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Why Real-World Testing Matters for Air Purification and Ventilation Solutions

Featuring Anthony (Tony) Cupido, Ph.D., P.Eng., Research Chair, Sustainable Building Technologies, IDEAWORKS, Mohawk College, hosted and produced by Liz Beatty

Anthony (Tony) Cupido, Ph.D., P.Eng., Research Chair, Sustainable Building Technologies, IDEAWORKS, Mohawk College

Today we go straight to an industry and research expert in verifying the claims of air purification and ventilation technologies. In the age of Covid, these tests of efficacy are more important than ever in making sense of a growing and often confusing marketplace.

Tony Cupido is currently the research chair of Sustainable Buildings Technologies at Mohawk College in Ontario. Listen in…

Liz Beatty  00:03

I’m Liz Beatty. This is the new healthy building podcast. As always, we dig for stories about people and technology, transforming communities and saving the planet, one building at a time. Today we go straight to an industry and research expert in verifying the claims of air purification and ventilation technologies. Certainly, in the age of COVID, these tests of efficacy are more important than ever, in making sense of a growing and often confusing marketplace. Tony Cupido is currently the Research Chair of Sustainable Buildings Technologies at Mohawk College in Ontario. Welcome, Tony. 

Tony Cupido: 

Thanks, Liz. 

Liz Beatty:

Now you are a rare hybrid of sorts blending boots on the ground operational experience in Ontario schools, with thought leadership in the highest echelons of green building technology in academia. But I’ll let you explain. 

Tony Cupido:

My early days in engineering were in operations. And that led me to ultimately become a senior official regarding facilities in both school districts here in Hamilton. So, it gave me a broad perspective of looking after buildings and dealing with students and sometimes parents and those types of things. As I moved on in my career and ended up at McMaster University, I chose to further pursue an advanced degree in engineering, and ended up with a PhD in civil engineering with a focus in on green buildings and policy. So that was very helpful for me, in terms of developing a love for Better Buildings and green buildings. And in doing that, I had the pleasure of working with students and doing some research as well. So, as I moved into my career at Mohawk College, and we got involved with the first zero carbon institutional building in Canada, I was excited to realize that there was a tremendous amount of opportunity and potential and further research and working along with students and projects. And that had me move on to my current position, which is a Research Chair. And it’s been exciting.

Liz Beatty:

Now I understand your connection to Nerva. REME-LED and duct sealing technologies started as a partnership with Thomas Cole Inc, more of a grassroots climate change movement with local school boards. 

Tony Cupido  02:31

We started just before COVID had we week, Mohawk College, joined into a partnership with the ten local school districts around Mohawk College. And we call it the climate change leaders’ hub. And in doing that we had opportunities to work individually with school districts to ultimately help them with reducing carbon and improving energy consumption, and doing some curriculum changes or otherwise. And needless to say, COVID had us pivot a bit and do some other things that would be more important given the circumstances. And TCI, who was our partner in the climate change leaders introduced us to Nerva energy out of Stony Creek, and they had some interesting technology that they thought would be helpful for our school districts. And that involved air purification and ventilation improvements. We liked that concept and we pitched it to all the school districts and several others in the province and the local school district in Grand Erie District School Board. Brantford saw tremendous amount of potential in this. 

And from my perspective, it looked like a great research opportunity. There is some very good literature about the products that NERVA introduced, particularly the REME-LED air purification technology and the duct sealing technology. Plenty of good research has been done on that, but very little or any that’s been done in situ. And we saw an opportunity to start looking at some in situ testing that would help validate the performance and efficacy of these particular technologies. And so far, that’s going very, very well.

Liz Beatty  04:18

So, what makes TCI so simpatico with your work at Mohawk.

Tony Cupido  04:23

Yeah, I think the value that TCI brought to the table for us and developing the Climate Change Leaders initiative was that they understood school districts and so did I, based on my professional background. And I think it was a great partnership and bring Mohawk into a leadership scenario with the local school districts around us. We recognize that they were representing an excellent company out of the United States, given COVID and the impact on institutions and other buildings. There’s a myriad of products and services that are out there, and we had to help show the differences between the product and services they were suggesting and recommending with others. And we quickly saw that value, the challenge became that there had been very little testing of the efficacy of any products. In situ, there’s a lot of lab work, there’s a lot of research that’s been done, and some with third parties, but very little or any that involved testing, and measuring and validation. In an office room or in a classroom or otherwise, we thought that was necessary. And secondly, we had prospective school districts and other clients who were requesting this service.

Liz Beatty  05:49

Knowing this real-world efficacy seems pretty important.

Tony Cupido  05:53

It is because you need to get past what I would say is the marketing of any particular product, and get on to the scientific rigor that should be applied to some of these to make sure that, in particular, the public sector is getting value for money. There really wasn’t any testing protocols that helped to measure that this particular efficacy and output of these technologies. So, we started to develop some and I think that was the important piece here — that we were able to do some straightforward testing protocols that existed in industry that could be applied to this particular technology. We’re at a stage right now where we think we could be well positioned to try and prove out the efficacy of not only this, just these particular products that we’re dealing with, but perhaps others as well.

Liz Beatty  06:47

And why should our school boards or hospitals, our companies care about choosing solutions with this real-world proven track record?

Tony Cupido  06:58

You know, a great question on that. And I think it goes back to the issue of risk and what we’ve experienced with those particular industries right now, and I, you know, full disclosure, my mom’s in a long-term care center, nearby here in Hamilton. I think it’s a good one by any standard. But having said that, 19 people died in that particular long-term care Center. And fortunately, my mum got through all that, but was isolated in her room for several months. We know that, in my experience now has proven out that systems within buildings, hospitals, possibly may be the exception, because there’s often a little higher code requirement for how they heat, cool and ventilate their buildings. But other buildings, it’s been conventional systems that have been around for 50 to 75 years, with very little improvements in them. So other than maybe changing some filters, there needs to be much more rigor applied to how one would test the existing facilities, how one could improve it with technologies and then validate those technologies to see if they’re working properly. There have been some, what I would call dubious products, that have been introduced into the marketplace that really, when you dig down into it, really don’t perform what they should be doing or what they claim to be doing. But the optics are that someone is doing something about them. And that appears to be satisfactory.

Liz Beatty  08:36

And of course, in many cases, it is not. So, let’s connect all this back to Climate Change Leaders and helping students learn how their built environments can keep them safe, and help move us all toward reaching carbon reduction goals. First, give us an idea of the scope of your current Climate Change Leaders hub?

Tony Cupido  08:58

Well, that’s a good point, just in our hub alone there, there are several 100,000 students, there’s 1000s of teachers that are impacted by this.

Liz Beatty  09:09

Impressive, and what’s the big takeaway that you hope to give these education communities.

Tony Cupido  09:14

If people understand how a building may work and have some comfort, that someone is attending to that, that they feel well in that particular building, then you know, you’re a little further ahead. So, introducing students and occupants to a little bit of basic understanding of how things work, will help them be more stronger proponents themselves to insist on having a good healthy environment to learn to work, to live or otherwise. There’s plenty of opportunity for students to learn this and occupants to learn this and we want to be there and be positioned to be the catalyst for this because I think learning early at the formative years will help them as life goes on.

Liz Beatty  10:00

Okay, so let’s dive into the work you’re doing to show how and how well, these REME-LED and duct sealing technologies work in real-world settings.

Tony Cupido  10:11

Yeah, good point Liz. And the two technologies that were introduced by Nerva energy were the REME-LED air purification technology, and the duct sealing technology that helps improve ventilation rates, etc., throughout a particular building, in our cases in schools. So, the REME product does three things. And part of the claims are similar to what many others might be saying. But it deals with the ability to help control or minimize the risk of microbials, bacteria, viruses, molds, and other things to be introduced into your school environment. It also helps with gases. So, you have VOC’s, which are a problem often in schools. And then people smell that it’s kind of that new car smell where you have some gassing and other things, and odors that are etc., that are being controlled. And as well, particulates. And particulates are just those things that are in the air like dust and dander and pollen and, and that type of thing that are often challenges in school. So, the REME product deals with all three of those — it’s been proven out scientifically in some of their lab tests, we’re starting to introduce that some testing now that’s helping validate those particular performance issues. And early testing we’ve done at Mohawk College has been very encouraging. So, we’ve done something simple that students ultimately will be able to get involved with and understand. And that’s using petri dishes to do some testing before and after the product, or any product has been introduced. And we’re also using some surface metering that’s been used in the food industry for many years. 

It’s called ATP testing, and nosing triphosphate for anyone who’s interested in doing that. But what it does is it checks the cleanliness of surfaces. And that and those surfaces are important in the food industry, obviously. And we are doing, we’re starting to do the early testing of those particular things in some lab work at Mohawk. And the early work we’ve done is very encouraging, the product appears to be working very well. And we’re encouraged about that. The next thing that I think is important is there. And I mentioned this earlier was how many times individuals, whether it’s a teacher or students or others complain about the ventilation in their schools. And having looked after more than 200 or more schools, there’s a litany of challenges between the age of building the quality of mechanical and electrical systems, and how well those work and all the monies you need to help keep them well maintained. There’re many schools where it’s just not well maintained for many, many reasons. And what we’re doing with the duct sealing is poking our nose into those ventilation systems, some of them that haven’t been looked at properly in decades, and looking at a great technology that helps seal those particular the ductwork to improve the flow, but also finding a lot of the challenges that go with a ductwork system, whether that’s venting, cleaning pieces that aren’t even properly connected or otherwise. In early records. Right now, what we’re seeing in many schools, where this has been introduced, are incredible. 

We’re seeing typical ventilation improvement rates of 30 to 40%. In some cases, in one school that I was in, it was well over 80% improvement. And that’s fascinating. And it starts to highlight how much deferred maintenance is in school districts and school buildings. And all the technology and the money that needs to be spent to do this properly. So, we’re at this early stage where we’re starting to uncover some challenges, get those challenges resolved, and make some significant improvements to those particular schools. At the end of the day, I think some of the testing that we’re doing is something that students can easily get involved in, it goes back to the basic principle of helping them learn and understand how their buildings operate. And in doing some simple testing, we’ll help them validate some of the things that they can learn about the building and understand that there is technology that’s been installed that’s helping keep them safe. Eventually we’ll have students who will be able to take these on his particular projects and do some research on the room, not only at the college level, but even some senior students in the secondary schools to help do this.

Liz Beatty  14:58

It sounds remarkably hands on. And of course, there’s the importance of these learning environments walking the talk of greenhouse gas reduction. And we’re talking significant reductions.

Tony Cupido  15:11

Yeah, exactly. That’s, that’s a good point. And I should have highlighted that a little bit earlier. But, you know, it’s kind of, in our case, it’s been an unintended, positive consequence of the work that we’re doing. We’re realizing that as we go in and improve the ventilation in the particular schools, we’re also recognizing very quickly that this is producing some significant energy reduction opportunities, that it’s starting to help with a wellness of the students. And when you measure all that, together, there’s a significant greenhouse gas reduction component to this, because that’s the broader picture. At the end of the day, as we go in and improve things not only, you know, we’ve been more focused in on because of the circumstances, the safety in the ventilation piece, but at the end of the day, this is a building component, these systems are part of the building, buildings use a lot of energy. And when we’re going into make improvements, we’re reducing the energy use, and that the, the positive side of that is that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. There’s some huge upside here, we could be seeing reductions in greenhouse gases for typical schools that could easily approach 25 30%. And that’s, that’s significant. Now we’re getting somewhere if we can do that.

Liz Beatty  16:33

Miss information is unfortunately a reality of our world today. And we see it heightened amid the sense of angst and urgency in this pandemic marketplace for air purification and increased ventilation, your testing seems to be helping shine a light on the facts, not the fiction.

Tony Cupido  16:54

That’s a good point, I’ll do my best on that. Because there’s, again a myriad of products out there. But there’s no in fundamentally there’s there are there are active and passive technologies that are out there to help with air purification within a building space. And some of these passive ones are limited in their capacity. And that typically involves a fan and a filter. Sometimes it involves some UV lights that are being put in. But the act of technology, which is represents the Remi le led product, there are some others as well. But primarily there need to have been tested out in a lab and that is more applicable to real life scenarios. And that helps withstand some rigor and have some questions that would be coming out where we’re happy to be doing, supporting that particular piece of research, but also helping to put a protocol in place that I think works better for proving out that any negative outcomes that could be perceived by these technologies, any of these particular technologies are actually not the case, particularly for REME-LED product in the air duct sealing. We can’t test every product out there. There’s many of them. And there’s many different technologies. Some of them makes sense, some don’t. But we’re trying to focus in on our ability to look at a leading technology and proving this out in in the actual marketplace, in situ, where occupants are right there. So, in doing that, we’re trying to keep a focus in on doing this properly.

Because it these, any results that we come up with must withstand some rigor, and also claims that there are other issues or other problems that we can dispel those particular claims. Some of those involve ozone, that they don’t product, certain products produce ozone. And we’re saying, well, the literature says it doesn’t. Let’s test this in situ. And we’ll be doing that in three Branford schools and we have meters that can go in and students can easily use and determine for themselves if there’s a concern for something let’s dispel that particular concern. So, it’s about learning. It’s about understanding.

Liz Beatty  19:21

A silver lining to this incredibly challenging time. We’re becoming more aware than ever, how our built environments affect health, the planet. Do you see this big culture shift afoot on climate and wellness?

Tony Cupido  19:36

Well, I think what’s happened is that the pandemic has caused many building owners and that’s a broad perspective and the governments are large building owners to really focus in on the quality of their buildings, and how their occupants are being affected by this and what it means on a global scale. For improving their systems, and ultimately trying to be part of a large entity group that needs to start meeting targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, you don’t, you don’t start to look at air quality with that in mind. But what we’ve learned is as you do this, there is a positive unintended consequence. And that is there’s opportunity to save energy to improve your systems. To cut your greenhouse gases, you need to stay focused, you need targets. And in some small way, what we’re doing is that the grass roots of some of the things that need to happen, improving the buildings, improving the well-being of occupants. And as well, you know, being a better citizen towards looking at greenhouse gas reductions. These are important. So, we need to keep focused, understand that it’s going to take time, but you just need to keep down that path and keep moving forward every single day.

Liz Beatty  20:58

Tony, I have to ask, what is it like to find your career path smack in the middle of such a pivotal time for this planet? For humanity. I mean, it’s not overstating things to say your work is helping to save lives, to save this planet. 

Tony Cupido  21:15

I’ve been very fortunate to be at some of the early days of some great green buildings, and now zero carbon buildings that have set the foundation for, you know, future generations to, to emulate. And I think that’s important. And I’m glad I was part of that, I continue to be part of that, I don’t want to want to do that for the rest of my career for certain, we need to recognize that there’s problems and we need to recognize that there’s solutions and those solutions are within our grasp. There’s new emerging technologies that will help us get through this. But the encouraging thing I’m seeing as someone has worked in this career for quite a while is that large corporate industries have finally seen the light, and they know that there’s changes necessary, they’ve set some longer-term goals for themselves, which will help us all, I think, move forward, lots of work ahead. We need bright young people who will take this on. I’m here to help them and share some information that I have, and hopefully share a wealth of knowledge that will encourage them to be optimistic about the future, and to make to know that they can make a difference as they as they move forward in their lives and their careers. 

Liz Beatty  22:58

And that is it for this episode of The New Healthy Building podcast. For more information on REME-LED, duck sealing, Mohawk College’s work in all this and more, go to our show page at And don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. I’m Liz Beatty. Thanks for listening.

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Host & Executive Producer

Liz Beatty is an award-winning feature writer, broadcaster and podcaster. She’s won the 2020 Gold Lowell Thomas Award for Radio Broadcasting from the Society of American Travel Writers. And North Americana took both 2020 Gold and Silver Lowell Thomas Awards for Best Podcast.

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