, better indoor air quality, less maintenance, and fewer labour costs.  

It is important to get expert advice from air filtration specialists when designing or retrofitting a system for energy savings and effective air circulation and filtration. 

Overview of the importance of air quality in colleges and universities in Canada

In Canada, college and university administrators, and maintenance staff are expected to provide decent indoor air quality for the health and safety of students, teachers, and support staff. But school administrators and maintenance staff often have difficulty navigating the various approaches to air quality in their institutions. 

Stakeholders in Canadian universities and colleges are more aware than ever that indoor air quality in institutions of higher learning is not near the quality level that it should be. Beyond airbourne virus transmission, there are serious health implications that come along with poor air quality. It doesn’t end there though. More and more, studies are showing that indoor air quality also has a major impact on cognitive function, test scores, productivity, and general well-being. 

This article will provide an overview of air filtration in universities and colleges in Canada, highlighting its importance in creating safe learning environments and addressing existing problems. Additionally, it will offer some practical advice on how to ensure your school is properly equipped with the right air filtration system.

About School Air Filtration in Canada

Canada has 223 public and private universities, and over 200 public colleges and institutes of higher learning according to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Air filtration plays an important role in building maintenance and the well-being of building users in Canadian colleges and universities. There are a variety of clean air solutions for institutions. School administrators and staff need to carefully consider their options before selecting a system to get maximum value and effectiveness. 

The prime objective of choosing an air filtration system for a school is to provide good air quality. Air filters must be able to remove a significant amount of airbourne contaminants, including bacteria, dust, viruses, pollen, and harmful gases. There are also other considerations such as efficiency, longevity, and energy use among others.

Related: Commercial and Public Buildings, Schools and Universities 

What are the health effects of poor indoor air quality in colleges and universities?

Minor health issues that arise from poor indoor air quality are irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. More serious issues can be dizziness, headaches, fatigue, respiratory diseases, and cardiovascular problems. Administrators and maintenance staff aren’t always aware that differences in air filter quality, and different air filtration solutions can have a major impact on health and safety as they affect IAQ.

What are the sources of indoor air pollution in schools? 

There are common sources of indoor air pollution in schools, such as dust, mould, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from plastics, paints, furniture, cleaning agents, polishing materials, and chemical releases from building materials and walls.

What are the different air filtration needs for colleges and universities in Canada?

In Canadian colleges and universities, there are a wide variety of academic pursuits from engineering to medicine and everything in between. Different institutions, facilities, laboratories, lecture halls, and testing centres have very different air filtration needs. For example, medical schools have similar needs to those of hospitals. They need cleanrooms, activated carbon air filters, overhead air filtration, and portable air cleaners. A college that provides any instruction on welding requires MERV-15 air filters as well as activated carbon filters, a type of molecular air filters, to remove harmful gases from the air. 

Canadian college and university air filtration expert Rob Kealey states, “Common practices for HVAC as it relates to indoor air quality for most buildings and offices can be applied to smaller classrooms, but lecture halls have different air filtration requirements. Also, workshops for welding and carpentry courses, for example, specific needs because the particulate in the air is so different from one application to another.”   

Kealy goes on to say, “Some sectors in colleges and universities use more or less standard HVAC filters with added activated carbon, while some use something as sophisticated as a dust collector or smaller source-capture dust collector. Most facilities resemble workplaces. For example, there could be an engineering facility in the school that includes a welding area, a facility that experiments with pharmaceutical products, or a facility that uses a metal or laser cutter where HEPA filters are required.” All of those applications have different needs from an air filtration perspective. 

Studies related to cognitive function and test scores and indoor air quality 

A classroom air quality study was conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard University, and Tsinghua University. It investigated “how indoor air pollution affects the cognitive performance of students.” Researchers administered cognitive tests based on real-time indoor PM2.5 (tiny particles that can enter breathing passages and cause adverse health effects) and CO2 measurements (too much CO2 is the result of poor ventilation). They found that “higher levels of PM2.5 and CO2 were associated with slower response times and lower correct responses per minute in cognitive tests and estimated that reducing indoor PM2.5 by 10 μg/m3 could improve cognitive performance by 0.8-1.7%.” They stated, “improving indoor air quality could have significant benefits for education, health, and productivity, especially in regions with high outdoor air pollution. –Zhang X., Wu L., Niu J., et al. (2021). Impacts of Indoor Air Quality on Cognitive Function: Evidence from Real-Time Measurements Coupled with Ecological Momentary Assessments. Environmental Science & Technology Letters 8(9), 671-677.

A study by researchers led by Dr. R. Shaughnessy, University of Tulsa, Indoor Air Program, on indoor air quality in schools, examined the impact of classroom air quality on students’ performance. The study found that “CO2 concentration was negatively correlated with test scores, poor indoor air quality could impair cognitive function” and, “for every unit (1 l/s per person) increase in the ventilation rate within that range, the proportion of students passing standardized tests (i.e., scoring satisfactory or above) is expected to increase by 2.9% (95%CI 0.9–4.8%) for math and 2.7% (0.5–4.9%) for reading.” –Shaughnessy R.J., Haverinen-Shaughnessy U., Nevalainen A., Moschandreas D. (2006). The impact of classroom ventilation rate on students’ performance. Indoor Air 16(6), 465-468.

Berkeley Lab reports, “special tests typically assessed speed and accuracy in number addition, multiplication, proofreading, logical thinking, and similar activities to indicate performance. Overall, eight out of 11 studies reported statistically significant improvements in at least some measures of student performance with increased ventilation rates or lower carbon dioxide concentrations…”  –

Based on Population Weighted Averages, Western provinces in Canada have more air pollution than Eastern Canadian provinces because of things like forest fires, vehicle emissions, and industrial activity. 

A coloured map of Canada showing PM 2.5 levels, from turquoise representing the lowest levels in Northern Canada, to light blue showing moderate levels in the Yukon, Southern Manitoba, Northern Ontario and the Maritimes, to Fuchsia representing the highest levels of PM 2.5 from 6.7-8.8 ug/m3 in Alberta, Southern British Columbia, and Southern Ontario.
PM 2.5 Concentrations in Canada
Source: Health Canada

The role of air filtration in improving air quality in colleges & universities

Schools are increasingly upgrading or replacing their air filtration systems to improve indoor air quality and protect students, teachers, and support staff health. Air filtration systems work by drawing in contaminated air and passing it through filters that remove particulate matter pollutants such as pollen, dust, and smoke along with possibly removing some gases.

Air filtration systems in Canadian colleges and universities mostly concentrate on removing particulate matter but sometimes include activated carbon filters or other molecular filters, which are effective at removing gaseous pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ozone. By improving indoor air quality, air filtration systems can help reduce the incidence of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and allergies, cardiovascular illnesses, as well as sick building syndrome.

COVID-19, Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza raged at schools throughout Canada in the fall of 2022 and winter of 2023. This has led to many school boards upgrading to minimum MERV-13 air filters to remove more airbourne contaminants. They have also included standalone air purifiers to remove even more contaminants and particulates. But not all schools have clean air. It is important to measure air quality and find solutions if necessary.

Viruses don’t often travel on their own. They typically “hitch a ride” with other airborne particles such as an aerosolized bodily fluid, and these are in the size range normally captured by a MERV-13 filter. There’s a big drawback with the MERV-13 filters that most facilities are using, particularly if they just have a single-stage electrostatically charged MERV-13 filter. When installed, the air filter will have a MERV-13 rating, but after a period of time, the efficiency of the filter drops significantly as the static dissipates. Even after as little as one month, a lower-quality MERV-13 filter may actually only perform at a MERV-8 rating. A Camfil 30/30 Dual 9 filter with a lower rating (MERV 9/9-A) will maintain that efficiency during the life of the filter and generally have much better airflow through it. If you have a variable frequency drive (VFD) on your fan, your energy consumption can be reduced with the added advantage of a much longer service life. Read Related on: Virus Control with Air Filtration 

What do colleges and universities in Canada need to do to improve indoor air quality?

Particulates can come from outside air or can be generated internally by a process, whether it’s welding, food preparation in a cafeteria, chemical use in a laboratory or engineering facility, or even from people. Regardless of the source, the particles have to be removed.

Aside from particulate matter, harmful gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) must also be removed. In this case, using molecular filtration.

Contaminants can enter a school on a student’s, staff member’s, or instructor’s clothing or shoes. Dirt on floors also contributes to poor indoor air quality. Various air filters will remove the airbourne contaminants coming into the building as well as the air that is circulated through the building in most instances.

Fresh air?

Kealey says, “You would ideally like to bring in 100% outdoor air. The outdoor air, however, can also be quite polluted depending on the environmental conditions surrounding a college or university. Minimum outdoor air requirements are required by ASHRAE and building codes; however, because outdoor air needs to be both heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, it’s a huge energy draw. So the preference is to recirculate air and have it filtered as it goes through the air handling unit.”

Are portable air cleaners good at removing airbourne viruses?

It’s certainly a good idea to use portable air cleaners because it’s one of the best ways to purify the air in a building or facility. A roof air handling unit of a building isn’t going to do much to prevent airbourne viruses from spreading within a room. A portable air cleaner can do a much better job dealing with more local air. Read more about: Portable Air Cleaners and Air Purifiers

Recommendations from Rob Kealey

During the pandemic, many administrators and maintenance staff rushed out to get MERV-13 air filters believing that MERV-13 filtration was adequate in dealing with airbourne disease transmission, but they did not take into account widely-varying degrees of efficiency and capacities from one manufacturer to another.

Kealy says, “Many air filters rely on electrostatic filtration, while the preferred  recommendation is to use mechanical air filtration because when the static charge begins to deteriorate on electrostatically charged filter media, the filter becomes much less efficient and can no longer be considered a MERV-13-rated filter. It may even test as low as a MERV-8.” Kealy also states, “Besides using a high-quality air filter, air changes and airflow are very important. The more air changes and airflow you have in a building, the more you can cycle out the particulates and gases that are in the air.”

At once or twice every hour, their are not enough air changes for good indoor air quality. Once you have 5 to 10 changes per hour, the IAQ starts to improve considerably. However, the more air changes, the more outside air is brought into a building. The penalty paid for that is the need to cool or heat that air which requires more energy. That’s why facilities try to limit the outside air they bring in. In this case it is best to use air filters that guarantee efficiency for a set period of time, which can be up to 1 year. Read related article: Air Quality in Canadian Schools

To consult with an air filtration expert on the topics covered in this post or for further information, please use this contact form and an air filtration expert from Camfil will answer any questions you may have. 

About Camfil Canada Clean Air Solutions

For 60 years, Camfil has been helping people breathe cleaner air. As a leading manufacturer of premium clean air solutions, we provide commercial and industrial systems for air filtration and air pollution control that improve worker and equipment productivity, minimize energy use, and benefit human health and the environment. Read more about Camfil Canada


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Phillip Ilijevski

Camfil Canada Inc.

T: 437-929-1161

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