Let It Breathe: Locker room ventilation systems are an important, if often unseen, part of a fitness facility.
Bob Calvo knows the importance of a good ventilation system in a locker room. As vice president of construction for Town Sports International (TSI) for 14 years, Calvo led the design and construction of more than 130 fitness center locations in seven states and managed more than $300 million in construction costs.
When TSI was in an acquisition phase, the company purchased many clubs because of their strategic locations and almost never for their infrastructure. Without exception, most of the ventilation systems in those facilities were beyond their useful lives, not up to the current energy codes and usually improperly designed for their applications, he says.
All of this resulted in significant mold problems, corrosion of building materials, odors and, ultimately, member complaints. New systems made an immediate improvement on the locker rooms overall, which translated into less maintenance and improved member comfort. And that almost always increases sales and decreases cancellations.
“Clean locker rooms and hot water will beat more treadmills any day of the week,” Calvo says.
Calvo knew then and knows now as owner of construction firm East Mountain Development, Sparta, NJ, how important good locker room ventilation systems are.
Without one, locker rooms can have lingering humidity and condensation, mold and mildew, unpleasant odors, warped benches and rusty lockers.
“Air should flow from the fitness area [of a club] into the dry portion of the locker room, and then to the wet portion of the locker room,” says Mike Ballard, CEO of The Ballard Group, a Lakewood, CO-based mechanical consulting engineering firm.
From there, the air should be vented directly from the wet portion of the locker room to the outside of the building, or it should move to the natatorium, if the club has one, he says.
Howard Haber, project engineer for New York-based EMTG Consultants, says many club operators tend to miss one important fact about optimal locker room ventilation: the International Building Codes state you cannot recirculate moist air. Rather, it has to be exhausted out of the building.
This is no small task for most club operators, as they have to vent a large quantity of air from their locker rooms. Members come into the locker room sweating and then take a shower, releasing even more moisture into the air. When members get out of the shower, their bodies are still releasing from their workouts, thus releasing even more moisture. Steam and sauna areas simply add to the moisture buildup. For these reasons, dehumidification becomes an all-important consideration.
“You need an exhaust system to capture all of that moist air and vent it out of the building,” Haber says. “If you don't vent properly, you end up with a musty smell in the locker room, migration of humidity and all of the other problems of poor ventilation. You want to feel negative pressure in the locker room — air flowing in from the fitness area to the locker room and exhausted out in the shower and toilet areas.”
Hervey Lavoie, architect and president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver, says the average cost of a good fitness facility ventilation system is $20 to $25 per square foot.
New ventilation technologies are available for fitness facilities. A liquid desiccant technology system, which consists of an absorber (or conditioner), a regenerator, pumps and heat exchangers, potentially can save more energy in HVAC systems than its solid desiccant counterpart, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. By using such a system, club operators can reduce regeneration energy costs and fully exploit evaporative cooling, the report's authors wrote.
Calvo says such systems have “a high affinity for water vapor and, thus, can greatly reduce the energy required for drying and dehumidification.”
Although that's good news if you want to save energy costs, there is a caveat to liquid desiccant technology.
“Unfortunately, the very high cost of natural gas that prevails today makes it difficult for the liquid desiccant air conditioning system to compete against more conventional electric vapor compression technologies,” Calvo says.
Kurt Broadhag, president of K Allan Consulting, a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in health club design and management, says that most major manufacturers of ventilation equipment and systems have eco-friendly, Energy Star-rated products that club operators should consider, including solar-powered fans. But, he cautions, the initial cost for such products, especially if being used for a retrofitted locker room, can be high. Moreover, Broadhag says the return on investment of green building products in the fitness center environment often is intangible.
“You can't say, ‘If I put in this green system, 50 more members will renew,’” he says. “In the commercial building world, there have been exhaustive studies that show employee sick days are reduced and productivity improves in green buildings, but it's hard to show those things in a fitness center.”
Club operators also can use a bi-polar ionization air-purification system, which can be integrated into an HVAC system or used as standalone portable units. Air passes through a patented ionization tube, which energizes the air to form bi-polar (i.e., positive/negative) ions. Because the system brings in less outside air, it can help reduce heating and cooling costs, according to the manufacturer of the system. The technology also breaks down odors, so the air smells crisp and clean. Several sports teams, including the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars, have installed the system in their training and locker rooms.
Continue to Page 2: Displacement or Not?
Some club operators have considered installing displacement systems, which are configured so air is introduced at low velocity via terminals or diffusers in the floor. Cool air rises from the floor to the ceiling, passing through occupied zones, and then is exhausted out. The result of this air flow, however, is a significant vertical temperature gradient in the room, so the comfort level is dependant upon the ceiling height. The higher the ceiling, the more likely the temperature will remain comfortable at occupant level.
Most consultants say displacement systems are inappropriate for most fitness facility locker rooms.
“Displacement ventilation requires a higher supply-air temperature, which may require a separate air conditioning system,” Ballard says. “The higher supply-air temperature is advantageous, but a separate system is generally not cost effective. Displacement systems also utilize air discharging at the floor level, which requires shafts that extend down to the floor. And the space for the shaft isn't always available.”
How should you determine the return on investment of a good ventilation system?
“Happy members who want to renew,” Haber says. “This is not the area of your club where you automatically can expect to get energy savings. You need a good venting system. Without it, you get an unpleasant locker room that is unsanitary and smells bad, locker room assets destroyed by moisture and rust, and unhappy members.”
If you're renovating your locker room or building new, have a frank discussion with your architect and engineer about the most effective, longest-lasting means of keeping the space odor-free and properly ventilated.
Air conditioned locker rooms should have supply diffusers with short flow to avoid drafts, says Loucas Cronis, an engineer with TLC Engineering, Auburn, NH. This is especially important in shower areas, as you don't want people just coming out of the shower to be exposed to cold air.
Cronis also recommends variable frequency drives on air supply fans to increase member comfort and improve air balance.
Howard Haber, project engineer for EMTG Consultants, New York, recommends water-sealed ceramic floor tiles rather than moisture-absorbing carpets. If you use carpets in the dry area, use anti-microbial carpet backing.
If you're installing ceiling tiles, specify they be water-sealed, and use aluminum grids and diffusers, as all others will rust, Haber says.
If you offer permanent lockers and towel service, pay extra attention to the problems of smell and moisture, says Kurt Broadhag, president of K Allan Consulting, Los Angeles. Because members with permanent lockers don't always take their clothes home every night, odors may become problematic. Position them so the surrounding air is vented out of the building. And the area where towels are dropped or exchanged will endure moisture buildup, also necessitating adequate ventilation.
Broadhag also recommends installing CO2 sensors, which all green buildings have in place for ventilation control, and then running them all the time.
Additionally, equipment that measures volatile organic compounds and particulates are sound investments in a locker room design.