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Home / Commercial Construction / ON THE LEVEL: Contractors, unions launch ‘Breathe Easy’ campaign to help ensure schools have clean air

ON THE LEVEL: Contractors, unions launch ‘Breathe Easy’ campaign to help ensure schools have clean air

Jack Schirpke

Before the pandemic, representatives of the heating, cooling and ventilation industries often struggled to convince school officials that it was long past time to replace their district’s air-handling systems.

Now with COVID-19 making everyone much more aware of the benefits of circulating fresh air, their message has become far easier to get across. But industry insiders like Jack Schirpke, vice president of environmental services at TOTAL Mechanical, and Scott Knocke, financial secretary treasurer of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, still find themselves engaged in too few retrofitting projects.

The lack of progress is particularly baffling, Schirpke said, given the amount of federal aid money that has been distributed to help schools pay for this very sort of work.

“It may just be a matter of timing and the fact that these things move slow. There could be a host of reasons,” he said. “But there is the availability of these funds and the need for ventilation improvements. There is a big enough gap to ask: When are we going to start initiating these.”

To elicit more interest in replacing schools’ old heating, air and ventilation, systems Schirpke, Knocke and other industry representatives have joined the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors’ Alliance to launch “Breathe Easy Wisconsin” – a campaign dedicated to informing the public of the need for clean air and steps that building owners and others can take to ensure they are providing it.

Schirpke and Knocke recently talked to The Daily Reporter about their work in Breathe Easy Wisconsin and in the industry in general to promote the benefits of good ventilation and air-handling systems. (This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The Daily Reporter: What’s the main goal of the Breathe Clean Wisconsin campaign?

Schirpke: For a long time, we’ve been trying to educate people on things that have been on the back burner for years. We want to clean your air. We want to have purer air. There are people who don’t have a great game plan on how to spend money on these things.
The first question to ask is: Have you done a ventilation assessment? Is your building meeting code? And what is the right amount of outside air that you need this? In other words, is your building doing what it needs to do? Before start undertaking projects, you need to make sure your building is delvering the right amount of outside air. You should start by doing a holistic building-solution assessment to make sure the air quality in your space is as good as you can have it. That will help with airborne pathogens and just general air quality.

Scott Knocke

TDR: What are some common mistakes people make?

Schirpke: In this industry, we use terms like we use terms like eco-bling and green ornaments. These are things that might make you feel good.. But you really should make sure your building is performing well before you worry about getting that last 1% or 2% of improvement. Question No. 1 should be: How does this affect air quality in your building? And you should be wary, because not all new technology is the same. Just because someone labels something similarly, that doesn’t mean it’s the same product.

TDR: Where does Local 18 come into all of this?

Knocke: It’s our partnership with the contractors working on this Breathe Easy initiative and, most importantly, it’s the training that’s involved at Local 18. We have 4,500 members. Of those, 588 are apprentices being trained. I think that’s a testament to our trade and industry. Our apprenticeship program is 5-years long, and it’s very intense. So we are trained to do this work.

TDR: Have the standards for air purity changed since the start of the pandemic?Schirpke: The standards have not changed. Normally, the states are several years behind with code revisions. Also, remember that a building that’s up to code is the worst possible building that you’ll allow someone to occupy. It means it’s just good enough. So there are not new requirements based on things like COVID. But there is new interest and there are increased expectations.

TDR: What do you guys hope to see happen next?

Schirpke: Well, in the past, it was always a question of money. We don’t have the funds to do these things. Now with funds becoming available, the fact that we have those road maps showing us how to make things better – now is the time to follow them. So we should be making sure we are doing some kind of audit or assessment in every building.

Knocke: You see a lot of parents who are concerned about their kids and their education. Now we have something concrete we can do to benefit them not only currently but also far into the future.

About Dan Shaw, [email protected]

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 414-225-1807.

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