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Unit 5 Air-Cleaning System Aims to Slow COVID Spread

Emily Bollinger
WGLT file photo

The Unit 5 school board heard a report Wednesday detailing how an air-cleaning system installed in district buildings is part of Unit 5's pandemic mitigation strategy.

The district used federal COVID relief funds to purchase the new system that uses bipolar ionization.

Also at the meeting, the board unanimously approved a 4% raise for Superintendent Kristen Weikle, as part of a 4-year contract, bringing her annual base salary to $192,400. The board also OK’d its annual salary and benefits report for Unit 5 administrators and certified teachers, and its 2020-2021 IMRF compensation and benefits report.

As part of Unit 5 operations chief Joe Adelman’s facilities improvement report, he brought to the podium Dan Newkirk, director of energy engineering at Alpha Controls and Services.

Unit 5 has worked with the Rockford-based company since 2016 on improving energy efficiency in district buildings; the company oversaw installation of the bipolar ionization system. Newkirk said the district’s realized $2.3 million in energy savings since the partnership began, and he sees the opportunity for more. He noted some of those savings were redirected to refinish the Kingsley Junior High School track.

He also discussed a proposed model that will increase energy savings from $700,000 annually to $975,000 per year.

The new system aims to help reduce the spread of infectious disease, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, said Newkirk. The system generates positively and negatively charged particles to clean the air of indoor spaces.

Bipolar ionization is an emerging technology, and Newkirk said the Global Plasma Solutions' system used in Unit 5 has the advantage of being integrated into the district's existing HVAC system. It should have a 10-year life, he said, adding one advantage of the selected version is that it uses no-ozone ionizers. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends any bipolar ionization system meet that ozone standard certification.

Newkirk said using the integrated system carries an epxected annual operating cost of $3,200 per year, versus a standalone version that carries a roughly $35,000 annual cost.

As part of his presentation, Newkirk said the system, also known as needlepoint bipolar ionization, disperses ions and cleans the air of more than 30 pathogens including COVID-19, MRSA, staph, tuberculosis, mold, avian flu, and swine flu. Alpha Services conducted studies throughout the district to ensure efficacy, he said.

Earlier, Adelman described several energy-saving projects the district's been working on throughout 2021. Those include installing a chiller at Normal Community West High School, and geothermal wells at Chiddix Junior High School. Previously, similar work was done at Kingsley and Parkside junior highs.

In other business, the board:

  • Heard public comments, all nine in reference to Gov. JB Pritzker’s mandate that school employees either be vaccinated against COVID-19, or test weekly for the virus. Six people praised the requirements and other district COVID mitigations; while three people spoke against the rules.
  • Honored former Normal Community High School football coach Dick Tharp, who died Tuesday, just days after attending Friday’s ceremony naming the NCHS football field after him. He taught and coached at Normal High School, then the district’s only high school, from 1968 to 1988 and earned 158 wins — the most in Unit 5 history. He was 90.
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