Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation Gives Area Businesses Light and Hope Amid Pandemic

As the staff at Von Braun Center’s restaurant left the building on March 19, 2020, uneasiness was sinking in. After all, it was 5 o’clock in the afternoon and the cooks should have been finalizing dinner prep while the front of the house fielded last-minute reservations. Instead, the lights were out at Rhythm on Monroe. The doors locked, the kitchen closed.

Earlier that day, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey had issued a statewide shutdown of all indoor dining, childcare facilities and beaches due to the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2.

“It was extremely heart-wrenching,” recalls Johnny Hunkapillar, Von Braun Center’s director of operations. “It was devastating to us as an organization because we put so much into the restaurant. We really had a good product and good staff.”

Devastating, but maybe not surprising. Just the day before, Ivey ordered all schools to close. In other states, major production facilities came to a grinding halt, like the GM Corvette assembly plant in Kentucky. Planned events at Von Braun evaporated into thin air as closures extended beyond a few weeks and the reality settled in of COVID longevity. Hunkapillar says it’s unlike anything he’s ever seen in 35 years working at the center.

He started working there in the mid-1980s as an engineer. At that time, the center had been around for nearly a decade and was considered visionary for its time. City leaders wanted a place that could house cultural events at a central location. With its location near downtown Huntsville, Hunkapillar watched the city skyline grow in front of Von Braun, as it too expanded its footprint to half a million square feet. The cityscape would become the backdrop for patrons enjoying a cocktail on Rhythm on Monroe’s rooftop bar. The strategy, says Hunkapillar, was to draw both a happy hour crowd looking for a quick bite and drink to dinner guests attending a concert, sporting event or traveling Broadway show at one of the center’s venues.

Rhythm on Monroe had only been open for five days when the governor’s order came down. “The restaurant was closed for three weeks, then we were allowed to open back up for curbside takeout service,” says Hunkapillar.

Two months after the initial shutdown, the state allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining, but at a reduced capacity. Hunkapillar couldn’t bring back the full staff for several more months. He recalls the uncertainty. When would restaurants fully reopen? Would anyone feel safe coming back? The restaurant was following CDC guidelines, but Hunkapillar wanted to give his staff and patrons additional peace of mind from the moment they stepped into Rhythm on Monroe. So he revisited an idea he had before the pandemic: to install a device into his air duct system that could reduce airborne pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. He was hopeful that he found the light he was searching for: UVGI (Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation).

School district finds a solution that makes the grade

Superintendent Greg Hamilton had also been searching, staying up late most nights wondering how to keep his 3,500 students and 600 employees safe.

“There's no question the pandemic has impacted stress levels,” says Hamilton. “Teachers and staff come to school every day wondering if they’re going to catch something that could possibly be catastrophic.”

Franklin County School District is about 80 miles southwest of Huntsville, and Hamilton oversees all 10 schools. He’s spent most of his career teaching history and coaching baseball in Franklin County, so he sympathizes with his staff and parents who were making tough calls.

“It's hard when you have to phone a parent and say, ‘Your child's going to have to stay home for 14 days,’ and that parent might not have daycare or an understanding employer who will let him or her miss work. I don’t know if ‘stressful’ is an adequate word for it.”

Belgreen High School principal Derek Ergle managed a roller-coaster school year, from complete school shutdown to nontraditional distance learning. He has lost a relative to SARS-CoV-2, so he understands everyone’s concerns about coming back to the classroom.

“Safety is always top priority. When I have conversations with students, teachers and parents, they want to know how I’m going to keep our kids and everyone safe,” says Ergle.

New safety protocols put in place by school administrators include daily sanitation of every classroom. The district also purchased a thermal imaging device that operates like a walk-through metal detector to check everyone’s body temperature.

Superintendent Hamilton’s policy may have gone above and beyond what many schools are doing, but he always thought he could do more. He'd spend time researching SARS-CoV-2 and safety measures other school districts were taking.

“I came across an article through TVA and it talked about UVGI (Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation). It gave a link to an email, and I typed it out at 1:35 in the morning. They called me the next day and told me the steps I needed to take to get UVGI in place.”

UVGI helps Corvette plant shift gears toward energy efficiency

“Our engineering design firm introduced us to the concept of UVGI,” says Chuck Effinger, the Energy Conservation Engineer at Bowling Green Assembly.

Before the pandemic, the General Motors Bowling Green Assembly Plant was well into a massive, multiyear, energy-efficiency improvement project to reduce its air conditioning load and overall natural gas flows for the plant. Production of GM’s iconic Chevrolet Corvette moved to the Kentucky town in 198, and many of the original HVAC units were still in use nearly 40 years later. Effinger says all of the units are in operation but they are not very efficient.

The design engineering firm that Bowling Green Assembly contracted to work on the project recently upgraded all of the HVAC units but suggested installing UVGI to help clean the metal surfaces inside the water coils that create cool air.

“Over time, it will help improve efficiency and bring down maintenance and energy costs,” says Effinger.

This is the first GM factory in North America to install UVGI, and it managed to offset a significant amount of project costs by using the TVA EnergyRight’s UVGI incentive offered through local power company Warren Rural Electric.

“General Motors has been invaluable to our community,” says Stephen Miller, an electrical engineer at WRECC. “It’s invested billions of dollars and created hundreds of good-paying careers, and it’s an innovative environmental steward.”

Old technology finds new interest amidst the pandemic

UVGI is not new technology, but the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic spotlighted the technology’s potential benefits in slowing the spread. For decades, it's been primarily used in hospitals to help eliminate contagious microorganisms. Other companies, like Corvette, use it to help keep maintenance costs down by preventing the buildup of dust, dirt and contaminants, which improves the efficiency of newer HVAC units.

“We have been in the UV manufacturing business since the mid-1960s,” says Derrick Sears with Evergreen UV. “The UV industry has been around for well over 160 years, but it does change and get better when new developments come along.”

Sears says when SARS-CoV-2 started to spread to multiple countries, many in his industry saw it as another pathogen that UVGI could take care of.

“Based on the dimensions and the speed of the air moving through the air handler, we designed a system that is producing well over 2,000 microwatts per centimeter squared, which has been proven to be extremely effective in inactivating SARS viruses and many other pathogens,” says Sears.

Hunkapillar had previously considered installing UVGI at the Von Braun Center as another layer of protection, especially during the cold and flu season. But the pandemic brought a new urgency. Hunkapillar’s Trane representative Lauri Wowk told him about Evergreen UV and he was sold. “It's a layer of safety that we can look at within our facility that will allow our guests to feel more comfortable when they enter the building,” says Hunkapillar.

Wowk also made sure Hunkapillar took advantage of EnergyRight's incentive program offering $30 per ton for duct-mounted UVGI systems. “I do believe that because EnergyRight was a partner, the incentive helped sell the UVGI project to our board,” says Hunkapillar.

“The mission of TVA EnergyRight is to make life better for the people and businesses of the Tennessee Valley,” says Cindy Herron, vice president of TVA's EnergyRight. “When our world changed, we looked for innovative solutions, and we believe that this technology has the potential to help businesses get back on their feet.”

Cortney McKibben is a senior manager at TVA EnergyRight and oversees the incentive program. “At TVA, we are producing energy, but we also want to be aware of what that energy feeds into,” says McKibben. “From this perspective, having UVGI mitigate some of the airborne concerns is a tremendous testament to what the purpose of our work is.”

Back in Franklin County, Hamilton, through a TVA-certified installer, placed UVGI in all the schools and received EnergyRight incentives for those schools serviced by TVA. Hamilton is now looking at installing UVGI into a fleet of school buses purchased two years ago.

The EnergyRight incentives saved the district roughly $30,000, but Hamilton says he could never put a price on safety.

If you’re interested in UVGI for your business, visit EnergyRight.com.