U of A researchers hope to build smart HVAC systems to limit virus spread

Researchers at the University of Alberta are looking at how to make heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems smart enough to control the spread of COVID-19.

Provincial funding for two-year project at University of Alberta

An HVAC system in a University of Alberta laboratory. Yousef Alipouri has received funding to study smarter controls for ventilation systems to combat viruses like COVID-19. (Submitted by Yousef Alipouri)

Researchers at the University of Alberta are looking at how to make heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems smart enough to control the spread of COVID-19.

"When you look at the HVAC system that is available in the market, mostly they are designed for [cost-effectiveness]," says Yousef Alipouri, an engineering post-doctoral fellow studying smart controls for ventilation systems to safeguard public health.

"They are not designed for infection control at all."

Public health organizations including Alberta Health Services have identified that poor HVAC systems may contribute to the spread of disease through airborne transmission.

The core of Alipouri's project is to design an HVAC system that uses machine learning to react to conditions that would contribute to virus spread.

Running these systems constantly in a way that could limit spread would consume a lot of energy — and money.

"We have to have a trade off between the energy costs and also avoiding the spread," Alipouri said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

He says the hardware involved would not be too expensive.

"Most of the things will be the program," he said.

Alipouri envisions sensors and cameras that capture — but do not record — the level of mask-wearing or symptomatic body movements like coughing or sneezing, analyzed by a program to increase the ventilation flow when it's needed.

Alipouri is a post-doctoral fellow in engineering at the University of Alberta. (Submitted by Yousef Alipouri)

Another reactive measure would be to increase the humidity and temperature to a point that is not conducive to spread.

This "pandemic mode" could also be programmed to change at certain times, such as two hours before and after occupancy in line with recommendations from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Alipouri said.

The project is funded by the Alberta Innovates Graduate Fellowship in Health Innovation and is slated to run two years. Alipouri said they're currently designing the system at the first stage of the project.

The second stage will see a simulation built in Edmonton to test the effectiveness of the system in an indoor setting.

Even if COVID-19 is under control, this kind of smart HVAC would be critical should another pandemic happen, Alipouri said.

"We want to have something for the future for all other infection controls as well."

Alipouri sees it being used within an industry setting, places where large numbers of people gather like hospitals and malls.

"Now because of the pandemic, they have been impacted and they are facing a shutdown," he said. "If we can prevent this in indoor buildings, I think everybody can benefit from that."


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