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Why Ventilation is Critical in Student Accommodation and Communal Residence


By EnviroVent Jun 05, 2019

For managers working to maintain student accommodation, damp and mould are a recurring enemy. In the UK climate, it’s nearly guaranteed that accommodation will be battered from the outside by rain, which students also bring indoors on their wet shoes and overcoats. From within the property, moisture is generated by students’ everyday activities, including cooking, cleaning, laundry — and breathing. 

These causes of condensation are far more pronounced in student accommodation and communal residences than they are in private homes, due to the greater number of people sharing the space. An average family of four generates more than 100 pints of moisture per week by sharing a single bathroom. Student residences might see six or more individuals sharing a single bathroom — and every student accommodation manager will know that students tend to be less careful about water usage than families, especially if they’re not footing the water bill.

However, the single biggest cause of high levels of condensation in student accommodation is cooking. Although some students and other communal dwellers cook shared meals, far more common is for individual residents to cook their own meals. Plus, students are more likely to eat lunch at home than families whose members are at work or school during the day. Where a family of four might cook just one meal a day at home, a group of six students might cook twelve. That might involve twelve pans of steaming water. It might even involve twelve sets of washing up. The same calculus applies to tea and coffee. The kettle might be a negligible source of condensation in a family kitchen, even if the family are big tea or coffee drinkers. In a student kitchen, the kettle may be producing a steady stream of moisture all day, and around exam time, much of the night!

Condensation and damp

Excess moisture in the air is the most common cause of dampness in residential buildings. Especially in heavily-occupied buildings, and older buildings, dampness is nearly unavoidable unless preventative measures are put in place. While energy-efficiency is rightly a priority for many accommodation managers, sealed doors and windows can exacerbate the risk of damp by reducing ventilation.

If damp is reported early, the worst effects can be avoided, although recurring damp still creates a cycle of expenditure which will not end until preventative measures are implemented. More concerning is the fact that students are notoriously unlikely to report damp or damp-related issues. In some cases, students don’t have the experience to recognise the signs. Other students simply take the devil-may-care attitude typical of young people, even to issues which may affect their health and their studies. However, the main reason students often don’t report damp issues is because they know they will be moving on in less than a year. Even where managers have implemented frequent checks, students may unintentionally foil the system by choosing to cover up a damp problem, fixing the aesthetics rather than the underlying issue.

The costs of damp

Where a damp problem is allowed to progress unchecked, serious consequences and heavy costs can accrue. At a minimum, a serious damp problem may require re-painting or re-plastering. At a maximum, structural damage can result, especially in a building whose structure contains timber, which may be vulnerable to rot. Aside from the damage to property, there are health risks. Black mould is one of the most common consequences of damp, and its spores can cause a range of medical problems, from breathing problems to infections and critical allergic reactions. Asthma sufferers might experience worsened symptoms in an environment blighted by black mould, and other sensitive residents may experience headaches, fatigue or nausea, all of which can affect a student’s work if not their long-term health. English courts have been known to award large sums to residents affected by black mould spores, and in a student residence, where multiple occupants might be exposed to the same mould outbreak, the costs can quickly stack up. 

Alongside these potentially very serious costs, damp caused by excess moisture is liable to involve accommodation managers in an ongoing cycle of small expenditures. When a damp problem is reported, further investigation is required. While university maintenance staff may be able to identify and fix the problem themselves, in many cases it is advisable to seek more expensive outside advice. The reason is that damp is often misdiagnosed. In particular, non-expert contractors are liable to diagnose rising damp in cases where sources of condensation are not obvious, such as interstitial condensation (which occurs when moisture penetrates a wall or roof cavity). Other causes of damp, such as poor plastering, can be even harder to identify, and sometimes several factors can co-exist, complicating the picture further. Where the source of a damp problem is misidentified, costs are automatically doubled, as at least one more attempt will have to be made to address the issue.

Of course, once a damp issue is correctly diagnosed, there still remains the cost of repair. Rising damp is frequently the most expensive, requiring chemical or osmotic treatment, but condensation damp can rack up substantial costs even if the problem is identified and reported before a mould outbreak. Long-term, unless ventilation is improved, the only way of preventing further damp issues arising from excess condensation is to advise residents to improve ventilation by leaving their windows open. However, for the reasons discussed above, it is not always possible to rely on students to follow these recommendations.

Consequently, condensation damp problems are almost guaranteed to recur, except where a permanent ventilation system is installed. As a result, many student accommodation managers find themselves spending money year-on-year just to return a building to its original state, and perhaps also fighting a running battle with students who complain about damp but won’t take measures to control the problem themselves.

In many on-campus student residences, the university takes responsibility for energy bills, and these bills are guaranteed to be higher wherever there is an ongoing problem with excess moisture. Students who are forced to air their accommodation by leaving windows open will necessarily have to run the heating more to maintain a liveable internal temperature.

Approaches and solutions

The up-front cost of implementing a long-term preventative solution can be offputting, and there are other measures which managers can take. For instance, a more pro-active approach to leaks can help to reduce air-moisture. Providing laundry services outside a residency can make a big difference: one load can produce as much as nine pints of air moisture. Something as simple as a hydraulic hinge on all kitchen and bathroom doors can radically reduce the amount of moisture escaping from these hot-spot areas. Banning house plants can also be effective, as watering adds considerable moisture to the air.

However, if all the applicable measures have been implemented and excess moisture is still a problem, then ventilation is the only remaining option. Some accommodation managers refuse this option due to the up-front cost, but almost invariably this is a false economy. Indeed, for managers concerned about cost-effectiveness, an outlay on ventilation may be one of the best investments available. 

Ventilation

Ultimately, the problem of condensation has to be tackled at source, by taking steps to ensure that excess moisture is removed as it is produced. A range of ventilation options are available, ranging from simple extractor fans, which are now installed in most student bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms, up to Positive Input Ventilation units (PIVs). PIVs are one of the most effective ways to tackle excess moisture in a large or densely-occupied building. They work by drawing external air through a filter into a central unit, where it is distributed evenly through the building. Concurrently, internal air is drawn up and out. To reduce energy costs, it is also possible to install a Mechanical Heat Recovery system (MVHR), which captures heat and prevents it being lost along with any air expelled from the building.

The advantages of these more sophisticated systems are numerous. They are more efficient and less noisy than extractor fans, and an MVHR system also helps to maintain steady temperatures, reducing heating costs. Where damp patches have already formed in a residency, these powerful systems will often be able to dry them out, saving the cost of drying before restorative work can be carried out.

Seek expert advice

While these ventilation systems represent an optimal solution to condensation problems in student accommodation, they should not be implemented without expert advice. EnviroVent provide consultancy and installation on a wide range of ventilation systems suitable for large-scale accommodation. Contact us to discuss your requirements and request a quote.