Miller Hall: Behind the Scenes (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series focused on Miller Hall’s “green-ness.” Today, we explore how the built-in measures are relevant to our fight against the spread of airborne ailments.

We ascend to a forbidden floor: the attic.

In the elevator, we ask our tour guide, Andrew Gilstrap, if the building has features that can help protect people from viruses and airborne contaminants. The elevator dings and jolts; the door slides open.

We step into a dark cavernous room with grayish walls. It smells dry. He raises his voice to be heard over a continuous whoosh from a multitude of fans.

“Of course,” he replies.

We walk towards large chambers. They have doors with glass windows and a bluish glow beyond. These are ultraviolet (UV) lights, making the heating, ventilation and air conditioning or “HVAC” system in Miller Hall particularly unique.

“The air in the building goes through a series of UV lights to actually kill living organisms,” says Gilstrap. “That way the air gets filtered before it gets back into the building. I promise you, the air you breathe in this building is cleaner than outside.”

Miller Hall has four air handlers. Air enters the building through the roaring fans and passes through impressive arrays of about fifty lights per handler. The UV lights are Miller Hall’s first line of defense against the “bad” stuff.

Killing the "bad" stuff

The sun emits ultraviolet radiation, which can be dangerous to humans when it slips through the ozone layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The system in Miller Hall has an even higher intensity of UV than the sun. When these lights are activated, an extreme amount of radiation in the air handling unit kills all of living organisms in the air, including mold, viruses, bacteria, mildew, fungi, spores, etc. This process is known as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI). It emits dangerous levels of UV that could potentially burn or blind an unprotected person; however, there are safeguards in Miller Hall for people who enter the chamber. This includes shutting off the lights completely if someone goes in to change bulbs.

After being exposed to UVGI, the air is pushed through a maze of vents until it reaches the entry points of individual rooms where it’s heated or cooled.

This sophisticated system has been fine-tuned over the years. Each part plays a significant role to maximize the purity of the air circulating throughout the building.

How does this help us with the current viral pandemic sweeping across the world? Any airborne microbes that present a threat to our well-being will be effectively zapped and eliminated by UVGI.

We currently believe that COVID-19 is primarily passed from a person, and thus, by itself, UVGI won’t inhibit the spread of COVID-19. But it is one of several important measures in place in Miller Hall to keep everyone healthy.

COVID-19 response

During spring break, a staff member alerted Miller Hall that he or she had been potentially exposed to a possible case of COVID-19. The building was immediately shut down and protocols that had been long worked out were quickly put into action.

Miller Hall has been and continues to be highly sanitized. Everyone is diligent about keeping high-touch areas clean, and surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails, and bathrooms are frequently wiped down throughout the day. All of the disinfectants used are effective against coronavirus.

The vacuums used by custodians have HEPA filters. These mechanical air filters are very effective at capturing fine particles, such as pollen and dust, and cleaning the air. This reduces people’s allergies and lowers the chances of somebody having an issue.

In addition, Miller Hall continues to promote good hygiene by encouraging everyone to wash their hands often with soap and water, or at the very least, hand sanitizer.

“While no one in Miller Hall tested positive for coronavirus, we acted as prudently as we could, and I am glad that there was an err on the side of safety,” says Gilstrap.

Luckily, the building services group for Miller Hall — and for the university — are well-equipped for responding to needs arising from coronavirus.

“We have a little skeleton crew here in the building and our custodial staff is working to help really clean the building to the umpth degree, and they are doing a phenomenal, dynamite job. These guys are awesome,” says Gilstrap.

Responsibility towards community & neighbors

The coronavirus threat has demonstrated William & Mary’s dedication towards everyone’s well-being. By assuming an abundance of caution and taking immediate action to minimize spread by potential contact, William & Mary showed concern for the health of students, faculty, staff, families, and our neighbors in the greater Williamsburg community.

Miller Hall and its staff are leading the way by continuing to fight against the spread of COVID-19 every day.